The dogs barked loudly as the truck slowed to a stop, their anticipation palpable. The sandy shore was in their sights and, in moments, they would be bounding into the salty water, practicing their retrieves and simply having fun.

Before unloading the dogs, I geared up, grabbing my leads, floating retrieve toys, my whistle for recall, and a few other necessities. The Malinois spun in their crates – the water training day was one of their favorites, and their impatience with me was audibly growing.

Machete, a K9 we had in training, especially loved the water and dove in without hesitation for retrieve after retrieve as she had done so many times before. If you’ve ever heard someone describe a dog’s tireless enthusiasm by saying, “She’d fetch until she died”, they would accurately be describing Machete. Packed into a tiny, 35lb package, this “mini” Malinois had more drive than several of the other dogs I’ve had in training combined. What she lacked in size, she made up for in personality and perseverance, and she was, by far, my best swimmer.

She chased the toy relentlessly, each time hitting the water harder and with more force. As she began to fatigue, she masked her growing exhaustion until she could no longer hide it, swimming until she was completely and utterly spent. She trudged out of the water, her muscles heavy from the intense exercise, and carried her toy back to the truck for some water and a quick cool down before heading home.

Upon arriving home, I unloaded the dogs one by one, pulling out their kennels for a good scrub and giving each dog a hose down to flush out the remaining sand and salt water that clung to their fur.

Machete was the last dog I tended to.

When she exited her kennel, her lethargy caught me off guard. As she staggered into the yard, I wrote off her tiredness to a heavy afternoon of exercise and proceeded with my chores, vowing to keep an eye on her, but not terribly concerned given the hours we had just spent at the beach.

I finished up my chores, Machete asleep on the dog bed, and got ready to walk into the house. As the back door closed behind me, she began to cough.

I glanced in her direction as the cough persisted, my concern growing as it escalated from a quiet throat clearing to full blown retching. 

The retching continued and, as it worsened, it seemed that little Machete was struggling to breathe.

She was in trouble.

Instantly, I scooped her up into my arms, carried her tiny body to the truck, and paid no mind to the posted speed limit signs as I rushed her to the nearest emergency vet clinic, still not certain as to exactly what ailed her.

With summer in full swing, people tend to focus their attention and discussion on things like heat injury or snake bites when educating themselves about how to keep their K9 companions safe. Rarely do people look at water as a potential safety concern for their dogs. But with time in the water comes very real threats that every handler and dog owner should be aware of in order to deal with and prevent water injury and its detrimental effects.

Understanding Water Dangers

  1. Dehydration  – I cannot emphasize enough that ALL dogs need to rehydrate – whether they are working dogs, very active breeds who exercise vigorously, or pet dogs who are exposed to the summer sun while hanging out in the backyard. However, when rehydrating your dog, it is critical that you don’t let them drink too much too quickly. When dogs are heated, they have a tendency to drink as much as they can to satiate their thirst. What most people don’t know is that drinking too much too fast can lead to regurgitation, which can pose a number of threats. Not only does the regurgitation lead to further dehydration, but it is not uncommon for a dog that regurgitates to also aspirate – a potentially life threatening situation. When rehydrating your K9, offer small amounts of water every few minutes, giving each bit of water some time to settle before offering more.
  2. Water Intoxication – Water intoxication is a very real threat for dogs that love to swim and play in the water, as well as working and hunting dogs that spend a good deal of time in lakes, streams, and rivers. Plainly stated, water intoxication occurs when a dog ingests too much water. The water depletes sodium levels outside of the dog’s cells, resulting in an electrolyte imbalance. When extracellular sodium levels deplete, water is pulled into the cells, causing them to swell. Dogs suffering from water intoxication will stagger, become lethargic, display pale gum color as blood pressure drops, begin drooling excessively, may vomit, and may even suffer collapse and death. Water intoxication is a veterinary emergency, requiring IV fluids and diuretics, and still, even with aggressive treatment, many dogs don’t survive.
  3. Salt Water Intoxication – Much like the effects of water intoxication, dogs that play or retrieve in salt water can ingest too much, resulting in a potentially life threatening condition called hypernatremia, or salt poisoning. In this case, symptoms initially present with vomiting and diarrhea, but can quickly escalate to neurological symptoms including staggering, loss of coordination, seizure, and collapse. Again, salt water intoxication is an immediate veterinary emergency and can potentially be life threatening. If you suspect salt water intoxication, get to the emergency vet immediately, as treatment is time sensitive.
  4. Aspiration – As mentioned before, with excessive water intake often comes regurgitation. When dogs regurgitate, they run the risk of aspirating, or breathing in the regurgitated material. When dogs aspirate, the fluid that comes up enters their lungs, where it can very quickly cause serious infection. An infection from aspiration can escalate to pneumonia in a matter of hours and will present symptoms of extreme lethargy, difficulty breathing, high fever, and coughing. Again, this is a veterinary emergency. Without intervention with antibiotics and fluids, the dog will suffer difficulty breathing, and prolonged lack of oxygen can result in a number of effects up to and including collapse and death. In addition, as the dog’s fever escalates to unsafe levels, dogs can suffer irreversible  damage to internal organs.

