Dogs and Swimming Pools

Catherine J. Crawmer on 5/30/2008

Another one! That’s all I could think of when I heard that yet another dog had been found drowned in the family’s swimming pool. It doesn’t make the newspapers so, unfortunately, people don’t realize just how often the family dog dies in the swimming pool. There is nothing rare about this tragedy. There are many public notices every year about leaving a dog in a hot car. I believe the same frequency should apply to warnings about dangers inherent in the family swimming pool.

“My dog never goes near the pool. He’s afraid of water. He hates a bath so he would never go in the pool.” These are some of the most common statements made by dog owners. As with many tragic events, it’s all OK….. until it’s not. A dog running by the pool can slip and fall in. A dog playing with another dog can be pushed in. A dog that never has gone into water just does, and the reason why is never known.

Most municipalities require that a fence be placed around a swimming pool to thwart area children from wandering onto the property and ending up in the swimming pool. While home owners do put up a fence they, as often as not, fence in a large portion of the yard around the swimming pool as well. The family’s children and pets have access to the yard at all times with this fencing arrangement. While this system does restrict entrance by unauthorized individuals it does nothing to inhibit accidents that might occur involving the family. There is no doubt about it; a locked fence closely surrounding the family pool is the better option.

Those people who have a dog that enjoys swimming tend to feel very comfortable since they spend so much time in the water with their pet. They shouldn’t feel so comfortable. Until the dog is trained to get out of the pool, in the absence the family, he can be more vulnerable to drowning than a dog that actively avoids the pool. Fortunately, it is possible to train the dog what to do in case he finds himself alone in the swimming pool.

First, make sure that your dog is able to easily exit the pool on the stairs that are in your pool. There are some considerations on this. First the stairs should be spaced to allow the size dog to easily step from one stair to the next. If the dog is small stairs spaced for humans will not be sufficient. Second make sure that the stairs have a non slippery surface. If the stairs in your pool are inadequate for your individual dog’s needs there are now special stairs available for purchase that are designed specifically for use by dogs.

Training the family dog to exit the pool is important but it is fun too and the whole family can, and should, be involved. Get some treats. The best kind to use will involve no chewing and be very small. Hot dogs work well. Cut them lengthwise four times and then sideways. This should give you 80-100 little pieces. Place the pieces on a large plate and separate them all on a paper towel. Microwave the pieces for 3 minutes or so. Some microwaves will require more or less time. The goal is for the hot dog pieces to assume a rubber-like texture. This will give you a lot of lessons, little grease and little smell, making them perfect for this kind of repetitive training.

Always start the training while the dog is still fresh and has not been swimming for any length of time. If someone can be with him in the pool and another family member on the outside of the pool this is ideal. Only the person on the outside will have treats. Start with the dog placed very near the stairs. The person in the pool will direct the dog to the stairs and the person on the outside will encourage him with excited praise and by showing him the treats. If the dog needs any physical assistance the person in the pool will provide it. When the dog exits the pool the person or entire family on the outside of the pool should praise and pet him. The dog can then be placed back in the pool for repeated sessions. How much of this should be done is very individual and should only be repeated as long as the dog is excited about the lesson. Care must be taken to not continue when the dog is obviously tiring. This training program takes very little time per session but additional sessions should be repeated until the dog is exiting confidently and quickly.

When the dog is negotiating the stairs easily he should be gradually moved back a short distance from the stairs so that he will have to swim to the stairs. The lessons should not be moved forward until the dog is noticeably moving to the stairs from all areas of the pool. Since there is a lot more exertion on the dog’s part only a few of this type of lesson can be done at one session. Each animal is an individual and care should be taken to keep the energy level high and the lessons fun for all concerned. The goal is to end every session at a high point of success! How each session ends will be important since the dog will start the next session with the same information he had when the last one ended. It is a common fault of beginner trainers to continue a session to failure. Don’t fall into this trap.

Now the dog is moving to the stairs from all points of the pool. It is at this point that families, in error, think the job is done and that the dog is now safe from pool accidents. Nothing could be further from the truth. The next phase includes the most important exercises in the program. It is important to continue the program now to insure the pet’s safety during an unexpected pool entry.

It is obvious to all concerned that the dog knows where the stairs are. Now it is time for the person in the pool to get out of the pool but stay nearby if reentry becomes necessary. At this juncture the person holding the treats on the outside of the pool calls the dog the same as before but from a position several feet to the side from the location where the stairs are. The goal is to get the dog to move away from the person calling him and get him to move toward the stairs. To get to a successful outcome this phase will take longer to accomplish than anything that has been done thus far.

When the dog will turn away from the person calling him and go instead to the stairs the person gradually moves from one point to the next, away from the stairs and around the pool. It may take many lessons to achieve the desired goal. The end goal is for the person to be completely on the opposite side of the pool from the position of the stairs with the dog actively turning his back on the person who is calling him, swimming away from that person to get to the pool exit. For most dogs this phase of the program will take some time since dogs are taught to come directly to the person calling him.

The final part of the program is realistic preparation for a pool accident and has two parts. The dog is put in the pool far from the stairs and opposite the last known location of a person. There are now no people around the pool for the dog to see. Watch from a distance out of the dog’s sight and be ready to help him if needed. He should, even with no encouragement and nobody around, seek out the location of the stairs and exit the pool. Finally, we have the ultimate test. The dog is put into the pool at the far side and opposite the stairs. Everyone has moved out of the dog’s sight and starts calling him from a distance opposite the stairs. It is critical that the dog not move toward the voices he hears but swim away from those voices and toward the stairs.

Depending upon the individual animal’s progress and the amount of time spent on this program it could take weeks or months to accomplish the aforementioned goals. Done in systematic fashion, using only small increments of time, the dog and the family should enjoy the sessions while a life saving skill is being learned. The dog may never fall into a pool by himself and every physical contingency should be considered that would prevent it from happening. However, if it did happen, this fun packed training program could save his life and prevent his becoming one of the thousands of pets who lose their lives in swimming pools every year, every one owned by a person who thought it would not or could not happen to them.