As I write, Oreo is sitting behind me in the lawn chair — and he just broke wind. Oh the joys of having a dog.
It’s my fault, really. I just fed him half a bag of dog treats. And now, as I sit here in the sun, typing away on the patio, I’ll tell you why.
Before I begin my story, you need to know one important fact: Oreo doesn’t like water.
When I recently told this to a friend, his reply was, “Don’t worry. He’ll get thirsty, eventually.”
“No,” I replied, laughing. “I mean Oreo doesn’t like swimming — or wading, even.”
I began to suspect this a few weeks ago, when I brought Oreo to Sandy Point Beach Park in Stockton Springs (a wonderful place, by the way, with trails and a beach open to dogs). As much as I tried to lure Oreo into the Penobscot River, he resisted.
(He did enjoy the piles of seaweed, though, and digging in the sand.)
I didn’t think much of it at the time. Maybe the water was too cold. Perhaps the waves scared Oreo. It didn’t occur to me that Oreo might have a problem with water.
A few days later, Derek and I were strolling around Lowe’s when we decided to spontaneously purchase Oreo a kiddie pool. What a perfect way for him to cool off in during hot summer days, we thought. So we crammed the pool into the back of Derek’s Prius — a feat that we only accomplished through sheer willpower — and carted the gift home to Oreo.
Long story short, Oreo would have nothing to do with the kiddie pool. In fact, he hid from it. And how do you explain to a dog that it’s just water? That it will be fun? You can’t. He has to learn for himself.
After a day or two, we stored the pool in the shed, and I think I saw Oreo breathe a sigh of relief.
But I couldn’t let it go. I wanted Oreo to have options while playing in the yard, and the pool seemed like such a great option. So on a balmy July day, I pulled the kiddie pool back out.
Oreo ran away. In fact, he ran across the lawn and into the house through the open back door. He then ran the length of the house – sunroom, kitchen, dining room and living room – and slumped down on his bed in the corner.
As the kiddie pool filled up with water, I carried Oreo outside and tried to reassure him. I then carried him to the pool and set him down in a few inches of water. After a few seconds of squirming, Oreo pushed against me with his wet paws and ran to the flower garden, where he attempted to hide behind the daylilies.
I guess not all Oreos are for dunking. I had to change my method.
So I left Oreo in the garden and ran inside for ammo: chicken jerky, vegetable chip, and a bone (all made for dogs).
But no matter how many treats I waved beside the pool, Oreo was too afraid to approach.
After a little brainstorming, I decided to create a trail of treats, enticing him to approach with frequent rewards. And it was that easy.
When I reached the pool, I balanced treats along the edge of the pool, and to my surprise, Oreo played along, circling the pool and gobbling up and treat I set down.
We had made progress, but he still wouldn’t step into the pool, and I was almost halfway through the bag of jerky. So I thought I’d try something else.
Sitting a few feet from the pool, I
threw treats into the water. And to my surprise, Oreo stepped into the pool to retrieve them. That was enough for me. I handed him a bone and called it a day.
But later that afternoon, I looked around the corner of the house and saw Oreo standing in the pool. I was shocked. And later that evening, I heard splashing and looked around the house to see Oreo jumping around in the water and biting at the waves he created.
But how did I succeed? What did I do different that day? And what had I done wrong on the beach or on the day we purchased the pool? I called up a few trainers in the area to ask them if they had any advice for helping dogs enjoy playing in water.
“First thing is, it’s always their choice,” said Don Hanson, certified dog trainer and owner of Green Acres Kennel Shop in Bangor. “If we really want [dogs] to do something, it’s not really fair if they find it uncomfortable or don’t want to do it.”
Before that day, we had been trying to carry Oreo into the water or we had used a leash to slowly pull him into the water. When we were doing that, it wasn’t Oreo’s choice.
Contrary to the common belief that all dogs love water, there are plenty of dogs that don’t like swimming or even walking in water, Hanson assured me. Each dog is different. And often, a dog won’t like to play in water because of one bad experience.
“Not all dogs can swim,” said Hanson, who suggests owners put their dogs in life vests around deep water such as the ocean or a lake. “A lot of them will make every effort and will still sink like a rock.”
In the case of trying to get a dog to enjoy a kiddie pool, Hanson suggested filling it with just a few inches of water and luring the dog into the pool over a number of days.
“The key thing is patience and lots of rewards,” he said. (Half a bag of chicken jerky?)
It’s best to expose dogs to water between the ages of 8 and 16 weeks, a critical socialization period, Hanson said. Older dogs have a harder time growing accustomed to new things.
(Derek and I adopted Oreo in May, when he was 7.5 months old.)
Jason Howe, a certified dog trainer at Bear Brook Kennels in Brewer, has met many dogs that aren’t fond of swimming, and he also suggests that owners take it slow when building their dog’s comfort around water.
“Unfortunately, some people think, ‘Well, if I just throw him off the dock, he’ll be able to swim,’” Howe said. “But that’s not true. If anything, it will startle the dog, and it may backfire.”
In addition to using treats to lure a dog into shallow water, Howe suggests using the dog’s favorite toy.
“I would start playing with him, little by little, and throw the toy into the water deeper and deeper,” he said. “I’d build that over time. And if there are two people that the dog really has a bond with, I would have one out in the water.”
With a kiddie pool, Howe would start by luring the dog into the pool with toys or treats when the pool is dry, then add a little bit of water over time.
He also suggests visiting lakes or ponds instead of trying to introduce a dog to water at the ocean or a river, with the idea that moving water is more intimidating than calm water.
If you’re trying to introduce your pup to water this summer, I hope this story helps.
Next week, I plan to write about cold or frozen dog treats, and I’d like some help. Do you know how to make dog ice cream? Do you have other cold treats that you like to make for your dog? Please send your recipes, photos or stories to firstname.lastname@example.org. Oreo and his friend Dexter will test some of them out.
Also, if you have any suggestions or stories to share about dogs and water, email me or leave a comment at the bottom of the page.