Do Labradors Use Their Tails to Swim?

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The first time that I took Molly to the local dog park I was fortunate to discover that they had a little pond for the dogs to swim in. We hadn't yet tried swimming with Molly so I wasn't exactly sure how it was going to go. Fortunately, it didn't take too long and we were able to get her to at least try it out! One thing that I was fascinated with was how Labradors use their tails to swim!

Labradors have what is known as an "otter tail" which assists them with swimming. By using their tail in combination with doggy paddling it makes them very efficient and quick swimmers. For centuries Labs were bred to retrieve in wet conditions, which may explain how resourceful they are with their tail for swimming.

However, there are some things you should know about this method that our Lab friends employ.

How unique is this style of swimming? Do other breeds do this?

Is it bad for their tails? Can they get injured?

Do they even enjoy swimming? I mean I'm really good at math, but that doesn't mean I want to do it all the time!

We'll dig into these things. Come along!

In this article

What is an otter tail?

I first heard this term and had no idea what it meant. Every search I did brought me to some town in Minnesota! However, our trusted friends at the AKC do a great job of explaining it here:

The Lab’s thick, tapering tail—an “otter tail,” it’s called— serves as a powerful rudder, constantly moving back and forth as the dog swims and aids the dog in turning. As for the breed’s characteristic temperament, it is as much a hallmark of the breed as the otter tail. “

- The American Kennel Club

So, if you take a look at your Lab, you'll notice how thick the tail is up near the base, and how it tapers down. The growth pattern of the hair on the tail allows it to keep a nice, flat position which allows you to see visually how they are able to use it as described. Or, if you don't have a Lab yet check out this diagram from

labrador retriever diagram

Incredible, isn't it?

Do most dogs use their tails to swim?

Everything that I found suggested that this is not the most common usage of the dog tail. So it seems as though this incredible skill that our beloved Labradors have acquired over time is quite rare! Breeds that belong to the Sporting Group, as classified by the American Kennel Club, are more likely to have developed this skill.

Other retrieving breeds such as the Chesapeake Bay Retriever, Otterhounds and a handful of others seem to be the only other breeds that I discovered in my research.

However, this doesn't suggest that other breeds are incapable of swimming! This just simply suggests that other breeds have to rely solely on their doggy paddling in their swimming efforts.

So let's all just take a moment and enjoy yet another advantage that our favorite breed has over all the rest!

Do Labradors like to swim?

Now the bigger question is whether or not this advantage is all-for-not. Do Labradors even enjoy swimming?

Well it's hard to make a blanket statement about what an entire breed enjoys or doesn't enjoy. What we do know, though, is that Labradors have been bred for centuries for the purposes of retrieving. The retrieving acts often entailed swimming in ponds and lakes to retrieve game bird that their masters successfully hunted. They also carry other physical traits that help with swimming, like a slick coat and webbed feet.

labrador webbed foot

See Labs as gun dogs: Hunting dog training and tips

Due to this, we do know that it is in their natural instincts to enter water once they have learned how to swim. So, while every dog is different and of course prior experiences will shape their behavior, it is more likely that Labradors enjoy the water and will take full advantage of swimming when given the opportunity.

I can tell you from experience that my Labrador, Molly, was a little timid at first. However, after she became accustomed to it she will run and dive into water whenever she is given the chance!

What are the risks of swimming?

Of course, just like anything that is fun there are always risks that need to be considered. In fact it's probably fair to say that if there aren't any risks then whatever it is that you're doing probably isn't any fun!

Unfortunately for them, this applies to Labradors as well.

We want to be very careful about how often we allow our Labs to swim. This might be easy for owners who control every opportunity that their Labs have to swim.

For example if the only opportunity your Lab has to swim is when you bring them to the water - i.e. the beach, dog park, or a lake - then this will be much easier to control. However, for owners that have water on their property in the form of a swimming pool, lake, or a man-made dog pond, you will want to make sure that you were keeping a close eye on how much swimming your Lab is doing. 

There are two primary risks that swimming can bring, especially if it is over done:

Ear infections

Given that Labs have floppy ears, this is a risk that is introduced anytime there is water exposure. This includes when simply giving a bath!

However, it is amplified with swimming as it presents more opportunity for water to get into the ear canal. Just like with children, Labs may not be able to properly drain their ears afterward. So, the chance of infection is much higher.

To combat this, I recommend doing a weekly ear cleanse that will help remove excess moisture within the ear. One that was recommended to me by Molly's veterinarian is Virbac's Epi-Otic Advanced Ear Cleaner, available on Amazon for under $20 (click for current pricing).

Swimmer's tail

This one scares me more, and requires a little more detail as it can lead to more significant issues if not treated.

What is Swimmer's Tail?

Through my research I found that Acute Caudal Myopathy, more commonly referred to as Swimmer's Tail is what can happen to a dog's tail when it is overused during play or as the name suggests, during swimming. It can be thought of as simple as a sprain or a strain. Some other common terms for it per the VCA are:

  • cold water tail
  • dead tail
  • broken tail
  • limp tail
  • rudder tail
  • broken wag

How can I tell if my Lab has Swimmer's Tail?

There are fairly common behavioral symptoms that can indicate whether or not your Lab potentially has swimmer's tail. However, the symptoms could also be a result of a more serious issue. The best course of action will always be to take your Lab into the vet for a proper examination.

I found that best indication as to whether or not your Lab is likely to be suffering from this condition is to first determine whether or not he or she has engaged in recent activity that would make it likely. Did you recently take them swimming or spend a day at hard play?

VCA lists the most common symptoms as being:

  • difficulty standing up from a laying position (tails provide balance)
  • constant readjusting when sitting
  • the tail appears to be drooping unnaturally
  • loss of appetite and otherwise uncommon behavior

How is Swimmer's Tail typically treated?

Generally, a veterinarian will prescribe anti-inflammatory medication and recommend that your Lab rests for a week to 10 days. This should allow the healing process to take over, as it would for many muscle sprain/strains.


I was fascinated to learn how Labrador's have an advantage over many of their peers when it comes to the usage of their tails in swimming. Unfortunately, I found that the advantage comes with certain risks that can cause some short term discomfort.

I love that my Lab loves the water, and as long as I regulate her swimming encounters to a reasonable level we should be fine. Additionally, I am unable to not stare at her tail after learning about how it's unique design provides such great control on the water!

My hope is that you learned something new, too!