Can Dogs Swim Underwater? (Explained By Vet Tech)

dog briefly swimming under water

There are plenty of concerns that will come up when owning a dog; you just want to make them as safe and happy as possible. And there’s nothing wrong with that! It is better to know definitively one way or the other than take a chance and have it turn out terribly for your pup!

So, you turn to the internet, your veterinarian, a dog trainer, or some knowledgeable friends to find out the truth behind those worries swirling around in your head. Growing more confident as your questions are getting answered, your mind arrives at the next dilemma:

Can dogs dive and swim underwater?

Yes, dogs can dive underwater and enjoy it if properly trained! They automatically know to hold their breath underwater thanks to the mammalian diving reflex, holding their breath on average for 5-8 seconds. While it is safe for dogs to swim underwater, you must take precautions and remember that certain breeds aren’t natural swimmers! 

So, there is your short answer to the complex question! Keep reading for a deep dive into the science behind a dog swimming underwater and the dangers to look out for when you take your pooch out for some fun in the sun!

Can Dogs Swim Underwater?

It’s no doubt that people have let their dogs swim for centuries, and certain breeds were even used to work in and around the water, making them natural-born swimmers!

I must emphasize certain breeds, though. Bulldogs, Boxers, Pugs, Pomeranians, and Chihuahuas are among the group that wasn’t exactly bred for water play, and we can see the struggle from them today when trying to doggy paddle!

But what about any dog actually diving underneath the surface of the water?

It turns out that this activity is still possible for your canine companion no matter the breed! They may not become a professional free diver, but dogs have managed to impress us with this skill nonetheless.

Proper training from a young age helps your pup associate water with a positive experience rather than being afraid of it. Swim training is always a great idea, especially if you ever go on a vacation and visit a water feature or if you have your very own backyard pool!

This will minimize the chances your dog hides at the sight of water, and you can all have an enjoyable weekend knowing your dog is safe. He must feel confident about swimming in order to try his luck at a dive or two!

While the less adept breeds may not dive so naturally, don’t count them out. Boxers can be taught to dive for toys while getting their exercise in and staying cool!

Dogs will dive with ease so long as they are fully comfortable being in the water, trained, and they realize it isn’t a hazardous thing but rather an adventure-packed day!

Do Dogs Know To Hold Their Breath Underwater?

The short answer to this question is yes!

Dogs, like all mammals, have an instinctual response to start holding their breath once they submerge their face below water. It isn’t something we can teach ourselves, our dogs, or any other organism! Nature has certain instincts hard-wired into our brains to help keep us alive. Thanks to nifty evolution, you won’t have to worry about your dog swallowing heaps of seawater or chlorine.

Let’s discuss the fascinating science behind dogs naturally holding their breath when going underwater!

How Do They Know To Hold Their Breath?

Dogs are born with the innate ability to begin holding their breath once their face hits the water. All mammals are actually able to do this from birth, even human infants!

This is due to the mammalian diving reflex, a physiological and involuntary response that stops the body from breathing when there is no more access to fresh oxygen. Once submerged, the body will selectively shut down certain areas in order to conserve energy and promote the chances of survival.

Research has been done widely on aquatic mammals (seals, dolphins, and whales) to understand their specific adaptations using this reflex. However, terrestrial mammals are included in studies as well due to some base similarities in this unique capability.

When your pup dives underwater, its blood vessels constrict and its heart rate drops. The oxygen stored in the blood and muscles is then used to provide oxygen until those supplies are consumed. Have you ever been swimming underwater and felt a strong urge to head back up to the surface and gasp for air? That is your dive limit, where your body is telling you it simply needs more oxygen and you are not a mermaid!

Your pooch will know both when it is time to start holding his breath to not inhale water and when to come up for some air- all thanks to this evolutionary adaptation!

How Long Can Dogs Hold Their Breath Underwater?

On average, dogs can hold their breath for 5-8 seconds when they dive under the surface!

This number will vary depending on the kind of breed you own! Brachycephalic breeds will have a more challenging time holding their breath thanks to their shorter snout. These pups get less oxygen before diving underwater since they breathe primarily through their nose rather than their mouth (which is also why you see them pant from exercise quicker).

There are a few other factors dependent on breed, size, age, and individual health, all affecting the time able to be spent underwater.

Some pooches can go underwater for longer than 8 seconds too, especially if they really want that toy at the bottom of the pool, or in this case some fresh lobster!

