Teaching A Golden Retriever To Swim

What kind of crazy person would move onto a boat with a golden retriever who doesn’t swim?

You’ve been asking yourself that, right?

Hopefully yesterday’s brief, shaky video evidence has reassured you that we’re not planning to drown Honey.

Honey the golden retriever in the water with Mike.

So you say this water will make my fur look shinier?

Do All Golden Retrievers Swim

Since we’ve lived with Honey, I’ve discovered many golden retrievers don’t like to swim.

For every two or three we see leaping into the waves to chase a ball, we find at least one (besides Honey) who just likes wading close to shore.

Golden retriever swimming.

Honey watched this other golden very intently. Was she filing away lessons on technique for later?

Ever since discovering Honey’s reluctance to swim, I’ve questioned every person with a golden retriever about their dog’s swimming habits. My totally unscientific poll finds that probably three-quarters of golden retrievers enjoy swimming while the remainder can swim but choose not to.

Usually they prefer to not get any fur wet above their bellies.

The most encouraging thing I’ve learned, however, has been that some golden retrievers come to swimming later in life.

I’ve heard more than one person tell me about their dog who would not swim as a puppy. But amazingly, at four, five, or six years old, they suddenly decided to swim.

That was my hope for Honey.

Honey Doesn’t Know She’s A Golden Retriever

I’d joke with people that Honey didn’t swim because she didn’t know she was a golden retriever.

In truth, she probably thinks she’s human. Or one particular human: me.

I love swimming. If I could, I’d live in the water.

But I get cold very easily.

Even in the warm Caribbean Sea, I’d have to keep moving or come out shivering.

So I was a terrible person to teach Honey how to swim in the frigid waters of our home in New York’s Finger Lakes.

Honey the golden retriever at Cascadilla Falls in the shade.

No, we didn’t always have ice and snow in upstate New York. It just felt like it.

Even at the height of summer, I’ve swam in waters in the low 50s F (12-13 C). As you can imagine, it was pretty tough for me to sell Honey on how much fun it is to swim.

The other problem was the bottom surface of our local swimming area.

We’d take Honey to the foot of the Ithaca Falls where the bottom was covered with large, unsteady rocks covered in slippery slime. Feeling the movement of rocks under her feet made Honey even less sure about swimming.

We knew she could swim because occasionally a rock would shift under her feet and send her scrambling into a dog paddle. But she’d only swim far enough to return to dry land where she’d turn around and give me a look that I swear said, “You think you’ll get me to swim but I have other ideas.”

Honey the Golden Retriever looks back.

Yeah, you look at the water. I’ll look back home where the kibble is.

I held out hope that someday we’d find the perfect conditions to teach Honey to enjoy swimming. And farther south we seem to have found them.

The Perfect Place To Swim

Last Sunday we took the day off from boat shopping to have some fun. We took Honey to Fenwick Island State Park in Delaware where dogs are allowed on beaches without life guards.

Conditions were perfect.

Our beach was on the Assawoman Bay, which was very shallow. On a hot summer day, the water was warm. Bath water warm.

And the bottom was a sandy mud.

When Mike and I waded out into the warm water, Honey had no problem following us. And when it got too deep for her to walk, she’d swim a few strokes.

No big deal. It was exactly what I’ve always wanted to see.

The Right Amount Of Swimming

I would never move Honey aboard a boat if she couldn’t swim.

I’ve always known that when she needs to, Honey will swim.

But I’m also glad she’s not one of those crazy, water-loving dogs. Because those are the dogs jumping off boats at mooring balls and getting lost.

Honey the golden retriever in a kayak.

I can’t see why anyone would jump out of a boat. What if you got wet?

My hope for Honey is that swimming can be a way for us all to get exercise together. And that she’ll have the skills she needs in an emergency to keep herself a float. But that she doesn’t love swimming more than she loves being with us so that she’s always jumping off the boat and swimming away.

We all have a lot to learn to transition to life afloat. I’m relieved that Honey has taken steps toward swimming.

And if my five-year old golden retriever can start swimming, maybe I don’t have to worry so much about all the things I need to learn myself.

Your Turn: Are your dogs swimmers? And did you have to teach them or did they teach themselves?


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  1. Since we got both Jack & Maggie late in life (their life) I don’t know if they swam earlier. Near us is only the ocean which isn’t really the right conditions for swimming, but last year when we took them to Big Bear lake we were able to see. They both started out as waders, but then Maggie just took off swimming. Jack, I”m afraid is like Honey, he’d rather scavenge on the shore.

