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Canine Behavior/Swimming and water phobias


I know this may sound ridiculous but we have two Maltese that can't swim, or aren't confident in the water. They're both between 5-8 kg and are almost four. Lily is a bit bigger and she has long legs, she is loyal and playful and normally isn't scared of anything (other then being anti-social) but will not go near waves and claws when she does swim. Sugar is smaller with stubby legs, we think she may be the runt. She is very loving and tender, if a bit afraid. We've been trying to get them used to water for a while now and one (Lily) can swim but is still afraid and the other (Sugar) flounders around until someone helps her. We have bought them life jackets and are yet to try them out but have you got any tips that could help us. Not many websites have info on how to help a dog get over a phobia of water, only on how to teach them to swim. My sister (10) and I (13) have been trying to teach them, so if possible could your information be child friendly.
Thank you so much

Unless a dog (any dog) has been habituated to (this means: introduced to, and consistently exposed to, something) by approximately 14 weeks of age (give or take), the dog may very well avoid that "thing", be fearful of it, be uncomfortable with it, etc. and will require rehabilitation.

In this case, the breed type of your dog(s) is not genetically predisposed to water.  Both dogs have not apparently been exposed from an early age.  It is not humane to subject any dog to something it outright fears UNLESS, of course, that "something" is a daily experience (dogs fearful of sidewalks, dogs fearful of grass, dogs fearful of other dogs or small children, etc.)

My suggestion:  don't encourage these dogs any further and do not deliberately put them into a situation which requires them to experience fear.  Once the fight/flight response is engaged (a biological response which involves adrenaline and which does not involve cognition/thought process) it is impossible to get around it without elaborate counter conditioning.  Now: let's say you had a Labrador Retriever.  This is a "water dog" meaning: the breed is genetically predisposed to go after an object (hunted prey) even if it means going into the water.  However, even such a breed type requires careful, persistent exposure to water, to gun shots (since people use long guns to take down birds such as ducks), etc. from very early age and really should be acquired from a breeder whose line (the dogs in his/her breeding program) have field titles/hunting titles (meaning: AKC awards for excelling at what they were bred to do).

If your dogs accompany you on board your boat, they should wear life jackets.  They should not be forced, for any reason, to enter the water.  Allow me to point out to you what you probably already know: the White Shark and Tiger Shark populations around Australia are presently being "culled".  This is an outrageous and idiotic practice BUT it is being done anyway for the protection of humans AND OTHER ANIMALS including dogs.  A Tiger Shark is capable of beaching itself to go after prey, and then wiggling back into the undertow with the prey in its mouth.  These dogs have no business in the water where you live.

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Jill Connor, Ph.D.


I have spent my entire professional life rehabilitating the behavior of the domestic dog and I can answer any question regarding any behavior problem in any breed dog. I have answered more than 5,000 QUESTIONS on this site in the past (almost) eight years. If you are a caring, committed owner and need advice, I'm here for you. I am personally acquainted with my colleagues (Turid Rugaas, Ian Dunbar, etc.) who were members of an elite group in EGroups that I founded: K9Shrinks. THERE ARE NO QUICK FIXES for serious behavioral issues; not only is it unprofessional to offer same, it is also unethical. IF I ASK YOU SUBSEQUENT QUESTIONS, I NEED YOU TO INTERACT WITH ME. More information equals more credible answers and a more successful outcome. If you want ANSWERS THAT WORK, participate in any way I request. I'm quite committed to working on this site for YOUR benefit and the benefit of YOUR DOG. Help me in any way you can.


30 years of solving serious behavior problems in domestic dogs; expert in dog to human aggression; Internet columnist for for 5 years; former radio talk show host, WHPC.FM, Garden City, NY "Bite Back" (1995 through 2000). List owner, international animal behavior experts, Seminar leader: "Operant Conditioning and Learning"; "Aggression in The Domestic Dog"; "Solving Problem Behaviors" -- conducted for various training facilities on Long Island from 1993 through 2000. Former clinical director of "Behavioral Abnormalities" in conjunction with Mark Beckerman, DVM, Hempstead, New York.

Member, APDT (UK); Psychologists in Ethical Treatment with Animals

Harcourt Brace Learning Direct: "The Business of Dog Training" "The Fail Safe Dog: Brain Training, not Pain Training"

Ph.D., UC Berkeley

Past/Present Clients
Board of Directors: Northeast Dog Rescue Connection; The Dog Project; Sav-A-Dog Foundation; etc. Pro Bono counselor: Little Shelter Humane Society My practice is presently limited to forensics. I diagnose cause of dog bite, based upon testimony before the Court, for attorneys and insurance companies litigating dog bites, including fatal injuries. I also do pro bono work for bona fide rescue organizations, humane societies, et al, regarding such analysis in an effort to obtain release for dogs being held for death in municipal shelters in the US.

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