Swimming dog breeds have been bred to work in the water for hundreds of years. These dogs, to this day, continue to be the most skilled swimmers due to their specialized traits.
You might think that all dogs are naturally good at swimming, but it is not always the case – some cannot swim safely and some lack the confidence to swim altogether. Here’s our list of top ten dog breeds that swim who excel in the water, and ways to keep them safe whilst they learn.
10 Swimming Dog Breeds
While some dog breeds are inherently poor swimmers, there are several that are specially bred to swim well. These breeds have a long history of working in and around water with their human trainers. If you’re looking for a new swimming partner or just a dog who enjoys keeping cool, we recommend researching these 10 breeds.
1. American Water Spaniel
The American Water Spaniel is a medium-sized dog originating from Wisconsin, USA. Irish Water Spaniels, English Water Spaniels, Curly Coated Retrievers, Poodles, and Sussex Spaniels make up the modern breed. American Water Spaniels are compact and able to withstand Wisconsin’s cold water temperatures.
This spaniel’s coat falls in two patterns; either tightly curled or wavy. The coat’s coarse outer layer protects the skin from briars, while the soft inner layer provides insulation and warmth. While not the fastest swimmer, the breed sports a high level of endurance and is versatile regardless of the type of terrain. These qualities make the breed ideal for hunting waterfowl.
2. Standard Poodle
The Standard Poodle is a gun dog bred for duck hunting in Germany. Its name is derived from the Low German word “pudeln”, meaning “to splash” – this gave rise to the name Pudelhund, which is now shortened to Pudel or Poodle. The breed has been used for hunting in the USA and Canada since the 1990s, but towards the second half, its use declined in favor of use as a status symbol.
The modern Standard Poodle retains many of the traits that were selected for by their original owners: intelligence, stamina, webbed feet, and a moisture-resistant coat. In fact, the defining “continental clip” often seen in show Poodles has a practical purpose. This cut protects the Poodle’s chest and extremities from cold water while allowing the rear end a better range of motion. Groomers exaggerate this clip in modern show Poodles.
Newfoundlands originate from Newfoundland and Labrador, the easternmost province of Canada. The breed is descended from a breed indigenous to the island called St. John’s water dog, a landrace domestic dog that went extinct in the 1980s. DNA analysis also shows that Newfoundlands are closely related to other Canadian breeds and Molosser-type breeds.
Modern Newfoundlands have large webbed paws that give them maximum propulsion in water. The swimming stroke of the Newfoundland is not an ordinary “dog paddle” – unlike other breeds, Newfoundlands move their limbs in a down-and-out motion which gives each stroke more power. The breed’s larger size grants it a huge lung capacity for swimming long distances. Its coat is also thick, oily, and waterproof to protect the skin from cold water temperatures.
The Barbet is a rare and old breed with origins in France. The name “Barbet” was originally a generic name for any dog with a curly, woolly coat and it came to include many water dog breeds. During the 18th and early 19th centuries, Barbets and Poodles were thought to be the same breed, until the first breed standard for the Barbet was created in 1891. Barbets were bred to be waterfowl retrievers in marshes, estuaries, and wetlands.
Their waterproof coats and webbed paws make them adept at swimming and retrieving game from wet terrain. The Barbet’s versatility and propensity for water make it a great all-round dog with a timeless historical lineage.
5. English Setter
English Setters were trained to point or set upland game birds in the 14th century. The breed was originally called the Setting Spaniel. Setting Spaniels worked on moorland where they ranged freely in front of a hunter. When the dog located quarry it would crouch (or set) and lift one paw to indicate the position of the birds. The hunter laid nets that the dog would drive the birds into. The use of the net was discontinued by the 18th century and replaced by guns.
Field type English Setters are smaller, have more distinctive spotting and less feathering than their show type counterparts. The spotted pattern makes the breed easier to see in the field, and the reduced feathering makes it easier for owners to remove burs from the coat. Unlike the other breeds featured on this list, the English Setter does not have webbed feet and does not have a double coat. Despite lacking these useful traits, these dogs have a strong affinity for water and are confident swimmers in the field.
6. Chesapeake Bay Retriever
Chesapeake Bay Retrievers were bred in the Chesapeake Bay area of the USA during the 19th century. Historically, the breed was used by market hunters to pull fishing nets, retrieve waterfowl, and to rescue fishermen. It reportedly retrieved up to 300 ducks daily if trained well. The AKC recognized the breed by 1885.
