According to Desmond Morris’s Dogs, Labrador Retrievers worked the shoreline of Newfoundland long before migrating to the Old World. “Some worked from land, swimming out to retrieve the cork floats of the nets; others worked from the fishing boats, leaping overboard to grab the [fishing] nets and swim ashore with them, so that the fishermen could empty out the fish.”
I didn’t specifically have a water dog in mind when we decided to add another member to our family, but after I brought Emma home, I couldn’t understand why she wouldn’t swim. It should have just happened naturally, right?
At the time, we lived close to the California coast, which offers multiple places where dogs can romp on the beach and swim in the protected inlets of the bay. We took our new water puppy religiously, thinking the spark in her brain would happen any second and send her launching into the waters to bring things back to us. I remember standing on the beach, watching all of the other Labradors entering the waters with unbridled enthusiasm. They played keep away, danced in the gentle ebbs and flows of the surf, and raced each other out to whatever had been thrown into the water to entice them. Comforted by the solidity of the earth, Emma stayed on shore and observed the others with only a mild curiosity.
I became slightly obsessed with the entire situation. Why wouldn’t she swim?
As the months rolled by, she was provided with ample opportunities to embrace her genetics – but on her own schedule. Over time she began wandering farther and farther out, always stopping short as the water level found its way to the line of her shoulders. There she would stand gazing out at the water, before turning and racing back to solid ground. Occasionally she would paw at the water with one of her forefeet before retreating, but that was about it.
As a dog learns his or her world, we can only act as a catalyst – providing the opportunities, encouragement, safe environments, training, boundaries, praise, and positive reinforcements to help them develop confidence and maturity. I have heard of several people who had approached their dog’s water reluctance by “throwing them in” and forcing them to swim, and often suggested I do the same. I don’t much see the value in that. In fact, I see a dog that may ultimately develop a fear of the water, and mistrust in his owner.
So, I left it all up to Emma.
We usually greet each day with a long hike along a Montana river front trail, which also includes access to a small lake. During every walk we would pause on the lake’s shore, allowing her the time to wander out and explore as much as she felt comfortable. Then last week, at the age of 16 months, she took the plunge. I had been tossing a stick into the lake for encouragement, and she finally decided to go and get it. And then again…and again. Being a water dog was on her schedule, when she was ready.
Now, if I can figure out how to get her to come out of the water…