I think it’s safe to say a good many if not most dogs love playing in some form of water: Swimming in it, splashing around in it, rolling in a puddle (especially muddy ones). How many times have I taken Tango and Cash on a walk after the rain and they invariably steer us towards every puddle so they can walk through it.
Some dogs were bred specifically to work in the water. The origins of the Labrador Retriever come from dogs bred to retrieve and pull nets and ropes from icy cold waters for fishermen – which explains Tango’s penchant for diving into the pool on even the coldest of winter days. Today’s Lab has all the characteristics of a working water dog: short dense water-repellant coat, otter like tail, webbed feet. But does this mean every Lab intuitively knows how to swim? Nope. And that goes for any dog. We can’t assume our fur babies will automatically know how to swim or even want to. It was yet another lesson I learned from Tango. My first Lab, Darby, was a natural. At 13 weeks old he walked into the lake we lived on in south Florida all by himself, with what I assume was his strong Labrador instinct as he swiftly made his way towards the ducks. He was an instant graceful and strong swimmer. Tango however was a different story. When Darby went for his afternoon dip Tango would run along the shore barking frantically at him. I kept waiting for him to follow Darby’s lead. But he had a noticeable fear of the water. After Darby passed away I continued to take Tango to the lake for fetch. Sometimes his ball would roll towards the lake’s edge and I’d have to get it for him. I knew I couldn’t force him into the water as that would only cause more harm.
But he was already two years old at this point and I thought if we didn’t work on it now he’ll be afraid of the water forever. So I began slowly playing closer and closer to the edge of the lake with him. When I say slowly I mean this took several weeks. His fear was real and I wasn’t going to force him into an uncomfortable situation. I’d move maybe a foot closer to the lake every few days as we played fetch. It was subtle enough that he didn’t even realize it until one day his paws galloped through the shallowest part of the water. Eventually he began to purposely run through the shallow edge on his way back from retrieving. He loved splashing through the water in the tall grass.
And then it just clicked. I saw the exact moment it happened. He was on his way back to me and stopped dead in his paw tracks. The water was mid-leg high on him. He turned and ventured out into the deep. He swam. He came back to the shore, looked at me, and turned back for another quick swim. He was an awful awkward swimmer. His long front legs locked squarely in front of him as he splashed them up and down out of the water. His tail, instead of laying flat in the water acting as a rudder, stood straight up in the air wagging in a circle. He had no idea what he was doing. It was wonderful. Sometimes he couldn’t find the ball on the water and he’d swim in circles around it with his head submerged, searching the murky depths.
Then there was that time when a popped tennis ball sank and he attempted to dive down to retrieve it. No matter how hard he tried he just couldn’t get his hind quarters to cooperate.
When he’d launch himself from the edge of the lake into the water it was far from athletic form. All four of his legs were splayed out as he landed in full belly flop fashion.
But every day after that first clumsy swim was a water day. I couldn’t keep him out of the lake even when I tried. I didn’t have to throw his ball into the water, he launched himself into it either way.
Soon he developed a habit of taking breaks between every ball toss to cool down in the shallow edges. Sometimes I had to pretend to leave in order to get him out.
Tango officially became a water dog. With practice and experience came perfect form as he developed into the strong swimmer I know him to be today.
I’m glad I didn’t force Tango into the water as I have known people who believe in the sink or swim method – which very well may work for some but that would not have worked for Tango. I’m glad I chose to gradually and patiently ease him towards the water without any expectations. His love of water runs deeper than the ocean and I can’t imagine having robbed him of that. Those that personally know Tango today would either be shocked or in complete disbelief that he wasn’t always this fearless water baby. He has what appears to be a natural ease in and around water. Maybe it’s natural because I let him choose to swim on his own. Maybe it’s his Labrador instincts that finally kicked in. But no one knows how to relax on the water and look more content like this guy.
Once we moved to Texas we didn’t have a lake or ocean to quench Tango’s swimming thirst for a couple of years. Being a water baby myself it felt like an eternity for, I’m sure, both of us. As much time as Tango has spent in the water chasing after tennis balls, he’s spent just as much time swimming in the ocean or a pool with me. Now, finally, with a pool of our own he’s back to full diving dog mode. And with warmer temps approaching I look forward to joining my water buddy soon.
One Final Note
Everyone has their own set of beliefs when it comes to training methods with their fur babies. Trust me, I don’t think anything I’ve done with Tango is perfect. I can only do my best to do what I believe is best for him. That’s what we all do. There will always be people that don’t understand, or think their way is better, or that want to criticize your way. All I can say about that is take a page from Tango’s book and shake it off!