In a place with sweltering summers, a way to cool off an active dog like Lewis is a must! And it’s a bonus if he can have fun doing it. So I got a doggie swimming pool. They have improved a lot since I got one for Clara about 10 years ago. I got a moderately large one for Lewis, not thinking about the challenges that might present for him.
He was unwilling to jump into it at first, so I’m going to share the systematic way I introduced him to the pool.
There were some indicators that Lewis would eventually have a blast in it. He is an all-weather dog. He was entranced by snow last winter. He runs around without inhibition in the rain, even deliberately splashing in puddles. I guessed he’d figure out ways to enjoy the pool, and I got a big one because Clara enjoys water, too.
I knew he might not trust the whole endeavor right away, so for his first introduction to the pool, I took what I felt was middle ground. I chose a hot day (antecedent arrangement). I put the pool in a sunny area so the water would warm up a little and filled it only partway full. I threw a couple of his toys in there that would float. I got in there myself and beckoned him.
No go. No way in hell was he going to hop over the 12-inch wall into the pale blue unknown. I learned as we went along that his caution was more about the enclosing wall than the water inside.
So, on to Plan B. I would work out a sequence of graduated exposures. The goal was for Lewis to feel happy and confident about jumping into the pool, first empty and then with water in it. I needed to create a series of desensitizing activities that weren’t scary for him. And we got there! Here’s how we did it.
Note: this method was for introduction to a kid’s above-ground pool only. If you need to teach your dog to swim in a built-in pool, check out “How to Teach Your Dog to Swim” on the Karen Pryor Clicker Training site.
Desensitizing to Jumping into the Swimming Pool
Lewis is curious and bold but was reluctant to get into this new object in his environment, water or no. It was a little too weird, and the walls were too high for him to step over in a way he felt safe. I could have angled the wall down somewhat and started that way, with me shaping him to step into the pool space. But that could have proved awkward as we proceeded. And I wanted to address the problem at its root and teach him that if I present an object for him to interact with, it’s safe and an opportunity to have fun.
To get him to trust that it was OK to jump in and out, we worked on three foundation skills:
- getting into things
- getting onto things
- jumping over something
I split each of these into a series of behaviors. I combined desensitization with operant conditioning. The desensitization part was the very gradual exposures (you’ll see the list below). The operant conditioning was my encouraging Lewis, using positive reinforcement, to interact with the objects.
If he had been afraid of these objects in themselves, I would have leaned more toward a classical approach, but I didn’t need to. The pool had already been in his environment for a few days and he had never been scared of it. Jumping in was the challenge.
I had seen him be similarly reluctant with other objects. Here is a video showing his baseline response—avoidance—when invited to jump over or get in some objects, including the swimming pool.
Rather than trying to shape him to get into one thing, as I did with the tray in the “avoidance” video above, I gathered a series of objects with varied characteristics for him to get on, over, or in. I positively reinforced these behaviors to extend his palette of behaviors and build happy associations with the objects and activities. I took things slowly enough that he was hardly ever reluctant to try something I set up. After getting on a couple of platforms and a flat box, he stepped right into the tray he had been avoiding earlier.
This is the order of the activities. I never lured him onto or into anything with food or toys; I used a little targeting but mostly waited for him to get the idea and get in on his own, then I reinforced generously.
- Step onto a 2″ elevated platform. (The platforms are important later.)
- Jump onto a 12″ elevated platform (a Klimb). He already knew how to do this, loved this platform, and was used to stationing there.
- Step onto a mat (also something he already knew to do).
- Step onto a piece of cardboard on the floor while I anchor it (no sliding!).
- Step into a large, shallow plastic tray (this was a big step, even with a tray with very shallow sides).
- Step into a shallow cardboard box with two flaps ripped off.
- Step into a cardboard box with all flaps intact.
- Step into other cardboard boxes.
- Jump over an agility jump set at 2″. This was another object he walked by multiple times every day but was reluctant to interact with when I asked him to.
- Jump onto a 12″ platform while it is placed next to and abutting the pool.