Modern Chesapeake Bay Retrievers are primarily family pets and hunting companions. They have webbed toes and naturally love water. The chest is also large and powerful for breaking apart ice when diving into cold water. Chesapeake Bay Retrievers have a thick double-coat to protect them from these conditions. The oil in the coarse outer coat coupled with the woolly undercoat helps the dog to keep dry and warm when working. Chesapeake Bay Retrievers are sporting dogs who require a considerable amount of exercise each day. Because of this, they thrive living in places where they can swim and romp freely. The breed adapts to urban life if necessary but requires long walks to use up its energy.
7. Labrador Retriever
Originally from Newfoundland and Labrador, the Labrador Retriever was a fishing dog. These dogs helped to retrieve escaped fish. Modern Labrador Retrievers are versatile, working as therapy dogs, gundogs, search and rescue and sniffer dogs. They also make popular companions. However, the breed has several defining traits that make it adept at swimming.
Labrador Retrievers have webbed toes that serve as “snowshoes” in colder climates. This prevents snow and ice from building up between the toes. The condition is painful for dogs without webbed toes. This trait also makes the Labrador Retriever a more powerful swimmer. Labrador Retrievers also have a water-resistant coat to protect them from the cold whilst swimming.
8. Portuguese Water Dog
Portuguese Water Dogs are originally from the Algarve, the southernmost region of Portugal. In Portugal, the dog is sometimes called the cão de água, translating to “dog of water.” The breed once herded fish into nets, retrieved broken nets and delivered messages.
Modern Portuguese Water Dogs have a well-balanced conformation which aids balance and stability for swimming. Dogs of the breed also have long, straight tails that act as a rudder in the water. Its single-layer coat has a distinctive wavy or curly texture and appearance. This trait helps the dog to resist waterlogging. This coat aids buoyancy.
9. Nova Scotia Duck Tolling Retriever
Bred in Nova Scotia, Canada, the Nova Scotia Duck Tolling Retriever lure waterfowl within gunshot range. Tollers are sent out to the water to retrieve a toy, which piques the curiosity of nearby waterfowl. Once the target birds approach, the hunter calls the dog back, prompting the waterfowl to take flight. The hunter then takes the shot.
Nova Scotia Duck Tolling Retrievers have thick double-coats to protect them from cold water. The oil in the outer coat further resists water which keeps the dog dry. Like the other breeds in this list, Tollers have webbed toes to improve their swimming abilities. Furthermore, the breed has a significant amount of energy and stamina and requires an active lifestyle, which makes swimming an ideal pastime.
Safety Tips for Swimming Dog Breeds
Regardless of your dog’s breed, you must always ensure that your dog’s swimming experiences are safe and enjoyable. Even the breeds with a natural affinity for water will need to learn how to swim first, and some individuals may even dislike swimming altogether.
Don't Leave Your Dog Unattended
Leaving your dog unattended puts them at risk of drowning. The accidental drowning of family pets in swimming pools is common, claiming up to 5,000 pets every year – this doesn’t include accidents at sea or in other bodies of water. Thankfully, these tragic losses are usually preventable with keen supervision and proper safety precautions: installing steps, ramps, immersion alarms, and orientation markers helps to prevent the worst-case scenario. Even with safety measures in place, you should never leave your pet unattended whilst swimming.
Teach Them the Basics
Dogs naturally start an innate version of “dog paddling” when faced with water, but this doesn’t mean that they can safely swim, stay afloat or that they enjoy swimming. The innate paddling motion will not be enough to teach your dog how to get out of the pool. For these reasons, we recommend that you gradually introduce your pet to water, rather than assuming that they will be able to swim confidently. This goes for breeds with affinity to water as well – some individuals may be afraid of or simply not confident in water regardless of their breed.
When starting dog swimming lessons it’s important to always keep it fun. Never force your pet to swim by throwing, pushing or pulling them and always supervise an inexperienced dog closely. It’s key to entice your dog into the water first. Whether it’s playing with a toy or with you, create a fun situation where your dog voluntarily enters the water – many dogs who enjoy playing fetch will chase balls into the water, and you can steadily increase the distance into the water with each throw.
Once your dog is comfortable wading into deeper water, it’s imperative that you have control over their life vest at all times whilst they learn. Be sure to wear a life vest of your own during the process. If your dog panics in the water they may climb onto you to escape. This is particularly a risk with larger breeds.
Some dogs get the hang of being in the water quickly in the presence of other dogs. If you frequent a dog park where other dogs swim, it’s helpful to bring your dog along to play with others who are already confident in the water. This helps to show your dog that swimming is an enjoyable experience.
