My Pet World: Dog is anxious around the swimming pool, but seems 'ok' once in the water
We have an inground pool in our backyard. Our daughter and her family live two hours away, so they are not here often. She has a sweet, well-behaved Goldendoodle. When they visit during the summer, the dog gets very agitated/excited when people are swimming. She runs around, barking, and tries to jump in the pool on top of the kids. Once she is in the pool, she swims around ok, but she tries to paw if she gets near anyone. She has to be gently pushed away because her nails scratch. Sometimes someone will restrain her on the patio on a leash, but we would like to find a way to let her swim safely.
— Tom, West Hartford, Connecticut
When kids play in the pool, they sometimes look like they are flaying. A dog, whose instinct is to protect his family, may feel anxious and helpless or overstimulated in this environment. Since your granddog eventually gets into the pool (assuming this is on her own and she is never forced in), she is either stressed by being in the water or by the rambunctious activities around her. Her pawing everyone once in the pool is a sign of her continued anxiety.
You can address this in several ways. First, don't let her run around and jump in the pool independently. Keep her on a leash, so at the very least, she won't jump into the water and cause injury to anyone in the pool.
Second, put a life jacket on her. Make sure it fits snuggly as this will mimic an anxiety wrap, which can calm an anxious dog. At the same time, the life jacket also buoys her in the water. She may be pawing you because she doesn't feel stable. A life jacket removes that fear.
Next, teach her to step into the pool (not jump) using encouragement and positive reinforcement. Make sure everyone is out of the pool when you do this. I don't expect you to tell your grandkids to stop playing loudly in the pool. But you could institute a policy where the kids get to swim for 45 to 50 minutes, then they have to take a break (and eat popsicles) while the dog goes in for her training/water time.
Once she is in the water, let her know that she is doing a good job through positive language and tone. You might even put a floating toy in the pool to try to get her attention. If she gets overexcited or anxious and paws you, then take her out of the pool and try again the next hour.
Finally, your daughter should teach her to "sit" and "stay." I am sure she has, but most dogs only learn to sit and stay in one or two environments (i.e., around the house or out in the back yard.) Dogs must be trained to listen to your commands in different environments with increasing levels of distraction.
Another way to reinforce “stay” is to train a dog to stay on a small carpet or towel, and then have your daughter always bring that carpet or towel to your house. Dogs will sometimes learn to "stay" more quickly if they are asked to stay on the same square of fabric each time.
Dogs are always on alert so it’s important to teach and train the dog to relax as well. Train the dog to “stay” and then wait for what I call the "roll and sigh." When a dog first goes into a stay position, they usually drop on all fours. It's not a relaxed position, but one that allows them to pop up the first chance they get, which they always do when there’s a distraction.
It's not until the dog rolls onto one hip and lets out a sigh that your dog is showing a relaxed state. Reward a relaxed state with praise or treats, regardless of whether you asked the dog to stay or not. If the dog feels any responsibility for the lives in the pool, helping her relax and letting her know you got this will help make for a more enjoyable experience for everyone.
If these things don't help, put her on a tie-down or trolley system, so she can remain outside, and doesn’t require someone to hold onto a leash the entire time. Make sure she is in the shade and only out when you are out. If she continues to be anxious, you may have to keep her in the house until she receives more training.
(Cathy M. Rosenthal is a longtime animal advocate, author, columnist and pet expert who has more than 25 years in the animal welfare field. Send your pet questions, stories and tips to email@example.com. Please include your name, city, and state. You can follow her @cathymrosenthal.)
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