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Starting a Puppy in Water Work

This article was written for the Newfoundland Club of America by Sandee Lovett.

It’s always exciting when I have the opportunity to introduce a young Newfoundland to the water for its very first time. It’s a time of great anticipation, as well as awesome responsibility, to lay the foundation for a working partnership that I hope will last a lifetime. I foresee fun-filled water test weekends in the puppy’s future, made all the more likely by a positive first encounter with the water. Thus, as puppy and I begin our aquatic adventure together, my thoughts focus on having fun, developing confidence, and buckle collar and a 6-ft nylon lead come in. I believe it is important to train on lead to provide gentle guidance, as needed, and to strengthen the bond of teamwork all along the way.

Examples of NCA Junior Water Dog exercises
Examples of NCA Junior Water Dog exercises

Because swimming does not stress growing bones and joints as land activities can, water training can begin at an early age. An advantage to early training is that young puppies are often less fearful of the “disappearing lake bottom” when they take their first swimming strokes than older dogs are. I was once the family’s pond for their first swim. They followed her like a line of ducklings as she entered the pond, never hesitating for a second the bottom. That is, undoubtedly, the best way to introduce a puppy to the water, with the help of its mother, but few of us have that option. Those of us who live in northern climates have only a short 4-month window for water work, so puppies born in the fall or winter are often 8 months old or older before the water is warm enough for us to take the plunge. As a rule of thumb, it’s best to introduce a Newf to the water during its “puppy summer” however many months old that may be.

Being willing to go in the water with your puppy is very important, and when you do, remember to wear a life jacket and water shoes for safety. So, let’s pretend for a moment that summer has arrived, and, with it, the long-awaited day to take puppy for his first swim. Come along with puppy and me for our first day of water training, as we enthusiastically approach the water’s edge, running together on lead, side-by-side. We pause to take in the smells and sights and sounds of the shoreline as we inch ever so closer to the water, all the while sharing the joys of the day.

NCA Senior Water Rescue Dogs at Work
NCA Senior Water Rescue Dogs at Work

I back a short distance into the water, and with the aid of the lead, if necessary, encourage the puppy to come to me in the water. It’s important to give lots of praise every step of the way. The goal is to encourage the puppy into chest-deep water where it is still touching bottom but where it will be swimming if I take one step forward. Once we reach that depth, we will stay there and not return to shore for the remainder of this first lesson. I try to “read” my puppy’s reaction and make sure it is comfortable beside me in the chest-deep water before proceeding with the big, first “swimming step”.

With the lead in my right hand and my left hand through the puppy’s collar, I give a gentle nudge as I say “swim”, and, with the puppy in tow beside me, I walk one step into deeper water. As the puppy’s feet leave the bottom for the first time, I circle it around me to the right and back toward shore where its feet touch bottom once again. The puppy will swim only a few strokes, but as soon as it is swimming and perhaps thinking about panicking, it is touching bottom once again. The puppy gains confidence as it learns that when the bottom drops out from under its feet, it comes back again quickly. Be sure to hold on to the lead and keep puppy in chest deep water and do not allow him to return to shore.

Repeat this exercise about 6 times, with puppy swimming only a few strokes each time before touching bottom once again, with lots of praise in between. Then give puppy a break to ponder what he has learned. He has bravely stepped beyond wading depth and survived. He should be very proud of himself!

Elite NCA Water Rescue Dog Excellent exhibitors
Elite NCA Water Rescue Dog Excellent exhibitors

In subsequent training sessions, review what you did in the previous lesson and make sure your dog feels comfortable before progressing to the next step. Some dogs gain confidence more quickly than others. The next step is to gradually increase the distance you ask your dog to swim before turning back toward shore and touching bottom. As the dog becomes more comfortable swimming additional strokes, continue to increase the distance you ask him to swim until you can no longer touch bottom.

It is important for you to touch bottom so that you can maintain control of the dog. Each time you say “Swim”, give the dog a gentle nudge forward on his collar so he starts swimming immediately. From the very beginning of training, never permit the dog to hesitate at its drop-off point. This hint will prevent problems later on if you aspire to earn a water title. If you have ever attended a water test, you have probably seen one or more dogs fail because they waded into the water, then hesitated at the drop-off point and “messed around” instead of swimming out to complete the exercise. If you never allow a dog to hesitate in practice, chances are it won’t hesitate at a test!

When the dog becomes comfortable swimming short distances, I introduce a short piece of floating line, knotted to facilitate carrying, to our training. As soon as the dog has swum out and is turning toward shore, I splash the line in the water close in front of him. Even dogs that are not avid retrievers on land will often grab at an enticing line in the water and carry it while swimming. If they don’t grab it on their own, you can open their mouths and place it inside, and they will generally continue to hold it as long as they are swimming. This is a great beginning for the “Take-a-Line” exercise.

Another training variation, which can be introduced at an early stage, is having the dog swim to a second person. With you and the dog standing at wading depth, have the second person stand about 3 feet farther out, splash gently to attract attention, and call the dog’s name. When the person begins calling, say “Swim” as you nudge the dog forward toward your assistant. Guide the dog to make sure he goes directly to the person without hesitation. As the dog approaches, the assistant will say “Around” and guide the dog around him and back toward shore. Praise the dog as he returns to wading depth and repeat the exercise several times. When the dog shows proficiency at a short distance, you can gradually extend the distance the dog goes out to another person. Next , you can add the short line for the dog to carry as it goes to the person, but when you do, be sure to begin at a short distance once again. I recommend never introducing more than one slight change at a time.

Here’s wishing you and your puppy many hours of enjoyment working together in the water!

© 2016 Newfoundland Club of America

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