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dog holding breath in water

Can Dogs Hold Their Breath — Underwater or Under the Covers?

We look at whether dogs can hold their breath naturally, and if they can be trained to hold their breath. We also give you tips to help your dog learn to swim safely.

Most everyone knows about dogs’ incredible sense of smell and their wide range of hearing, but few probably know whether dogs are able to hold their breath or not. Whether they are buried under sheets and blankets on a bed or diving underwater to retrieve a toy in the pool, we wonder: Can dogs hold their breath?

Is it Possible for Dogs to Hold Their Breath?

If you’ve ever discovered your dog sleeping deep under the covers of your bed, you may have wondered how dogs can even breathe under thick sheets and blankets. In these instances, they are breathing the limited air that makes its way through the fabric. There’s no way they could hold their breath and sleep simultaneously for any period of time!

But when you see a dog plunge underwater to fetch a toy, they are definitely holding their breath. But why do dogs hold their breath? The answer is simple: survival.

Can All Dogs Swim?

Let’s start by looking at a dog’s ability to swim with their head above water. Many dogs are natural swimmers. One of the best swimming breeds is the Labrador Retriever. Labs and a few other breeds (often referred to as “water dogs”) are born with webbed feet. This characteristic makes swimming much easier for them and is one reason why these dogs are employed to retrieve game from rivers, lakes, and marshes when working with hunters.

There are also many dogs, like Newfoundlands, that love nothing more than paddling all day in the water. Many Newfoundlands are trained as swimmer rescue/lifesaving dogs. Their powerful swimming stroke, thick insulating coat, and webbed feet make them ideal dogs to rescue swimmers and boaters who are in distress in the water.

While most (but not all) dogs can naturally swim in a very rudimentary way for a very short period if forced to (hence the term “dog paddling”), not all dogs can maintain buoyancy for long. Just like humans, swimming for any distance is a learned behavior. And some dogs simply aren’t built to swim at all.

Most dogs commonly swim with their head above water, but will sometimes swim underwater in an attempt to retrieve something below the surface.

Can Dogs Dive Underwater? 

Yes, dogs can dive underwater. Depending on their breed and training, some dogs can swim to depths as deep as 15 feet. Retrievers who are motivated by the desire to fetch an object are more likely to want to dive underwater than a non-water dog.

Can Dogs Hold Their Breath Underwater?

Just as is the case for other non-aquatic mammals, dogs are able to hold their breath underwater. This most commonly occurs when they dive after toys or wild game.

Called the mammalian diving response, your dog’s ability to hold its breath underwater is a survival instinct built into every mammal. 

This natural defense kicks in when mammals go underwater and will override other unconscious functions like breathing when necessary. This physical response operates in amazing ways to keep your dog safe. You can see below how it works.

The Mammalian Diving Response

When your dog’s face makes contact with cold water, this instantaneously triggers some major changes within your dog’s body. These bodily responses help your dog function with a decreased intake of oxygen.

One of these responses is called Bradycardia, which slows your dog’s heart rate. This response works in conjunction with peripheral vasoconstriction. This response causes your dog’s blood vessels to narrow, which in turn conserves oxygen for very important organs like the heart and brain while restricting blood flow to other body parts.

When dogs dive for their toys under the water, the mammalian diving response ensures that they won’t try to breathe and end up gulping water instead.

Check out this Boxer Dog holding its breath as it dives to the bottom of a pool:

Can Dogs Be Taught to Hold Their Breath?

Dogs learn how to hold their breath themselves if they are given the chance to practice. The more often you take your dog out for a swim, the faster your dog will learn to hold their breath on their own.

Of course, you shouldn’t let your dog start diving off the end of the pier until you know for sure that they have mastered the art of controlling their breathing. Before dipping under the water, make sure your pet has logged plenty of practice hours swimming underwater. The best way to help your dog learn how to hold its breath is by holding these practices in a controlled environment.

Can Dogs Swim in Pools?

A great place to take your dog for swim lessons or to learn how to hold its breath is a swimming pool. If your dog does not have a lot of experience swimming, you will have to be vigilant. Below are some tips you should consider when planning your dog’s next swimming lesson.

Use a Life Vest When Starting Out

Keep your dog safe while swimming by making sure it has a well-fitted life vest on. This safety measure will help dogs that are unfamiliar with the water get used to it and also let them float if they start to become tired.

