After acquiring a puppy of one of the versatile hunting dog breeds there is much to think about in terms of shaping that pup into a mature hunting dog. Much of what I do during the first year is expose the pup to all kinds of things that they will encounter as a hunting dog and pet. A few of the things that a versatile hunting dog will need to be comfortable with are guns, upland birds (quail, pigeons, chukar, etc.), waterfowl, and water. For the purposes of this V-Dog Blog post I am focusing on the latter. After having worked with several pups now I have learned a few things on how to get a pup swimming and would like to share a few of those things with you.
Before I get into the details of water exposure one should understand that every pup is different and some readily take to new things, such as water, and others simply need more exposure over time. Assuming you are starting with a well-bred dog with a pedigree full of dogs that have proven themselves in the water, with enough exposure you can typically expect to end up with a capable waterfowl dog. However, without proper exposure even well-bred dogs will often fall short of expectations.
Weather permitting, very young pups can be introduced to the water and swimming. With my last litter, I have videos of introducing pups to water at a mere 5 weeks old. I’ll try to post those on my Cross Timber Gundogs Facebook page in the next few weeks. Not all swam at first, but most did. By the time they left the house all were swimming across the small neck of a pond near my house as they followed my kids and I across. This demonstrates how a new pup owner can begin working with their pup in water at a very young age if the water is warm enough. Keep in mind that small pups have very little body mass and will often get cold easily, so it is best to not push it if in doubt about water temps. You want swimming to be a good experience for them. As they get older, and gain size, you can slowly do water work in increasingly colder water.
There are two ways that I have found that work well when the pup is very young that capitalizes on a young pup’s strong desire to not be left alone. Very young puppies usually very much dislike being left alone. If you think about it, they have never really been alone much at all since the day they were born until the day you pick them up from the breeder’s house. They have always been with their littermates and mother, as well as the breeder’s family, since the day they were born. While a pup is still young this separation anxiety can be used to your advantage in getting them to swim.
A shallow and gentle entry into the water is what you want when choosing the location to first introduce swimming to a young puppy, as a quick drop off soon after entering the water can spook some pups. I have had excellent luck by wading out into the water and calling the pup to me. You don’t want any other dogs or spectators on land with the pup when doing this. If you have others who want to come with you that is fine, but instruct them that “If you plan to come, then you must plan to get wet.” If other dogs or people are standing on the bank with the pup as you wade into the water, then the pup won’t feel a need to come in with you as they will have company with them where they feel safe, on land. You want the pup’s natural inclination to be with you, and their separation anxiety to build to a point, so that their fear of water is overcome by their fear of being left by you. At this point they will often swim out to you.
The method is quite simple. Walk out into the water encouraging them to follow. Assuming they swim out to you, step sideways a few steps before pup reaches you and walk back to land with the pup swimming along behind you back to land. This will allow the pup to learn that once they lose their footing while swimming, they can also regain their footing themselves by returning to land. This is key. If pup reaches you before you side step don’t panic simply reach down and hold pup in water under the belly with one hand and by the collar with the other hand to make him/her feel secure as you pet and praise. Turn them around and point them towards land and release. You don’t want them reaching you and paddling up your leg as this will cause their back legs to sink and make the pup nervous. You want this to be good experience for the puppy as you set them up for success and foster confidence around water.
Using the method above most pups will swim to you as you go further out into the water because they don’t want to be left by you. Praise them and let them know how happy you are when they swim out to you and follow you back. I usually have them swim 3-5 X’s on the first outing and every other time to the water. If they balk and won’t come in on their own you can walk back to the bank and carry them out, face them towards the bank, slowly lower them into the water until they begin to paddle and release them letting them swim back to the bank.
For the second water/swimming intro. method I like to find a small, calm or very slow moving (i.e., if the water is moving quickly at all find another place to do it) canal or part of a pond that is a short distance across but that the pup has to swim to follow you. The place you choose should be situated such that the pup can’t easily run around to the other side while staying on dry ground. I use a pond near my house that has a fairly long neck where the depth of water only goes to my waste at the deepest. It is where the water comes into the pond and a channel has formed. You want water that you can wade across without issue, hit the bank on the other side, and keep walking away from the pup on dry ground. As with the previous method you want to either be alone when doing this with the pup or have the folks coming with you to expect to get wet and follow your lead. Basically, you do exactly what I stated above. You walk up to the edge of the pond or canal with pup following and proceed to walk into the water. Call the pup as you simply walk right across to the bank on the other side. The pup may follow you immediately, but they also may cry and whine and “throw a fit.” Every pup is different. Walk on across encouraging them as you go. Some pups will be following you by the time you get to the far bank, but if not, when you get to the far bank (which may be only 5-10 feet, but may be much further) just keep walking away from them into tall grass or into the woods out of their sight for a few seconds. This is usually enough to get them to come. As you peek out to watch the pup to see what is going on praise them as they conquer their fear and swim across. You can go back and forth across the water a time or two on the first day. Usually they get more confident each time they cross. Hang it up for the day and do this frequently for the first month or so when its warm enough.
Note: If they will not swim willingly with the two methods above you can simply put a leash on them when doing method #2. Do the same thing as described above except have the leash in hand and walk across slowly as the pup swims along in tow. Give them a little slack once they are swimming and have them follow along with you. After a few sessions most pups will willingly follow you across with no leash as described above.
As with most training and exposure exercises with young pups, short frequent sessions are more important and helpful than long marathon sessions. Using the two methods above your pup will gain confidence in the water at a young age. Working on building confidence in the water using these methods, combined with short retrieval exercises with bumpers on land to build enthusiasm for fetching, will put your pup ahead as you work towards shaping them into becoming the hunting dog you are after. Once they are very confident in the water, and are retrieving bumpers with enthusiasm on land, you will be in good shape to combine the two so that they are retrieving from the water as well. Work on the two separately for now and combine them later. In light of that last statement, my next post will likely be about how to get a young pup retrieving on land. This way, you will have some ideas about how to go about that as you look ahead to having a dog that will retrieve from water as well.