Do Dogs Instinctively Know How to Swim?

I was lying awake in bed last night thinking about swimming. Not about when I might go swimming, but the act of swimming, itself.

Brady & Luca, demonstrating a skill set we tend to believe is inherent in dogs.

When I was a kid, my mom would take my brother and me to our Aunt’s house, where there was a pool, and we would go swimming with our cousins. I was the youngest, and wanted to keep up with the others, but I was less than a model swimmer, which the cranky lifeguard frequently reminded me. She insisted that I had to swim the Australian Crawl properly, turning my head to take breaths and kicking my feet. I was a poor kicker, and tended to just tow my legs behind me. I was a great underwater swimmer and dog paddler, though, and I didn’t know why those alternatives weren’t good enough for me to join my relatives swimming in the deep end.

As you may have guessed, “dog paddling” made me think of dogs swimming, and then I went down the rabbit hole of why some dogs are great swimmers and others aren’t. Is swimming an inborn dog skill? Is it instinct?

My dog, Dillon, couldn’t swim. He would splash his front legs up out of the water like he was trying to get a grip on something solid. Like this Vizla:

(The greatest argument for swimming not being an instinct)

One day while I was swimming in an above-ground pool, he was observing from the deck and he slipped and fell in.

He sunk to the bottom like a stone.

I’d never seen a dog do that before, and I’ll never get the image out of my head of him sinking in slow mo while not making a single move to stay afloat. It was unnerving.

Dillon must have been hiding behind the door when the swimming instinct was handed out. Some dogs will begin to swim if you just hold them over water. My chihuahua, Taco, used to do that.

(This seems to be the greatest argument for swimming being instinctual.)

Stanley Coren, PHD, says that paddling is instinctual to a dog, but that doesn’t mean all dogs are good swimmers. Can your dog swim? Don’t make the assumption she can without giving her the opportunity to try (under your close observation, of course)

Annabelle & Emma
swimming like pros

The skill seems to be affected by body type. Dogs with large heads or deep chests, (think Danes, Boxers, Mastiffs) and brachycephalic dogs with smashed faces (think Pugs, Pekes, Bostons), are usually poorer swimmers because it’s harder for them to keep their heads above water. Dogs with short limbs (think Doxies, Scotties, Bassetts) are likely good paddlers, but may not be able to maneuver well–though that wasn’t an issue for Falkor, a short -legged terrier who came to live with us. On the same day Dillon nearly drowned in the pool, Falkor swam like an Olympian, though he’d never been swimming before, and nobody had taught him. So I guess there’s just no telling until a dog has the opportunity to try.

Now that it’s summer, you may be planning to vacation at the beach, go boating, or take your dog with you to places where she will be around water. Be sure to check out these excellent tips for dog water safety on the pets.webmd website.

Be careful out there! Your dog relies on you for her safety.

Thanks for stopping by, and don’t forget to tell your dog(s) I said “Hi!”

About yelodoggie

Ariel C. Wulff is an author, artist and animal advocate. They have been involved in pet rescue for over twenty-five years. They have written two books about their true-life adventures living with an ever-changing house full of pets: Born Without a Tail, and Circling the Waggins, and a guide to animal advocacy using the Internet as a tool: How to Change the World in 30 Seconds". Wulff also wrote a pet column and book review column for the Examiner, and was a contributing editor for They attribute their love of animals to having been raised by Wulffs.
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1 Response to Do Dogs Instinctively Know How to Swim?

  1. Mary Julian says:

    Now I’m going to let Charles go for a swim just to see how well he CAN swim!
    Nice article. Makes me wonder about my other kids ability.

    Liked by 1 person

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