Is It Safe For Dogs To Swim Underwater?

I don’t believe anything in life is 100% safe to do, but plenty of acts are mostly safe. Your dog swimming underwater is one of those instances where he is likely going to be safe thanks to his natural instincts and probably have the best day of his life!

However, certain types of dogs will run a higher risk of having problems while swimming underwater, such as smaller and brachycephalic breeds.

Smaller dogs with shorter legs have greater difficulty propelling themselves through the water, which could spell trouble if they accidentally dove too deep! And Brachycephalic pups have shorter airways and shorter snouts, giving them the short end of the stick for swimming underwater overall.

If you have a dog historically bred to work or retrieve in the water, you should not worry about his safety too much (though read below for precautions to take no matter what). This is what they were meant to do and will appreciate any opportunity they get to swim and dive to their heart’s content!

What Precautions Should I Take With A Diving Dog?

Growing up in the hot desert summers of Nevada, my siblings and I found an enjoyable, cooling outlet every day: our swimming pool! Our dogs would always run around the edges of the pool while we splashed around, and once we got old enough, we started to train them to swim in the water with us.

Now, they were five Chihuahuas and a Mini Pin, so I wouldn’t say they were born to swim by any means! But, with time, two of them learned to jump onto the first step by themselves and take that big leap to swim over to us. They never dove under the water, and I am honestly glad they never felt inclined to!

Ear Infections

The older I got and the more I learned, I understood that we dodged a risky situation: ear infections!

Swimming underwater contributes to the likelihood that your dog will develop an ear infection and the water can exacerbate the symptoms. And scientists have found that the breeds with floppier ears are more prone to these repeating cases of ear infections. This is like the perfect tornado, as many of the breeds naturally drawn to water are characterized by droopy ears!

Your dog also has a longer ear canal than humans do, trapping water inside to sit there are let bacteria grow out of control. Yuck! Be sure to clean your pup’s ears after each swim and keep an eye out for excessive shaking or any symptoms of an ear infection forming.

Always Supervise

Now, ears aren’t the only thing you should be aware of when you take your pup swimming with you.

Back to my story, we would never let our dogs swim by themselves! Especially given they were smaller breeds with shorter legs, they weren’t exactly Olympic-rated athletes. Even if you have a large dog that was bred for water sports, it still isn’t wise to let them dive below the water unattended.

Even with the mammalian diving response, it is still possible for any dog to end up drowning if they swim underwater for too long. You could also end up dealing with water intoxication, which is where your dog actually ingests too much water. This is known as hyponatremia, and though rare, it is serious and the onset should be noticeable quickly.

Check Water Quality

Water quality is important as your pup will inevitably swallow some water during the dive or swim. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve consumed saltwater from beach and boat days! Different bodies of water can contain harmful bacteria, such as giardia, leptospirosis, algae toxins, and a few others. These are not situations that you or your dog will want to deal with, so be sure to check in advance to make proper arrangements!

Avoid Overexhaustion

Look out for signs of exhaustion! Colder water can tire dogs out more and short-hair breeds can run a risk of developing hypothermia. Sometimes dogs don’t want to stop playing, and we will have to be the bad cop to settle them and make sure that they recover from the intense exercise.

A safe option is to buy a lifevest for your fur baby to wear while swimming. They may not be able to dive as easily wearing it, but it will lessen the chance of drowning (and give you more time to reach them) if they get stuck in a bit of a pickle!

Now, I don’t want to scare you away from bringing your pup out for a lake, river, beach, or pool day!

It is a great bonding opportunity for you both and an enjoyable experience for your dog to give them some fun diving in the water. Even with grown adults, mistakes happen! Sometimes things don’t go as planned, so you just have to be aware of anything that might make a great situation turn ugly in the blink of an eye. They are your child, so do what you can to protect them at all costs!

Closing Thoughts

When properly introduced to the water and trained, dogs can swim just fine! While there are certain breeds that take to the water almost immediately, others might need that little push. However, all breeds can eventually swim and dive safely underneath the water if they get support and confidence from you!

Dogs automatically know to hold their breath when submerged thanks to the mammalian diving reflex, so you don’t have to worry about your pup drowning from heaps of water. Just be cautious when taking him out for a water day as there will always be some danger associated with a new element.

As long as you’ve prepared your pup and can supervise his diving, you should be in for some memorable experiences!

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