Bobbing For Bones: 3 Steps to Swimming with Your Dog


Bobbing For Bones: 3 Steps to Swimming with Your Dog

Nothing beats the heat like having some fun in the water and now more than ever there are water sports we can include our dogs in – boating, swimming, paddle boarding and more. But how do you know if they are having as much fun as you are? Some dogs naturally love water and start swimming as puppies, but some aren’t so keen on the idea of playing around in the water. If you don’t have one of those natural “water dogs,” don’t worry. Bobbing For Bones is a great way to help your dog get used to water, and it works for dogs of all ages!

What You Will Need
  • You will need treats that float. Zuke’s Crunchy Naturals are perfect.
  • You will also need to find a body of water that isn’t too busy and has a gentle incline into deeper water. We don’t want anything that drops off and could scare your dog. Slow moving creeks and rivers work great as well. It’s best if the ground is dirt or sand as rocks are not very comfortable for dogs to walk on and can become slippery.
Dog drinking from stream
Step One

Start by throwing treats on the ground next to where the water starts. Your goal is to leave “bread crumbs” leading to the water. Once your dog is comfortably taking the treats by the water, throw a couple in the water where it is very shallow, no deeper than 6 inches. We want them to learn to take treats out of the water without having to really get into it. It’s like teaching a child to blow bubbles, water on or around the face can be scary. The great thing about having them grab the treats out of the water is the reinforcement timing is perfect, they get the treat right when they grab it out of the water. This is teaching them that treats can and will happen in water.

Dog playing in water
Step Two

When they are hanging out by the water’s edge waiting for more treats, you can slowly increase the depth of where you throw the treat. This is where you need to gauge your dog’s comfort level – don’t throw the treats too far too soon.


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Step Three

Once they have mastered step two, it’s time for you to get in the water with them! I do this by turning it into a “chase me” game into the water. It’s really as simple as it sounds. I grab a treat or a toy, show my dog what I have and run into the water calling them and having them chase me. Now, depending on my dog’s confidence level, I give them the treat or toy at their comfort point. I have one dog that will go in chest deep, so she gets her treat sooner than my other dog who swims with me. This step helps desensitize them to us running and moving quickly by the water and splashing. It also positively reinforces their decision to run into the water on their own.

The Rules
  1. We want to make sure our dogs trust us and are comfortable with us being in the water with them. Make sure to never force or pull a dog into the water in any way. Some dogs are not strong swimmers naturally and forcing them can elicit panic, having an aversive effect.
  2. Make sure your dog is healthy enough for swimming. If you’re not sure, talk to your vet. If you want to use a life jacket, be sure to properly desensitize your pup before you go to the water.
  3. As with all new physical activity keep it short and fun; swimming is a whole body workout for your dog. A good rule of thumb: you only want to use a handful of cookies per training session – when the treats are gone, the training is over!

Have fun and cool off with your dog!

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About the Author

Amber Pickren, Gentle Canine

Amber Pickren, BA, CPDT-KA, is the owner of Gentle Canine in Durango, Colorado. After earning her bachelor’s degree in psychology, Amber found her passion working with dogs and has never looked back. With a specialty in behavioral issues, she has been training dogs since 2004 and easily handled over 10,000 dogs in the span of her career. Amber and her husband Matt share their life with dogs Lilly, Imogene, and cat Dyno. They love getting out into the mountains and enjoy rock climbing, trail running and hiking with their four-legged adventure buddies.
Amber Pickren