Teaching your Labrador Retriever to Swim


In this article Kate O’Brien takes a looking at how to go about teaching your Labrador Retriever to swim.

Labrador Retrievers and water. A perfect match! Or so we thought.

Natural Swimmers?

You wouldn’t think you would have to teach a Labrador to swim. It should naturally to them right? After all, it’s in their DNA to be a water dog. We found out first hand that not all Labradors are comfortable in the water, and that in some cases, you might need to teach your Lab to swim.

Swimming is such a great exercise for your dog. Swimming is low impact and easy on their joints and the water can be refreshing to their achy muscles. We are always looking for alternative exercises for our two seniors, Jack and Maggie so we thought swimming would be an excellent choice.

Rescuing Adult Dogs

sd1We adopted Jack and Maggie several years ago. Jack was in the shelter for over a year and Maggie was in a puppy mill situation as a breeder mom. Neither of them had much life experience and I don’t think either one of them had ever been swimming before. But they are Labs and we figured they’d love the water, so we took them to the ocean one day.

Both of them were more interested in scraps of food on the beach than romping in the water and we really had to coax them into going near it. There was some wading, but no swimming.

Repeated Attempts

We tried again at a local park that had a small stream running through it.sd3We got the same reaction – lots of curiosity about the wildlife along the shore, but not much interest in the water. We tried once more at a local doggie day spa that had a pool – same reaction. Maggie refused to even go in the water. We were about to give up on having water dogs. As a last ditch effort, we decided to vacation at Big Bear Lake in California.

We got a cabin on the lake that had a dock and we figured this would be it, they would finally learn to swim and maybe even learn to jump off the dock.

Refusal to Enter Water

I’ve had several Labs before and none of them ever hesitated when they saw water. Any water, even a puddle and they were in it as quickly and as deeply as they could get. I’m sure many of you can relate. But not Jack.

First we tried walking him out into the water. We would lead him out, but as soon as the water rose to his chest and his feet lost contact with the ground, he’d turn around and make a beeline back to shore. Finally, my husband picked him up and carried him out to where it was over his head. There was panic in his eyes, much splashing and a hasty retreat to shore.

Maggie was also a little apprehensive when we brought her to the edge of the lake. She’s a fearful dog and rarely excited about new experiences. Yet she waded into the water on her own, wandered around, waded in deeper, wandered around some more and then just kept going and was off swimming just as smooth and beautifully as only Labs can swim – hardly a ripple and just her little head above the surface.

After that, we couldn’t keep her out of the water.

Teaching A Reluctant Lab

How does our experience translate into teaching your reluctant Lab to swim?

sd2You may be lucky and have a dog like Maggie who just takes to it naturally. Or you may have one like Jack who thinks the water is only good if it deposits fish to the shore for him to eat. Either way, we put together a few tips on helping your Lab get comfortable with the water.

Top Tips for Encouraging Swimming:

  • Pick your location for introducing your dog to water. Your own backyard pool is great or a lake with a gradual incline into the water is also a great place to start. Be sure your dog is comfortable wherever you are.
  • Get a life vest. It will help your dog feel more secure and buoyant in the water. They also come with handles on the top, so you can lift and steer your dog more easily.
  • Go into the water with them. They will always feel safer and more comfortable if you are with them.  Just watch out for their claws as their dog paddle style can end up leaving scratch marks all over your body.
  • If your dog is small enough, pick them up and carry them into the water to a point where they can no longer touch bottom. Support them evenly underneath and try to keep their body level to encourage them to use all four limbs. You can see in Jack’s video that at first he was only using his front legs and making no progress. Once he realized to use his back legs, it was smooth sailing.
  • If you are leading the dog in, don’t overwhelm them by going too fast. Let them set the pace for how deep and how fast they go in the water.
  • Use a toy or treats as encouragement or rewards. Many Labs love to play fetch and will happily chase a stick or tennis ball or duck into the water.

Water and swimming is usually second nature to a “water dog” like a Lab. But that may not always be the case, so be prepared to do a little teaching and training and you’ll have a water dog in no time. Good Luck!

Kate O’Brien and her husband, Steve, live in Camarillo, CA, with their dogs SlimDoggy Jack and Maggie May, senior Lab rescues. They are animal advocates and are active in the dog rescue and foster community.  They write about their adventures with their dogs and about pet obesity, health, and fitness on the Slim Doggy websiteFacebook, and Twitter.

Kate has had dogs in her life since she was a child, including the collies her grandfather used to breed and show. Allergies interfered, but then in adulthood Kate was able to bring dogs back into her life.  She’s had numerous Labs, a couple of litters of puppies and many Lab fosters. She’s been able to share her love of exercise and fitness with her dogs and they inspire her to help other learn about better health, nutrition & fitness for their dogs.

The Labrador Site Founder

Pippa Mattinson is the best selling author of The Happy Puppy Handbook, the Labrador Handbook, Choosing The Perfect Puppy, and Total Recall.

She is also the founder of the Gundog Trust and the Dogsnet Online Training Program 

Pippa's online training courses were launched in 2019 and you can find the latest course dates on the Dogsnet website


  1. I have a 10 month old lab that refuses to get into the water. when he was 3 months he fell into the water and swam out just fine but ever since he has been terrified of water. What should I do? He wont even go near it.

  2. Hello,

    I have a 3 months old Lab pup. When can I take him to swim? He seems like he loves the water so much!


  3. Thanks for sharing our post – I hope our tips and experience help other Lab (or any dog) owner get their dogs to experience the fun of swimming!