Water safety for dogs

New Zealander Geoff Cox makes sure his dog Ralph surfs safelyIf your dog loves to swim, her favorite time of year is coming. The weather's warming up, and that means taking the cover off the pool, or heading to rivers and lakes for day trips and long weekends.

But even dogs who take to water like big furry fish can run into trouble at the water's edge. Keep your canines safe (if not dry!) this summer with just a little bit of prep and prevention.

Supervision. Don't let your dogs walk, run, or play near a backyard pool, or nearby pond or creek, unless you can keep an eye on them. If you have a pool, fence it off for safety (this can prevent harm from coming to kids and cats as well); make it even more secure by installing an alarm that will sound when an object of a certain size – a Cocker Spaniel or a small child – falling into the water. Gina Spadafori's helpful article suggests in-pool "escape ramps" as a good idea, but you shouldn't rely on them exclusively.

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Education. Make sure your dog knows what to do when he's in the pool – namely, how to get out quickly. It seems obvious to us that the stairs are only on one side; dogs may not get it, and unsuccessful attempts to get out the other side could tire them out, then lead to drowning. Spend time with dogs in the pool to help them learn and remember exit locations. (Spadafori suggests a visual cue like contrasting paint on the steps, or marking the fence behind them, to reinforce the location.)

Obedience. Knowing that your dog understands commands, and will obey them, is critical to keeping him safe when swimming. Calling him away from bodies of water – or calling him back to you WHILE he's swimming, should he head into deep water or a faster-moving section of river – is important. Don't be afraid to limit his swimming time if he's a little slow or willful about returning to you.

You don't want to learn the hard way that Fido is a selective listener, so just in case, pack extra chase toys. If he's swimming towards a rapids in pursuit of, say, a stick, you may be able to get him back towards you with a second stick or squeezy porcupine that you throw closer to you. Solid training is better, but why take chances.

Preparation. Simply eyeballing the area is a good idea. If the waves seem too high, there's signage posted about undertow, or the river is running fast or full of debris, skip it and come back another time.

A quick internet check of conditions where you're headed can prevent disappointment as well. Be aware of possible dangers before you pack up your pooch's water wings: algae on standing water in the late summer; "red tides" and jellyfish infestations on ocean beaches; tainted-water warnings; and riptides are a few conditions that should spell dry land for your dog.

And take a first-aid/CPR course for pets. Your local Red Cross may hold these classes, and summer swimming is just one time they might come in handy for you or a pet. Accidents happen, and a dog who nearly drowns or has hypothermia from a swim gone wrong could be saved by your expertise.

Flotation. In addition to being super-cute, "swimmies" are a good back-up plan for older dogs, dogs with disabilities, or pets who really love the water but aren't so hot at swimming. Bonus: if Max goes overboard during a family fishing trip, the handles on these devices make it easier to pull him back onboard.

Attention. Just as humans can, dogs can get too hot while swimming. Make sure your dog has fresh water, and drinks it regularly. (Not least so he's not tempted to drink chlorinated, or microbe-y, water.) And keep an eye on his energy levels as well; "tired" is fine, but "too tired to paddle" could lead to drowning.

Younger and older dogs need you to stay even more alert. Puppies may jump in with abandon, then panic once they're in the water. Senior dogs, meanwhile, may try to swim like their younger selves, but get tired more quickly. Stay close to shore (or pool apron), and wrap things up after a short swim.

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