Many dogs, and many people don’t enjoy swimming at the beach. The expanse of water can be huge, the waves unpredictable and it is noisy – this can be quite overwhelming for a dog.
We have two choices. Some dogs are happy to play in the sand, run up and down the beach, and occasionally snap at an incoming wave. My dogs Elfie and Binkie fall into this category. Swimming for them is a form of extreme torture. The number one choice here is embrace our dog’s need to stay on terra firma – I am very happy to let my dogs enjoy being on the sand.
Our second option is to train our dogs to like swimming in the surf. We would do this using a cool training technique called “shaping.” Shaping can be thought of as taking steps up a ladder to get to the roof. We know what our destination or goal is – we want our dog to play in the surf. We know where we are starting – let’s say our dog can happily stand 2 metres away from the water. We then work out what the steps are – also called approximations. We reward each approximation. These are the approximations I would expect:
Start behaviour: 2 metres from water edge
Goal behaviour: Our dog in surf
Step 1: look at surf
Step 2: face head toward surf
Step 3: move foot toward surf
Step 4: move closer to surf
Step 5: get one foot wet
Step 6: get both front feet wet
Step 7: get all 4 feet wet
Step 8: move into the water
Some truly amazing behaviours can be taught with this method. Initially, we would reinforce step one – look at surf. Reinforcement can be a food treat, a pat or praise. Personally, I would use a very special food treat.
I also love clicker training and would use a . The reinforcement needs to occur immediately when the dog looks at the water. The timing is very important! We don’t want to reinforce the look away as this would be counterproductive.
Once the dog can reliably look at the water, we stop rewarding this and only reinforce facing the water. Once we reliably face the water, we only reward moving feet towards the water, and so on and so forth, until we reach the top of the ladder.
Words of caution – this method works but requires patience. Do NOT be tempted to just throw your dog in and see if they can work it out. This is terrifying and will scare your dog into fearing masses of water.
And remember, the aim is fun. Take the steps slowly and make sure your dog is a willing learner. Training should always be fun or we may need to change the method to suit our dog.
Dr Katie Hankins
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