- Jump onto a 12″ platform while it is placed inside the pool (no water).
- Jump from the 12″ platform onto the 2″ platform in the pool.
- Jump down from one of these into the pool.
- Jump directly into the (dry) pool.
- Repeat a selection of the last three few with water in the pool, and perhaps Eileen in the pool as well.
- Jump directly into the pool with water in it.
First Steps with the Platforms, Boxes, and Jump
Here’s a video showing the foundation work we did with most of the listed objects. Yes, he really got right into the plastic tray when I asked him to, even though he wouldn’t do that earlier when I tried to shape the behavior.
Applying The Activities to the Pool
Then I brought all the items outside and got him into and on them again. I added the swimming pool to the mix, with no water in it.
I put the 12″ platform next to the pool and had him get on a bunch of times. Then I put it inside the pool, pressed right up to the edge. He jumped on with no hesitation! We practiced that, then I put also the lower platform into the pool. Soon he had jumped down onto the platform and was also comfortable jumping down into the pool itself and exploring it.
I’m proud of thinking of using the platform. It’s hard to split out gradations of getting into an above-ground pool. You are either in or out of it. There are no stairs. But raising the bottom changed the nature of the jump from “into the unknown” to “onto the familiar platform.”
He was now comfortable jumping into and out of the dry pool. I took a hiatus of about a week when the weather cooled off. But during that time, the pool was on my porch, empty. He jumped in there regularly for fun and to see if something interesting had blown in. And of course, I gave him a little treat or two.
Finally, on another hot day, I put the pool back into the yard with the 12″ platform inside. I put water in it, not even an inch, just enough to create some puddles on the bottom. He happily jumped onto the platform, then from there into the pool, then started jumping straight into the pool from outside of it. Win!
The next time, I put about 2″ of water in it. In the video, the 12″ platform was in the pool, and in the first part, I was sitting on it. Then I got out. He made a game of running around the yard and jumping into the pool.
Why Bother with All This?
I can hear some of you chortling out there. You just picked up your young dog and plopped him into the pool and everything worked out fine. Or maybe you even threw him in the water to learn to swim. But even if your dog likes water now, those are not good methods.
As with all uses of aversives, there is a risk of fallout. Maybe your dog was lucky and came out unscathed and learned to love water. Many dogs wouldn’t. Besides being unkind in the moment, you risked traumatizing your dog. And it takes significantly longer to address the fear that typically results from that than it does to go slow at the beginning.
Speaking of “slow”—my method wasn’t slow. It took much, much more time to write up this post and edit the movies than to do the training. There were less than 15 minutes of training, and that included the fun play at the end. That’s 15 minutes to give my dog something that will enrich him for the rest of his life.
Will Lewis Love It?
I’ve achieved my primary goal. Lewis is comfortable jumping into and out of the pool, including with water in it. This will be enormously helpful in the hot Arkansas summer. He and I often have play sessions outdoors in the evening, but even after the sun goes down, the humidity keeps it very hot. So it’s actually a safety measure to be able to get him into the pool.
I don’t know whether he will end up being a water dog. Will he seek out the pool and play in the water? We’ll see. My initial belief was that he would. But I have noticed things as we go along.
He is fussy about his feet being wet. He doesn’t like it when his toys are wet. He will hesitate and almost refuse to pick up his Jolly Ball (favorite toy ever) if it has been in the pool and the rope is wet. Even though he’ll jump into the pool now as part of his circuit around the yard, he does it only when I am sitting there. The game he created is basically running around the yard with me as a focal point. This is a variant of games we play all the time; I just happen to be at or in the pool.
So I’ve yet to find out whether the pool will be just a helpful way to cool off, or the center of more fun activities for him.
I’m publishing this now, without knowing the outcome for Lewis, because I know other people are working on the same problem. I hope this post helps some others form their own plan.
Copyright 2022 Eileen Anderson
- You Can’t Cure MY Fear by Shoving Cookies at Me! (this post also features a list of desensitizing, graduated exposures, but they are for something completely different)