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Labradors and Water: A Brief History
To better understand why Labradors love water, let's discuss their history. The breed's name is slightly misleading as it suggests that Labs originated in Labrador. However, they came about in Newfoundland, Canada. Labrador's history dates back to the 1500s, and they received the name 'Labrador Retriever' in the late 19th century.
In the 16th century, Fishermen settled in Newfoundland and started using St. John's water dogs to help them with fishing. These dogs were used to help haul fishing lines and retrieve fishes from freezing water. They loved to work and enjoyed completing various tasks related to fishing. Most of the time, these early Labradors would break into ice and retrieve fishes and ducks.
This job description ruled out all weak swimmers. Fishermen used to keep around and breed only strong swimmers. This means that the early gene pool was full of dogs that naturally loved to swim. So early breeders started with water-loving Labradors that thrived in cold conditions.
The Labradors seen today are slightly different in appearance than their ancestors. This is because breeders haven't focused much on their swimming ability. But the point here is that Labs are descendants of dogs that could swim in freezing waters all day long. Labradors still retain several physical traits that make them excellent swimmers, and their ancestral love for water is also there.
What Makes Labradors Excellent Swimmers?
Labradors have genetic material for swimming, but their physique also helps them swim better. You can find swimming videos of Lab puppies as young as six weeks. Although those sessions are short, and the paddling may not be perfect but, it's noteworthy that such young puppies can learn swimming and grow to love water.
Let's understand the physical features that allow Labradors to be so great at paddling through the water.
Yes, Labrador's have webbed feet! We generally associate webbed toes with animals like frogs or ducks. That is because they are excellent swimmers. But if you gently spread the fingers of your Lab, you'll find a similar thin connective skin between the pads. It increases the surface area of your dog's paw, which means your dog can swim efficiently by exerting more pressure on the water (Pressure = Force * Area, anyone?).
Webbed toes also trap the water, stopping it from leaking through the gap between the toes. This means your Lab will spend less energy paddling through the water, and they will be able to swim faster.
Apart from helping your dog swim, webbed toes also provide greater stability on uneven grounds. Lastly, Labradors aren't the only pets with webbed toes. Newfoundlands, Irish Water Spaniels, Dachshunds are some other breeds with this feature.
Ask any Lab owner, and they'll tell you how much Labs shed. This excessive shedding is due to their famous double coat, which also plays a significant role in swimming. "Double coat" means there are two layers in a Labrador's coat: the top layer is known as guard coat or topcoat, while the bottom layer is called undercoat.
Their topcoat is coarse, while the undercoat is softer. The undercoat also produces natural oils, helping Labs repel water and insulating their skin from it. As a result, these dogs can maintain their body temperature even in freezing conditions. They also dry up fairly quickly once they get out of water.
The double coat helps Labs maintain their body temperature, and so does the short fur. Long-haired breeds are not suitable for working in the water because their wet hair's weight drags them down. Especially in icy waters, the ice on their coat would weigh them down significantly. Labrador's short fur is enough to keep them warm, but it doesn't drag them down.
Thick Otter-Like Tail
If you have a Labrador, you've probably noticed the thick, straight tail that wags like crazy. It is covered with short, dense hair with no fringe. This otter tail is not just for stylish looks; it is also a part of the AKC breed standard.
Labradors use their tail to maneuver in the water. It moves back and forth continuously while the dog is in the water and acts as a powerful rudder, helping them turn. By using their tail along with their webbed toes, Labradors can swim fast and efficiently.
See the below diagram from EnchantedLearning.com for a more visual breakdown.
Why Are Some Labradors Afraid of Water?
As we've discussed, Labradors are naturally inclined to like water. But there can be cases where a Lab fears water. It's not natural for dogs to be afraid of water, but it's also not uncommon. If your Lab puppy doesn't want to step into the water, he must have good reasons for that.
The most common cause of this fear is a negative experience with water. Chances are, the dog was not familiarized with water safely. We've seen many owners introduce water too early, scaring the puppy. Throwing them right into the water, splashing water on their face, and forcing them to step into the pool are some mistakes people make when introducing Labs to water.
Yes, Labradors have it in their genes to swim. It's easy to find YouTube videos of 6-week-old Labs swimming effortlessly. Still, you should wait at least 12 weeks to ensure that you won't accidentally traumatize the pup.
Another possible reason is that water could be something entirely new and different for your dog. Most modern Labradors have never done anything other than fetching balls or playing with kids. So your Lab may not have any idea what he's supposed to do in the water. In this case, all you have to do is give him some time, and the instincts will soon kick in.
The bottom line is that if your Lab is not showing interest in swimming, you have to be gentle and patient with him. Don't pressure him because it'll make him nervous. But don't make it a habit to give him treats either; you eventually want swimming to be a reward in itself. Keep reading to learn the best way to introduce your dog to the water.
Tips to Teach Your Lab How to Swim
Training a Labrador to swim is usually an easy task. All you have to do is take the dog into the water, and he'll start paddling on his own. Sometimes, though, it's not that simple. It may be because of how he was bred or a traumatic experience with water in the past.
In any case, it's crucial not to make things harder for your pup. Here are some tips to follow while taking your Labrador out for swimming:
Teach Your Basic Dog Commands
The first step isn't directly related to swimming, but it'll help your Lab form the habit of listening to you. It's essential to teach your dog basic commands like sit, down, leave it, and stay as soon as you bring him home. This will establish you as the pack leader in your dog's mind and teach him some discipline and respect.