A life vest can prevent accidental drownings, and if you buy a brightly colored one, you’ll be able to keep a sharp eye on your pet.

dog stands in pool

Be Aware of Pool Maintenance

You should always be aware of a pool’s chlorine levels. Performing the proper chemical maintenance in your pool is key if you would like to provide your dog with a good experience in the pool.

For example, if there is a chlorine deficiency this can lead to a surge of parasites, bacteria, dirt, and an unsuitable pH level. On the other hand, if there is an overabundance of chlorine in the pool, your dog could suffer eye and skin irritation.

Too much chlorine can also affect your dog. If they swallow water, this can result in vomiting as well as gastrointestinal and esophageal damage. One of the easiest ways to prevent this is simply by maintaining your pool regularly.

Plan an Exit

Before letting your dog jump into a pool, make sure your dog knows how to get out. If the pool has steps, lead them to it so they can make a speedy exit if necessary.

If you’re using a pool that doesn’t have steps for swimming lessons, you’ll need to keep a watchful eye on your dog. Swimming is hard work, and you’ll need to be on hand to help your dog if they get tired.

Schedule Breaks

To keep your pet happy and safe while swimming, be sure to schedule breaks from their exercise. A tired dog could drown but taking breaks throughout the day is also a good idea even if your dog’s stamina hasn’t worn out. This way you’ll be able to keep your dog fresh as they swim the day away.

dog paddles in pool

Teaching a Dog to Swim in a Lake

A lake or pond with a shallow bank is a great place to teach a dog to swim. Even natural water dogs can be wary of the water at first. So putting a life jacket flotation device on them and playing with them on dry land near the water to build their confidence is key.

You never want to force a dog into the water. Just like people, they can become traumatized for life by bad early experiences with water.

If you can bring another dog who is comfortable swimming, your dog can learn from watching them as well as become motivated to enter the water by the excitement of play. Some dogs gain confidence in swimming very quickly when they see another dog doing it alongside them.

As you play with your dog, gradually begin to run through the very shallow water.  Most dogs have no problem with this, especially when they are excited to play. You can try wading out into the water and seeing if they try to follow you far enough to have to begin swimming.

If they do start swimming, give them lots of praise and head towards shore. You can then repeat this, allowing them to swim longer and longer each time as they gain confidence and form.

If they get scared and turn around, just roll with it and let them keep playing in the shallow water. Eventually, they will try to venture out again and learn that swimming is fun. If they like to fetch, tossing their toy a few yards past the point where they can stand will help encourage them to swim.

What to Do If Your Dog Won’t Swim

Patience is key when teaching a dog to swim. Unless they have been traumatized by water, it’s just a matter of time before they will take to it. Keep giving them the opportunity to swim and they will eventually go for it.

Keeping a life jacket on them helps, too. Most dogs learning to swim will paddle furiously with their front legs but not with their rear legs, which tend to pull them down into the water. With a life jacket on, this ceases to be a problem and the dog can achieve initial success with the front legs alone. Leave the jacket on until they start using their rear legs for more efficiency.

We know of a case of a supremely athletic water dog who had a terrible time learning to swim. He had no fear of the water, but every time he entered it he paddled so hard and fast that his stroke was completely inefficient and he hardly moved. The turbulence and splashing he created would nearly blind him and he became very frustrated. 

It took several months for him to develop a powerful, efficient stroke instead of trying to “run” as fast as he could in the water. So even “water dogs” can face challenges learning to swim.

Finally, there are some dogs that just can’t learn to swim. Whether it is their physical build, fear of the water, lack of coordination, or some other reason — they just won’t swim. Don’t be afraid to just accept this and let them enjoy life on terra firma.

What is “Dry Drowning”?

Reducing the amount of water your dog laps up while swimming is a crucial step to reducing dry drowning. This condition is caused by a build-up of excess liquid in your dog’s lungs and can affect your dog hours or, in some cases, even days after they go into the water.

Symptoms of dry drowning include dizziness, vomiting, a visible change of color in your dog’s gums, and an irregular heartbeat. If your dog is still learning how to hold its breath, keep a close eye on them after swimming. If you notice any of these symptoms, call your veterinarian immediately.

Time for a Swim

Now that you know that dogs can hold their breath, even while diving, it’s time to hit the water. Dogs can have plenty of fun swimming above water (dog paddling) without the added risks of swimming underwater while holding their breath, so there’s no need to force the issue if you’re concerned. But if you do want to let your dog swim underwater, be sure to monitor them at all times and be prepared to help them out if they encounter trouble.

Superb Dog Editor

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