  2. I’m dying to take Bailey swimming. She loves the water, but we’ve only been to places where she can only wade. Because I can’t fully trust her off leash yet I have to keep her attached to me and we have yet to get to a place where I can follow her into the water, which would allow her to get deep enough to actually swim. Her lab instincts kick in right away and I see her moving her legs to doggy paddle, but the water is never deep enough. When she sees a lake, river or creek, she wants in. I always let her down.

    The one exception was my parents’ pool last summer. She got on the stairs, but did not understand how to come off the stairs. She didn’t realize she could step down like she does every day at home. She watched me in the shallow end and tried desperately to figure out how to get to me. I could see her contemplating jumping in, but she never did. I was tempted to just lift her off the steps and toss her in, but having seen this happen 15-ish years ago in that same pool with my high school boyfriend’s dog, I knew the result could very well be a dog who suddenly became fearful of large bodies of water.

    My goal this summer is to really take her swimming . As a water-lover myself, I think we both need it.

  3. Martine says:

    Duster, our lab/golden/Bernese mix is like Honey: he loves to wade, but only up to his belly. He can swim, because if I throw a stick a little too far, he will swim a few strokes to get to it. But he prefers not to. Zach, our Bernese, will get his feet wet to drink from the lake, or if it’s really hot, but that’s it.

    We’re still keeping good thoughts for you all in your endeavour to find a boat. It’s nice to hear from you from time to time.

  4. Misty the alpha Poodle is one of those crazy dogs you are glad you don’t have–see water, jump into water with a big Poodle smile on her face.

    Timmy growls at his water dish if it splashes him and avoids the morning dew. Breed has nothing to do with whether a dog will like water, I have found.

  5. With corgis, it doesn’t take much water for swimming to occur! A stream up to my knees and they must doggy-paddle. Mine have never so much as hesitated. As pups, every puddle was a source of fun, streams all the better. It helps that my guys HATE to be warm, so they quickly learned water is a great way to cool off.

  6. Neither Callie nor Shadow are swimmers, but that’s because we haven’t taken them anywhere that they’d have to be. They didn’t even like the kiddie pool we used to have for them. I’d put them in it and sit in it with them and they’d climb out, shake off the water, and go lay in the grass.

  7. None of our dogs swam until we got Rita. Rita is like Honey though. She can swim, but she chooses not to! She prefers to only get wet up to her belly. She’ll swim to get at me or the hubs while we wade/swim, but she just wants to get to us, then get us all back to shore as quick as possible! It’s so adorable though. I wish she enjoyed it!

  8. Sheba is a natural at swimming, and she loves it. But her litter mate Moses would not go out past his belly. I think if we had taken them more often, he would have eventually though.
    Luke took to swimming immediately too, but then got scared when he and Sheba got a little too rambunctious in the water. So we’re starting him out slowly (by himself) this year. Both of our beagles also took to swimming naturally, but Kobi never did it willingly.
    When we had a fishing boat, our Lab mix Maggie, who adored swimming, always waited until we told her it was OK to go in (that was a small boat where we could always watch her though).
    I think you’re doing the perfect thing with Honey…knowing she can swim if she needs to, but not letting her love it TOO much.

  9. You should have asked me! Mity (although not a retriever) will only swim in the sea, never in a river. He goes mental when we take him to the sea side, and he will run for miles to get into the waves, before running back and shaking over us all. You can’t get him to go near a river, even if you throw his toy in for him to bring back.

  10. Bailie and I love water and swimming, we just swim naturally. Katie doesn’t like water but she can swim if she has to. Mom knows this because she fell into a deep pond as a young dog and had to swim to the edge to get back out and she did, but she avoids water normally.

  11. Thank you, Honey, for showing us the way!

    Your story inspires me to give myself permission to take it easy on the scary stuff … to start off slow with the perfect conditions, set ourselves up for success. Why not?!

  12. Harley’s a waddler but Jax (like Leo) loves the water. Harley would probably spend all his time on the boat with you – but Jax would be more inclined to swim along side the boat!

  13. The Golden we had before the Chessies was not a swimmer. He would wade in water but not really swim. He was from a show pedigree and that is not uncommon with those dogs.

    I think you went about it the right way with Honey. Too many people make their dogs swim in cold water or in a pond with a drop off. We have always found that when starting a puppy (or a dog) off, it is best to swim them on a hot day in warmer water and where there is an incline into the water (rather than a drop-off). Getting them excited by chasing a ball or a toy and just tossing it to the edge where they can go in and come out and then tossing it further is a great way to get a dog used to water and eventually swim.