Avoid Unfamiliar Water Bodies
While it may be tempting for you and your dog to swim in a newly-found lake, river or pond, it’s crucial to consider the potential dangers involved in doing so. Not only do you put your own health at risk, but you risk the health of your canine companion too – here are some dangers to look out for before taking a dip. Waterborne parasites are transmitted through contaminated water sources, including lakes, rivers and other bodies of water. Some of the most common diseases include giardiasis, cryptosporidiosis, schistosomiasis, leptospirosis, and guinea worm.
Blue-green algae, also called cyanobacteria, produces harmful toxins. Taking in just a small amount of blue-green algae is dangerous for your dog. Dogs swallow harmful algae by drinking lake water or licking their fur after a good swim. If you’re concerned that your pet made contact with the algae seek veterinary advice right away.
Dangerous predators pose a threat to you and your dog. As one example, American alligators are found in several states, including Florida, Louisiana, South and North Carolina, Alabama, Mississippi, Arkansas, and Oklahoma, amongst others. Their preferred habitats are freshwater lakes, marshes, rivers, and swamps. You should avoid walking near the water’s edge with your dog when alligators are nearby.
Dogs, like humans, suffer hypothermia in cold water. Swimming in water that’s too cold causes hypothermia and limber tail syndrome in dogs. If you need to get out because you feel too cold, your dog is also at risk of being too cold. The ideal water temperature for swimming is 80 to 85 degrees Fahrenheit.
Currents and Debris
Unfamiliar bodies of water often mask hidden dangers like currents and debris. Strong underwater currents trouble even the strongest swimmers. Along with hidden currents, unfamiliar bodies of water may be deep or too muddy to reliably estimate the depth. Hidden debris and hazards under the water cause injury, and weeds and aquatic plants entangle limbs under the water.
The remoteness of some areas may hamper a rescue attempt. If you plan to swim somewhere remote with your dog, avoid going alone and tell somebody where you’re going in case an accident happens.
Swimming Dog Breeds – FAQs
Still have questions about swimming dog breeds? Our Frequently Asked Questions section will have all the answers you need.
Which Dog Breed can Swim?
The breeds best adapted to swim are:
- the American Water Spaniel
- Standard Poodle
- Chesapeake Bay Retriever
- Labrador Retriever
- Portuguese Water Dog
- The Nova Scotia Duck Tolling Retriever.
English Setters have a strong affinity for water but lack the webbed toes and double coat of the other listed breeds. Although all of these dog breeds are excellent swimmers they still need to learn how to swim before working in the field.
What Small Dogs like to Swim?
Small dog breeds typically struggle to swim. The smallest breeds like Chihuahuas are sensitive to the cold due to their size. Breeds with short legs like the Dachshund struggle to paddle efficiently. Small brachycephalic dogs cannot reliably keep their snout above the water’s surface. These problems don’t rule out all small dog breeds, however, and many can still learn to enjoy swimming. These are our picks for the best small to medium-sized swimming dog breeds:
- Jack Russell Terrier
- Norfolk Terrier
- Nova Scotia Duck Tolling Retriever
- Boykin Spaniel
- Welsh Springer Spaniel
- Irish Water Spaniel
- American Water Spaniel
Can Every Dog Swim?
All dogs perform an innate version of the “dog paddle” in water, but not all dogs are good swimmers. Many smaller dog breeds aren’t confident swimmers. Dogs with short snouts (brachycephalic) including Pugs and Pekingese have difficulty keeping their short snouts above the water. Small hairless breeds tend to get cold quickly, while thick, long coats weigh some dogs down. Dogs with barrel chests have difficulty with buoyancy.
Your dog’s personality plays a huge part in their swimming ability. Some dogs are afraid of water altogether while others are outgoing and have no problem with wading into deep water. This applies to swimming dog breeds too – even a Portuguese Water Dog’s personality varies enough that some are unwilling to swim or are just poor swimmers altogether.
How Long Can Dogs Swim for?
The amount of time your dog spends swimming depends on three traits: physical fitness, swimming ability, and personality. While one dog may swim for five minutes, another could swim for an hour. As a general rule, swimming for 15 to 20 minutes is enough for a good workout. If your dog has not been swimming for long, you should gradually increase the time in the pool so as to not overwork your pet. This also increases your dog’s stamina.
There are several dog breeds that enjoy swimming when taught. There are also many that can’t or shouldn’t swim. Swimming is very dependent on your dog’s own personality, fitness, and experience and it’s important to tailor the experience to your dog’s needs. Always prioritize the safety of you and your pet and above all, ensure that it’s a fun and enjoyable experience for both of you.