For dogs, jumping in the water can be sink or swim

Did you know not all dogs can stay afloat? At a canine training facility near Ottawa, there are lessons for that.

Renfrew training facility offers canine swimming lessons

Meg, a nine-month-old golden retriever, wears a life-jacket to build up her confidence in the pool at Avalon Ranch in Renfrew, Ont. (Robyn Miller/CBC)

On a farm just outside Renfrew, Ont., nine-month-old Meg is getting buckled into a red life-jacket. The golden retriever puppy is about to have her second swimming lesson.

"Some dogs just do it naturally — you put them in water and they go. Some dogs just aren't built for it, like little French bulldogs, they actually sink like a rock," said Mary Spurrell, owner of the Avalon Ranch dog training facility.

The Avalon Ranch dog sports training facility has been teaching dogs how to swim and safely dive off a docks for the past 10 years. 1:53

For 10 years, Spurrell has been showing dogs like Meg how to jump off a dock and paddle in the pool on her property — skills many dog owners believe their pets possess naturally.

According to Spurrell, that's not always the case. But there are ways to teach them confidence in the water.

"Even dogs that lack confidence, we put life-jackets on them and it boosts their confidence. Then when you take it off, they magically have the confidence instilled in them," she said.

Christine and Murray Short sit with Meg, who just finished her second swimming lesson. (Robyn Miller/CBC)

Meg's owners, Christine and Murray Short, beam with pride as their dog takes her first cautious plunge off the padded dock and into the pool. They heard about the lessons online and immediately enrolled.

"You want your dog to learn how to do it properly so they don't get injured," Christine Short said.

"Meg is a very high-energy dog, which is probably typical of all goldens, and I just needed something to keep her occupied. And when it's really hot, what better place than in a pool?"

Spurrell said the pool at Avalon Ranch is booked solid through the summer, with dogs coming from as far afield as Montreal. Some are there for lessons, some come to train for competitive diving and some keep coming just for the fun of it.

Mary Spurrell has helped train Arlo for years. The German shepherd now competes in dog diving at a national level. (Robyn Miller/CBC)

"I like seeing dogs off the couch, I like seeing dogs have fun and do activities," Spurrell said.

A common misconception

Dr. Kevin McIntosh, a veterinarian at the Algonquin and Prince of Wales Animal Hospital, said there's a common misconception that all dogs possess an innate ability to swim.

"Any dog will naturally try and do the instinctual dog paddle when they're put in the water, but it doesn't necessarily mean they can stay afloat," McIntosh said. "Any of those big barrel-chested breeds just don't have the right ratio to swim properly."

Karen Wood's dog, Arlo, is one of the breeds that excels in the water. The German shepherd competes in dog diving at a national level and trains at the Renfrew facility.

Arlo's owner, Karen Wood, credits her German shepherd with helping her fight depression. (Robyn Miller/CBC)

Wood, who used to show horses, says her failing health and chronic pain led her to dog sports instead.

"I'm very proud of him, and he's gotten me out of the house, and if I have a bad day, he's right there," Wood said.

Dog owners can rent the pool at Avalon Ranch for $35 per hour or $20 for 30 minutes, but they first must take a half-hour private lesson for $45.

This summer, a dog sports training facility west of Ottawa is booked solid with swimming lessons. 3:58

Dog owners at the facility said it's worth the cost, particularly for those who don't have access to a cottage on a lake.

"[The dogs] go crazy," said Christine Cimaglia, who brings her standard poodles for a dip on a regular basis. "They just love it."

Christine Cimaglia rents the pool for her dogs on a regular basis. Sometimes they need encouragement. (Robyn Miller/CBC)


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