LOS ANGELES — When you think of four-legged swimmers, Labrador retrievers might come to mind. But any dog can take to the water if enticed properly.
"I don't think that every dog has an inherent skill. They might all have an idea what to do but some dogs do it much better than others. Some are born to swim. Some are never meant to put foot in the water," said veterinarian Karl E. Jandrey, who works in the emergency and critical care units at the Veterinary Medical Teaching Hospital at the University of California, Davis.
The best way to turn your dog into a swimmer is to introduce water very early, as a puppy if possible, making sure the experience is pleasant, according to recommendations from the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals. Never let dogs get in water over their heads until they are accomplished swimmers, and don't force or toss them in water.
And beware of the risks. Based on emergency room visits, one of the most common backyard pool accidents happens when dogs walk onto soft pool covers. If the cover collapses, the dog gets trapped, struggles and inhales water, Jandrey said.
Another risk, if your dog drinks saltwater at the beach all day, is acute salt intoxication, he said. It's easy to prevent — always carry freshwater for your dog and offer it often. A few gulps of saltwater won't harm your dog, but watch for vomiting and early neurological signs of salt poisoning like dullness and depression. (The chlorine in pool water, on the other hand, is not considered a major problem for dogs.)
In freshwater, dogs, and people, can be infected by a parasite called giardia, which can hide in pristine streams, Jandrey said. Owners can also be exposed by cleaning up waste from infected dogs. Symptoms include mild diarrhea and vomiting.
Backyard ponds may bloom with mold intoxicants that can cause neurological problems, liver disease and liver failure in dogs, Jandrey said.
Owners should also know when their dogs have had enough water play. Panting isn't necessarily a sign of exertion, Jandrey said, it's the way dogs adjust their temperature after getting hot. But if a dog squeaks, rattles, snores or makes other unusual sounds while breathing, a break is probably warranted, he said.
During a dog's first few trips into the water, and for dogs that aren't as coordinated, life preservers or flotation devices can help, Jandrey said.
Products available to protect dogs from sunburn include vests that block ultraviolet rays and sunscreen with ingredients repellent to dogs to keep them from licking it.
The ASPCA recommends rinsing a dog's paws after contact with sand or saltwater, drying a dog's ears after any water contact and brushing dogs with heavy or soft coats after a dip because wet coats can mat and trap bacteria.