How Different Dog Breeds Respond to Hydrotherapy

May 25, 2023 | Hydrotherapy for Animals

~ “Thanks to Angela Griffiths from Greyfriars for her valuable input and photographs for this blog”

All dogs can swim? I certainly believed that all dogs could swim, until the day I saw a young dog in the water, thrashing about with the forelimbs, head held as high as possible out of the water, and the hind end sunk, nowhere to be seen – a recipe for drowning, as he wasn’t able to propel himself forward or lift his hind end back up, and would doubtless fatigue very quickly at the rate he was going.

For an owner, this can be a shocking and terrifying experience, not to mention surprising, as it’s the last thing we generally expect. As hydrotherapists, we usually see these dogs only after they have had such a near-drowning experience, which can be traumatic and difficult to overcome.

While there are certainly breeds that have been bred to work in the water, even within these breeds we see individuals that defy the norm and need some help learning how to negotiate the water. Angela Griffiths shares her experience of this interesting fact, as indicated by “a few litters of UK customs dogs, including English springer spaniels and Labrador retrievers, that have came to Greyfriars to learn to swim. Two out of the seven pups in these litters did not naturally swim.

Let’s look at some of the tendencies we can expect from different types and breeds of dogs:

Deep Chested Dogs

For dogs with deep, wide chests, swimming can be really challenging, as the position of the air in their bodies affects their buoyancy and center of balance, causing them to be unstable in the water, with a tendency to tip over. This can lead to a lack of confidence around water, which can make life challenging for the therapist, depending on the size of the dog. These could include great Danes, boxers, greyhounds and daschunds, to name a few breeds that come to mind.

Very Dense Dogs

These dogs often have a thickset body with shorter limbs, and can be brachiocephalic as well. The increased density of the body will cause them to tend to sink, and with their short limbs they may find it very difficult to create the necessary forward and upward propulsion and thrust they need to stay above water. Offering these dogs additional support, as well as a gentle and slowly progressive introduction to swimming, can really help them learn to negotiate the water confidently and safely. Breeds like Staffordshire terriers, American bulldogs, English bulldogs, dogue de Bordeux and some of the more heavily built mastiffs or mastiff crosses come to mind.

Brachycephalic Dogs

For these gorgeous breeds, protecting their airways is a daily challenge that is simply compounded in the water. During exercise it is important for these dogs to breath through an open mouth, which will increase the risk of aspirating water. This makes it essential for the hydrotherapist to use an additional flotation device, and to assist the dog at all times to ensure that the airway remains safely out of the water. Breeds that come to mind include French bulldogs, Boston terriers, pugs and boxers.

In addition to structure and body type, the general personality trend of the breed, and of the individual dog, plays a role in determining how easily the dog takes to water. Some will have personalities that really challenge our ingenuity and creativity!

Strong Willed & Intelligent

Highly intelligent breeds can form strong opinions about certain activities, and once these dogs decide they don’t want to do something, changing their minds can be near impossible! Getting the correct motivators in place from the beginning can be beneficial, allowing the dog to experience the value and fun of hydrotherapy. Some of the breeds that come to mind are German shepherds and Border collies, although even golden retrievers may form a negative association with water. Golden retrievers often seem to go through a second fear phase at about 18 months to two years old.

High Energy / High Drive Dogs

Highly excitable and energetic dogs can be a real challenge in the water. They are often completely unafraid and unaware of their exuberant movements and their surroundings, leading them into potentially tricky positions and situations that may be hard for a therapist to control. Boxers, Border collies, Staffordshire bull terriers and Jack Russell terriers are prime examples of this type.

Panicky Dogs

Dogs that have a poor swimming technique (Dobermans and Ridgebacks come to mind) and are high energy and prone to panic in the water, leading them to claw at and try to climb onto the therapists’ head! Keeping these dogs relaxed and supported and continuing to build their confidence is essential to a positive outcome. Once they learn a more appropriate swimming technique, they become more calm and confident. Positive reinforcement and appropriate motivation can really help them to overcome their fear and uncertainty. Panicky dogs may be found in any breed, but can often be seen in red setters, great Danes, Dobermans, Weimeraners, Irish setters, some greyhounds, and Bernese mountain dogs. This fear-based behavior and lack of swimming ability may well be sparked by their body type, and their resultant lack of stability in the water.

It is so important to be aware of the individuality of the dog as well as the tendency of the breed. We need to be acutely aware that even among the most water-loving breeds, there will be individuals who are afraid of the water and find themselves unable to swim. Likewise, even within the most water-averse breeds, you will find individuals who naturally enjoy water and swim well. Our sensitivity to each dog in front of us will be crucial as we ease them into the water and help them derive the maximum benefit from hydrotherapy.

If you would like to learn more about the research in hydrotherapyhydro for elbow dysplasiaHydro for amputeesHydro for Obesity, and Swimmers Syndrome in puppies – check out the linked articles.  


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1 Comment

  1. Loved this article, I can so relate… remember sparky climbing up our neck on training in CT in 2016 as only Angela could handle him xx


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