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I have owned exactly one dog in my whole life who loved the water. He was a yorkipoo, and his name was Coakoa (spelled that way, I was eight when I named him). He used to jump off of docks and river banks to fetch sticks. He would do this for hours if you let him. That’s it though. I have never had a dog since who enjoyed water.

I guess maybe I should have thought about investing in a good Labrador retriever if I wanted a water dog so badly (and I did want a water dog, I’m a Pisces after all), but a Lab just wasn’t in my stars. Instead I ended up with two German shepherds, both of which hate the water. Or at least, used to hate the water.

Smokey and Shelby hanging out at the creek on Sunday

 When we first rescued Smokey he was afraid of just about everything he came into contact with, except his kennel (I guess that’s all he ever really knew, so it was comfortable for him), so it should come as no surprise that he was also extremely terrified of the water. The first time we took him to the creek, he just stared at it. When we took a step closer, he laid down and refused.

Shelby wasn’t much different, although I guess I kind of thought she would be. I think I must have thought she would just bound into the water with joyful, fearless abandon and everything would be hunky dory. As it turns out, that’s not really the case, at least, not with my dog.

Smokey and Shelby both had to be trained to enjoy the water (I literally just heaved a huge sigh while I typed that), just like they had to be trained to sit and speak and herd sheep and jump through hoops and all the neat things that they do now.  I was kind of hoping this at least was a little more automatic. Unfortunately, not much seems to be automatic with these dogs.

So how did we do it? Magic.

Just kidding. I wish I had magic, if I did my house would be a whole lot cleaner.

Our dogs both learned how to get into the water through free shaping. It started out with a small, quiet creek for Smokey and a baby pool for Shelby. Whenever either would get near the “object” (in this case the water), they would get a click and a treat. The first day that we started this, no one got wet. We were just encouraging and rewarding them to be near the water without crouching low and refusing or jumping back and pulling.

Here is Shelby being allowed to dig in the sand (reinforcement) and being treated for staying on the beach near the lake on our very first attempt at shaping this behavior.

The second day, we went through the same routine as the day before, step near, click, other foot, click, get by the water, click, put your nose to the water, click, drink some water, click. The process moved faster, so we could click bigger movements. Then the really important focusing hard part came along.

See, part of the game of free shaping and one of the reasons it works so well, is because the dog is so caught up on feeling good (scientists call this turning on the dog’s “SEEKING” system) that she doesn’t have a moment to feel bad (turning on the “FEAR” system). So when you get to the point where the dog could and would normally be feeling FEAR, you need to really amp up the SEEKING system by rewarding often. FEAR is quite possibly one of the oldest and most primitive emotions an animal possesses (many believe that it came with mammals as they evolved from reptiles), therefore, it is mighty strong, so you need some powerful reinforces to overcome it. That’s why when you get to this stage in free shaping you need to really be clicking and treating every few seconds.

See that paw up there? She got clicked for that.

So it goes something like this – a slight twinge in the right paw, click, a fraction of the inch lowering of the head, click, a small lift of the left paw, click. As the dog gets more and more excited, the movements will become bigger. You want to make sure you aren’t clicking anything that is counterproductive (i.e. don’t click the dog turning around away from the “object”), but feel free to click anything and everything that could reasonably lead to an interaction with the “object”. In other words, a slight twinge in the right paw could lead to the dog lifting it and putting it in the water, same as lifting any paw. The lowering of the head even a small bit could lead the dog to put its nose to the water or even put its nose the whole way in.

After several short sessions of this, you may actually get your dog to get into the water. Don’t fret if he or she doesn’t. Some dogs have more fear to overcome than others. It took us months to get Smokey into the water at all. Now he will happily jump in whenever he sees it. It took us only one short session to get Shelby into the creek, but she still won’t get into her baby pool. That’s the other thing, try different locations. There might be something going on with the location you’ve chosen. Maybe the water makes a scary noise (Smokey hated the sound of the water lapping against the beach of a lake, but when we took him to a creek, he hopped right in), or maybe there are too many people or distracting smells around. When you take your dog to a bunch of different kind of water spots, he takes a hyper specific memory of “That water over there at x spot was good, because I got fed” and turns it into a more generalized category of “Water is good, because I get fed every time I see it”.

Shelby hanging out in the creek.

Shelby has only had two or three water locations so far, so she still seems to have those hyper specific memories. “The water at that one bank of Marsh Creek to the right of the ruins where the bush smells like honeysuckle is good because I get fed there.” But she hasn’t generalized yet, hence, why she won’t get in her baby pool.

Now, once you get your pup into the water, you have to make sure to really lay on the reinforcement. And I mean, really. Every step the dog takes, you should be praising and petting and jackpot feeding. You want the dog to think the water is the best thing ever. Because think about it – the water has a lot of things going on. There are fish (if you’re in a natural body of water), which could be scary (or chaseable, in Shelby’s case), there are tons of new smells, especially if you are at the beach and the dog has never smelled salt water, there are lots of new noises, it feels different, it’s a different temperature, the list goes on and on and on. The stimuli are impressive, especially seen through a dog’s eyes (or, more appropriately, smelled through a dog’s nose), so you really want to just make it the most positive experience you can.

Mom!!! Fish are like birds that I can chase in the water!

Keep the sessions short, five to ten minutes, then get out and let the dog do something she really enjoys, like sniffing nearby trees or grass, or digging in the sand. Praise graciously.

These guys got a hike on Sunday as their big reward for doing so well with the water. Here is Smokey lounging about on a big rotting tree.

I have seen people throw their frightened dogs into large bodies of water to get them to swim. Swimming is instinctual. If you do this to a dog, he is going to swim, but that doesn’t make it right. That’s called flooding, and as I’ve written about it before I’m not going to again. However, I really urge people not to use this tactic, as it can really sour the whole experience for the dog. The water goes from being fun to being even more frightening. And while flooding in some situations does work, it can really backfire too.

I know that it sometimes seems like it takes forever to teach new things, but in the end, doesn’t your best friend deserve your best effort?

Look at me mom! I’m not scared of the water anymore!