Splish Splash

It had been years since I had a dog to play with in the water.   My Golden Retriever Oly loved “surfing” for her sticks when I lived in Southern California.  I mean she would literally body surf her way back to shore.  Great memories.  Poodles are water dogs and they retrieve.  Right?  I waited three long months from the time Tess arrived for the weather to get warm.   Finally it was July and Tess and I went to the river.  Not the same as the ocean, but a good start.  All the memories of playing with Oly came rushing back as I threw the ball out several feet into the water.  What happened next took my breathe away, but not in that “oh wow” kind of way, but more like a “what the fu….” kind of way.  There was Tess; ready and able, showing all the excitement any retriever shows to the prospect of a good game of fetch.  I threw the ball out into the water and what followed was the most awkward water entry I think I’ve ever seen by any mammal.  I didn’t know if I should rescue her or let her figure it out on her own.  Her “swimming” was anything but pretty.  It looked like she was hopping through the water on her hind legs with her front legs going a mile a minute.  She proudly returned with the ball and was ready for more.  I was dumb-founded.  She thought she was swimming.  I’d never seen anything like this before.  It had to be a fluke, so I threw the ball out into the river again.  Nope, it wasn’t a fluke.  She was “swimming”.

Standard poodles are very versatile performance dogs, but many of them meet their match when it comes to swimming.  Why do some take to it and others don’t?  Here are a few of my hunches:

  1. Poor coordination between the front and hind end.
  2. Decreased instinctual drive.
  3. Poor trunk strength.
  4. Poor hind end control (awareness + drive/strength).

Did you notice how angulation, head carriage, and tail set didn’t make my list?  Here’s what I know so far….

Swimming is a new motor plan for many, if not most, dogs.  It’s basically running backwards (running = rear then front leg movement; swimming = front then rear leg movement).  If there is a strong instinctual drive then it overrides this lack of motor plan.  Many poodles have had the “hunt” bred out of them over the years.  So practice is necessary.  This new motor plan demands a lot of coordination/communication between the front and rear legs.  This is difficult for many standard poodles for multiple reasons that I’m not going to get into in this post.  If your dog has a hard time maintaining a trot or has a “springy” gait, then it will definitely have a difficult time learning to swim.

Swimming requires a stable (elongated) trunk to provide a base for reach and drive.  Many dogs use flexion (shortening of the trunk) for stability, which makes keeping the rear end high in the water difficult.  A flexed trunk also shortens their reach.  Carrying a bumper/decoy or even a tennis ball in their mouth cues elongation of the trunk via neck musculature just as using floats around the waist cues elongation via the pelvic musculature.

If your dog is a “springy” mover then it’s used to getting a lot of proprioception input from the ground in order to know where its body is in space.  Guess what?  Minimal proprioception occurs while swimming.  This lack of awareness stresses the dog and puts them in a “fight or flight” state.  A slow introduction to the water will desensitize them to this gravitational insecurity and will decrease or eliminate their need for the “fight or flight” response, which in turn will let the neurological system relax enough to learn something new.  This remains Tess’s biggest obstacle to efficient swimming.  She has always hated her feet off the ground.  It took me three months to get her to move (notice I didn’t say run) across the dog walk and I gave up on the teeter all together and headed to NADAC so we could trial.  I know Tess’s swimming skills would progress more quickly if I still lived in Southern California instead of the mighty Pacific Northwest, but we have ample water close by to practice in during the summer month(s) so I’m not complaining too much.

Swimming is a great activity for dogs.  It’s wonderful for improving endurance and body awareness, but it should be used as a cross-training activity for the agility dog and never replaces a good 20-minute trot for muscle strength and coordination (the dog’s neurological system is “simple” in that it needs activities similar to movement patterns used for performance – don’t forget, swimming is running backwards).

Tess, once again has been my inspiration for expanding my knowledge of the canine neurological system, physics, biomechanics, and learning theory.  I’ve always said that if I can teach a child with special needs to crawl and/or walk I should be able to teach a dog to swim.  I can’t wait for more 80-degree days.

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  • Brigitte

    Robin,
    I am slowly working through all your excellent posts. This one sure caught my eye. My 6 year old boy Ripley’s absolute favorite activity is swimming. But after getting his toy about 3x he literally sinks! He has great hind quarter awareness (backs up stairs and ladders) is well muscled but built very square. I always thought that would be the reason. We got him a life jacket and with it he can swim forever:) It was well worth it! With the lifejacket he lays in the water for a perfect swimming style. I thought that after a while he would get it and put his body into this more lateral position, but no he still sinks. My other boy Enzo thinks he is a lab or a Newfie and swims perfectly. In my eyes the only difference is their built and of course they have different heritage. But now I really wonder… Unfortunately like you we live in a cooler climate and I let them swim in the summer months only. I know Ripley would go in when it is freezing, but I hate wet dogs in the car when it is cold:)
    Best wishes,
    Brigitte