You can also enroll him in a dog training program so that he gets to exercise, learn more commands, and have fun. These things will make sure your puppy stays safe when you introduce him to water.
Start Training Your Lab Early
We've already discussed that three months is an appropriate age for your Lab puppy to learn swimming. It's not that a two-year-old Labrador who hasn't been exposed to water will not know how to swim. But he may be wary of water and take more time to get adjusted to it. On the other hand, if you teach a Lab to swim when he's a puppy, you can be sure that he'll love water for the rest of his life.
Train Your Dog Regularly
Consistency is the key when teaching a dog how to swim (or how to do anything for that matter). Make sure to take your Lab to water regularly, or even daily, if possible. Swimming every day for five minutes is way more beneficial than doing it for an hour here and there.
So ideally, you want to go to a pool, pond, or beach regularly. Then, you can gradually increase the depth of water your Lab swims in. But if you cannot do that, an air bathtub in your backyard will also work for puppies.
Let Your Pet Take His Time
As we've discussed, Labradors are naturally inclined to like water. Most of them will take to swimming in no time and enjoy every moment of it. However, we've also seen how some dogs may be more cautious or even afraid of water. They may take several tries to get comfortable walking around in shallow water, and then more time for actually beginning to swim.
During this entire period, you need to be patient with your Lab. Forcing him to step into or swim in the water will only make things worse. Just let your dog figure things out on his own.
Steps to Train Your Lab to Swim Like a Pro
Till now, we've looked at some things you should keep in mind while training your pup. This is the part where the actual training begins. Although you don't need to do anything special to teach your Lab how to swim, it's essential to know what you're supposed to do.
Introduce Your Pup to Water
You can start by bringing home an inexpensive doggie pool like this one from Amazon. Eventually, graduate your Lab to a pool, pond, or the beach.
You can also try taking a walk where the water is shallow so that you and your puppy can get your feet wet. Make sure the dog stays near you by attaching a leash to his collar.
Gently guide your puppy into deeper water while holding him firmly. Wait for the paddling instincts to kick in, and when the pup starts paddling, slowly loosen your grip. The dog should now be swimming forward. Do it a few times every day, but make sure to keep every swimming session very short.
This is how you can teach your Lab how to swim. To make him a pro, you'll need to train him more. Keep reading.
Swim With Your Labrador
Your Labrador puppy should instinctively start paddling when he's in water deep enough for swimming. Even though he may not know how to maneuver in the water properly, the forward paddling should come naturally. Here's where you can help your pup get better at swimming.
Get in a pool, river, lake, or ocean with your dog and start swimming. You can hold your pet under his belly or chest to keep him afloat as he learns to move around in the water. Also, speak to him in a cheerful voice and keep praising him. This will boost his confidence and teach him to maneuver using his tail.
Note: Bringing your Lab into your pool will require additional maintenance in order to prevent problems with your pool equipment. In case you didn't know, they shed quite a bit!
Play Fetch in the Water
This is a fun way to make your Labrador more comfortable in the water. Start by throwing a waterproof toy in shallow water. It helps if the toy is shaped like a ball or a duck because your pet will then grab it in his mouth. When he retrieves it, reward him with treats and lots of praises.
Repeat this exercise, and start throwing the toy farther and farther until your dog has to swim in order to grab it. Make sure to increase the depth gradually, or you may end up scaring him. Practice it a few times per week and keep rewarding him until he looks very comfortable in the water.
I like this Dog Float Toy from Amazon specifically designed for playing fetch on the water.
Let Your Lab Swim With Other Dogs
Dogs can teach puppies and other dogs better than we can. Bring a new puppy into a trained dog's home, and you probably won't have to explain the house rules to the new guy. This is because puppies learn by watching other familiar dogs.
For this to work, you or someone you know need to have an adult or older Labrador that knows how to swim. Once you take both Labs to the water, let the older one swim and encourage the puppy to participate. Soon, the pup will learn from watching and following his dog friend.
For example, watch this video where a Labrador teaches his puppies how to swim, and the owner doesn't have to speak a single word in the entire clip:
Teach Your Pet How to Swim Underwater
Once your puppy can swim effortlessly, you can take things to the next level by teaching him how to swim underwater. Make sure that your Lab has no problems swimming in deep water before moving on to this stage.
The best method to do this is to play fetch with your dog. Find a heavy toy that sinks in water and have lots of treats ready in a waterproof bag. Start by throwing the toy in shallow water so that your dog can grab it underwater while standing on his legs. Once your Lab brings the toy back, give him treats, and praise him enthusiastically.
Now, get in the water and hold the toy underwater in your hand, making sure your dog can see it. As he tries to grab it, move the toy away from his mouth for a few seconds. Then let him catch it and reward him with treats and praises.
Repeat this exercise and gradually move the toy deeper and deeper, to the point where he has to swim underwater to get it. Stay close to him the entire time and keep encouraging and rewarding him. After a few sessions, your Lab will be comfortable swimming underwater without needing any treats.
Most Labs love water, as it is genetically ingrained in them. When these dogs first came about, they used to retrieve fish and haul fishermen's boats from icy waters. Over generations of breeding and molding, they have an innate love for the water. Their webbed toes, double coat, short fur, and otter tail help them swim effortlessly.
Not all Labradors love water, though; some may be afraid of it because of unfamiliarity or a previous negative experience with water. We've discussed in detail how you can help your Lab overcome this, and find their love for water again!