by Elizabeth Wasserman

Dock diving -- jumping off a dock into a body of water -- is something you might think a water-loving dog would do at a lake on a hot summer day, but it's actually a certified canine sport. Tournaments have even been broadcast on ESPN, with champion dog divers breaking world records for the canine with the longest leap from a dock into a pool or other body of water.

Your dog doesn't have to be the next swimming superstar to splash in on the fun, however. A quiet afternoon doggie paddle can be just as enjoyable and rewarding. "Water is an excellent means of exercising your dog," says Deborah Lee Miller-Riley, founder and director of Connecticut-based Canine Water Sports, which teaches dogs to swim and hosts water-based competitions, including such feats as retrieving submerged articles and towing a swimmer on a life ring.

Natural Olympians, or Not

A lot of dogs are naturally great swimmers. Some breeds come by that skill due to centuries of training. Retrievers have been bred to retrieve birds from water for hunters. Portuguese water dogs used to carry messages between boats in the days before cellular and satellite communications. But not all dogs instinctually take to the water. Some excellent paddlers, as with humans, have actually had to hone those skills with swimming lessons. Keep the following in mind, therefore, before unleashing your dog into the water.

The Importance of Water Safety

In addition to exercise, teaching your dog to swim is an important safety precaution. Scores of pets drown each year in water-related accidents. If your backyard has a pool, or if you take your dog out on your boat, get your pup to feel comfortable around water. You can teach it to swim -- and to get out of the water. "A dog is not going to know how to exit on its own," says Lisa Peterson, spokeswoman for the American Kennel Club.

Dogs can be trained to swim around the perimeter of a pool to find the exit, says Fred Hassen, CEO of Sit Means Sit, a dog-training business with 64 locations in the U.S. and Canada. "A lot of people teach dogs to come to you," Hassen says. "The problem is if you put the dog in the deep end and you stand there, the dog would keep swimming in the deep end trying to get to you." Hassen's method involves training a dog to swim around the pool looking for stairs or a ladder to get out -- no matter where its owner is.

To teach your dog to climb a ladder -- be it in a pool or off the side of a boat -- place your dog's front paws on the ladder and then help it up with its hind paws. Entice your pet to climb with a treat. "It's important to make it a confidence-building experience so the dog is not stressed or traumatized," he says.

How to Teach Your Dog to Swim

Just like a child who takes swimming lessons, a canine needs to gain confidence before it can swim comfortably on its own, experts say. Here are five steps to getting your dog's paws wet:

1. Start with water exposure

Get your pup used to water with a spray bottle, a hose or a shallow plastic pool, Hassen says. This ensures that it gets accustomed to the feeling of water.

2, Start at a pool or lake with a gradual slope

Your first lessons should take place in a body of water in which your pet can gradually walk in the water with you, Peterson advises. You can promote a positive attitude by bringing toys, such as a ball, and encouraging your dog to retrieve.

3. Move into deeper water with your support

As you move into deeper water, support your dog's backside or belly to help it learn that it can float as it paddles with its paws. Hassen says it's important that the dog learns to "level out" its torso to actually swim in the water.

4. Help your pup find the exit

Once your dog is in the water, make sure it follows your commands to find the exit -- be it from a swimming pool or into a boat. Hassen suggests leading the dog gently on a leash.

5. Don't overdo it

Dogs that have not swum a lot before don't necessarily have the muscle conditioning for a strenuous swim. "If your dog never swam for more than five minutes before, don't ask it to swim out a mile to a raft where you're going," Peterson says. "The dog may be too tired to swim back in."

Safe Places for Your Pet to Swim

If you're taking your dog out on a boat, fit your pup with a life vest, experts say. You never know when the boat may hit a bump and the dog may end up overboard. Also, keep in mind that swimming is exercise, and on hot days in particular, you need to keep your pet hydrated with fresh water.

Given the right precautions, there is a wide variety of safe places for your pet to do the doggie paddle -- or something more befitting of a canine athlete. For dock diving, organizations such as Dock Dogs and Splash Dogs hold competitions around the United States. A number of canine spas and private trainers will also help introduce your pup to the water and get it accustomed to going for a swim. Dog clubs additionally offer options to help you and your pet learn the joys of taking a dip in the water -- or competing to be top dog.

"It's a nice opportunity for dogs to have a pleasurable event," says Miller-Riley, of Canine Water Sports, "and to exercise without as much damage to their joints as they might get on land.” Since you can enjoy these benefits, too, your dog will likely turn out to be your best exercise and sports buddy this summer.



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Dogs: Teach Your Dog to Swim