Up until my latest dog, I have always taken water introduction for granted. Since I’m a retriever guy, I’ve always had dogs that took to water with ease. I assumed that would be the case two years ago when I picked up a little black Lab we named Sadie, but she had other plans.
While I assumed steadiness and recall would prove to be the toughest challenges with my fresh recruit, it quickly became clear that she was not going into the water. No matter how hot it was, no matter how I tried to coax her in, she wasn’t having it. She would wade in until her back end started to float, and that was that.
I was stumped, so I called a buddy who is a professional trainer who reassured me that water hesitancy is common. So is outright fear if the introduction goes wrong. He told me to trust the process, and that she’d get there, which ended up being true.
First impressions aren’t only important if you’re on a date or in a job interview. They matter in a pup’s world, too, and if you try to introduce a young dog to the wrong kind of water they’ll develop a real aversion to it.
Cold water is a no-no. As is deep water. You want warm(ish) water, and ideally you want the first introduction to happen when your pup has been running around in the heat. A dog that has been chasing a dummy in the blazing sun is far more likely to naturally run into the water on its own volition, which is a plus.
It’s also important to conduct a water introduction somewhere with a hard, gently sloping bottom. A quick drop off, or a soft muddy bottom, can work against you.
Even if you check all of these boxes, it still might not be enough.
Cooling off after playing in the midday heat might be enough of a reward for some puppies to jump in the water for the first time. Other dogs need a little more coaxing, especially if they have a hangup about a body of water you’ve already tried to get them to enter.
This happened with Sadie, and I don’t really know why. For whatever reason, the warm, slow-moving river by my house with the hard, sloping bottom wasn’t going to cut it. She made up her mind that it wasn’t the spot she wanted to go in, and that was that.
It was frustrating. Still, I knew that no matter what, I couldn’t force it. People who toss their dogs in, or push them off of a dock or a boat are very likely to ruin their pups when it comes to water. That’s a dumb thing to do with a house pet, and absolutely moronic (and unfair) to do to a dog that is eventually going to accompany you in a duck boat.
With Sadie, I left the river and found a small pond at a park by our house. Then I upped the ante.
Originally with my Lab, I tried to coax her in with a handful of kibble. I thought if food can’t do it, nothing can. But food didn’t do it, so my trainer buddy suggested busting out some pheasant wings, to which she had already been introduced.
Wings are a big deal to a puppy, especially if they have limited access to them. When I brought out a couple for Sadie next to that small pond, she went ballistic. After a couple of weeks of not going in deep enough to have to swim, one fluttering wing in a new body of water brought her over the edge.
As soon as she swam that first time, it was like a new level was unlocked. Now she won’t stay out.
This is how it goes with dog training. You can’t force it, so you have to set them up to make the right choice and succeed on their own. While it might seem like most hunting dogs should naturally take to water, many don’t. At least not right away. When they don’t, figure out how to change up the routine enough to get them to choose to go in.
They’ll get there on their own time. And remember, once again, to never force them in, or you might be dealing with a gun-shy level problem when it comes to water work.