How to Teach Your Sheltie to Swim

Swimming is a great exercise for Shelties that doesn't strain the joints, while giving him the chance to cool down on a hot day. Here's how to desensitize him to the ocean in baby steps.

You can teach your Sheltie to swim with gradual water desensitization

Teach your Sheltie to swim with gradual water desensitization.

Why Teach Your Sheltie to Swim?

Even though your Shetland Sheepdog may be nervous around the ocean, there are actually quite a few benefits to swimming:

  • Fitness. Swimming is an excellent form of exercise, providing all-round muscle strengthening and a good heart workout. It's especially valuable if your Sheltie is fat or has arthritis, which tends to prevent him running because of the associated joint pain.

  • Stimulation. Swimming enriches our lives and it's the same for dogs! Water play is both mentally and physically stimulating, guaranteed to relieve boredom.

  • Cooling. The Sheltie coat is an adaptation to the rough winters of the Scottish Shetland Islands. If you live in a warm climate, a dip in the ocean is a great way to help your furball cool down on a hot day.

  • Hydrotherapy. If your Sheltie later suffers from joint injury, water confidence will help her adjust to hydrotherapy, which uses buoyancy, resistance, and pressure to provide weightless physical therapy.

  • Confidence. If you take regular trips to the beach or lake, teaching your Sheltie to swim means she won't suffer stress being around water.

Don't Shelties Hate Water?

Most Shetland Sheepdogs avoid stepping into the ocean because they sense the danger of waves. This is a healthy aversion to a real threat; little kids are just the same! But just as we do with little kids, we can help our Shelties build confidence and skills in the water to give them the benefits and freedoms of water play.

Shelties can enjoy a good swim once they're confident being in the water

Shelties can enjoy a good swim once they're confident being in the water.

How to Desensitize Your Sheltie to Water

The trick is to increase her exposure to water in baby steps. Take things as slow as she needs, giving her multiple exposures to minimally threatening environments before you step it up.

Stage 1. Play It Safe

Take your Sheltie to a paddling pool, a stream, or an estuary at low tide. The bath tub may also spring to mind, but he probably already associates this with getting thoroughly drenched against his will. This is about building only positive experiences of water.

Sheltie cooling off in a paddling pool

Howard cools off in the paddling pool.

The earlier you start with water desensitization, the better. Sheltie puppies are much more courageous than adult dogs and will approach new experiences much more readily. Adult Shelties can adapt to water too but it takes longer to build their confidence.

Give your Sheltie plenty of time to approach the water on his own terms. No chucking him in the deep end! Model a calm or playful response yourself by making tiny splashes, dipping your feet in, and showing your joy. He'll pick up on your mood and, eventually, his curiosity will outshine his fear.

Our Shelties learning to paddle in the sea

Piper and Howard paddling their safe distance into the sea.

If he resists going anywhere near the water after at least 20 minutes, you can gently try to lure him towards it, as along as you don't stress him out.

For instance, when Howard was a puppy, we took him to an estuary at low tide. This left huge empty sand beds with little streams running between them. We strolled through the smallest streams, and Howard instinctively followed us, wading through the very shallow water that stayed well below his chest. Way to go Howard!

Stage 2. Build Confidence

We went to the estuary often to gauge Howard's reaction before moving onto something bigger: a shallow bay with barely any waves. Then we walked in to our ankles and he followed us in.

Th next part was tricky. We waded out to knee-depth only for Howard to whimper, calling us back. I worried we'd rushed him. But we turned around to Howard and modeled playful, happy behavior. After a minute, he plucked up the courage to follow us in up to his chest!

Shetland Sheepdog in the ocean

Our sweet Shetland Sheepdog Piper testing out the ocean.

Stage 3. Start Swimming

When your Sheltie is confident enough to enter the water up to his chest without help, he's ready to start swimming. All dogs have an instinct to doggy paddle—so at no point do you need to physically teach your Sheltie to swim!

We simply lifted Howard's body in the water by a few inches and moved him a tiny bit deeper. He began to paddle his paws and, when lowered back down, was suddenly swimming of his own accord. What a rush!

Our little water Sheltie

Our little water Sheltie.

Final Thoughts

Teaching your Sheltie to swim won't necessarily result in a dog that bounds courageously into the ocean at every chance. But it bridges the gap between a fearful Sheltie who won't touch the sea, and those water-loving Labradors you see throwing themselves into the waves catch the ball over and over again.

And remember that under all that fur, Shelties are small dogs with limited muscle mass so won't swim for long periods of time. Give him plenty of opportunities to rest, avoid swimming after he's worn out from a long walk, and never throw in into the water!

Follow this gradual desensitization plan and your Sheltie can learn to have fun in the water when it suits him. Whether that means paddling in the shallows, chasing waves, or swimming next to you, he'll benefit from the stimulation and the exercise that will ultimately enrich his life.

Becky Casale Bio: Creator of Sheltie Planet

Becky Casale runs the blogs Sheltie Planet and Science Me. She is a Biology undergrad and has two human babies. Meet her famous Shelties Howard and Piper if you can handle the fluff!


Shelties: The Complete Pet Owner's Guide