DSC_0194Protecting Your K9 from Water Danger

Working dogs and water go hand in hand. If your dog’s training includes water exercises, or if you are a pet owner with a dog that particularly loves to swim, here are some things to help keep your pup safe:

  1. Rehydrate often and in small amounts – When your dog is working in water, be sure to offer fresh, cool water often and in small doses. A small sip here and there will do wonders for keeping your pet hydrated and prevent them from wanting to gorge on water after a heavy exercise or swimming session.
  2. Do not allow your dog to drink too much – If your dog does want to gulp his water down, don’t let him. When rehydrating, don’t give your dog access to an unlimited amount of water. While you may think you are doing him a favor, he’ll be better off if you control his water intake so that he rehydrates slowly.
  3. Dogs that retrieve in salt water need to rehydrate more – If your dog retrieves in  salt water, they will inevitably ingest more water than dogs that are simply swimming. As a dog opens their mouth to grab the toy, and as they swim back, mouth open, holding the toy, it is unavoidable that they will ingest water. These dogs need more hydration, so be sure to offer fresh water frequently.
  4. Don’t overdo it – Monitor your dog for signs of fatigue, and don’t allow them to overdo it. A tired dog won’t swim as effectively and will have a greater likelihood of ingesting more water. As they fatigue, dogs’ reflexes aren’t as sharp, and the chances for water ingestion and intoxication greatly increase.
  5. Use electrolyte supplements – For dogs working in freshwater lakes, rivers, and streams, supplementing with K9 electrolyte formulas during rehydration can help prevent an electrolyte imbalance. While we don’t need to use electrolytes for dogs in everyday exercise (Dogs don’t lose electrolytes while panting like we do when we sweat), they can help restore electrolyte balance in the event of excessive water ingestion. Check out MVP electrolyte supplement.

Remember, if your dog exhibits any of the symptoms above after spending time in the water, it’s time to seek veterinary attention immediately. Water related injury can go from mild to dangerous in a matter of hours, so time is of the essence in treating the injured pup.

That day at the beach, K9 Machete simply pushed herself too hard. Like many good working dogs, she is intense in everything she does, including swimming, retrieving, and even in rehydrating. She exhausted herself chasing the toy and, with her “never quit” attitude, she masked her excessive fatigue so she could continue the game.

As Machete secretly fatigued, her muscles weakened and her swimming slowed, causing her to ingest quite a bit of salt water. Then, she rehydrated a bit too quickly and regurgitated and, as her reflexes were quite literally exhausted, she promptly aspirated. Within hours, she was faced with a full blown case of aspiration pneumonia, her lethargy, cough, and difficulty breathing the predominant symptoms displayed. Luckily, I was able to recognize the symptoms and get her the emergency treatment she needed to save her life.

Machete is now happy, healthy, and still loves to swim. We are simply more cautious about the time she spends in the water and the frequency with which we rehydrate.

Although we were always confident in our exercise and rehydration regimens, that day at the beach taught us about a very real concern we had never given much thought to. Excessive heat isn’t the only threat plaguing the working dog this summer. By keeping an eye on your dog in the water, taking the proper precautions for rehydration, and knowing the symptoms of an emergency, you will keep your water dog safe to swim another day.

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Meagan Karnes
Meagan Karnes

Meagan has been training dogs professionally since 2002, most recently working with private security, military and law enforcement to provide K9s for high level applications. She owns both The Collared Scholar, an online dog training academy, and 690 Security Services, a company that trains and deploys Executive Security and Protection K9s to private customers. She recently partnered with both Average Frog and SM Leaders, who repurpose the proven performance principles of the Navy SEALs for individuals and organizations.

    17 replies to "Safe to Swim Another Day – Water Safety for the Working Dog"

    • Pam Legault

      excellent article and so glad that Machete survived.May we have permission to FB share this as well as reprint it for our Irish Setter Club of Canada newsletter? (crediting you, of course)

      Pam Legault

      • Meagan Karnes

        Thank you so much! Of course! I’d be honored if you reprinted it! Thanks!

    • Shelly Timmerman

      I would love permission to put your article in the DVG America magazine, with proper credit and a link to your site. A complementary copy will be sent as well if you are interested and provide a mailing address.
      The magazine has a circulation of about 900 members and an electronic version is posted on the DVG Germany main website, with members of around 30,000.
      Thanks for a very informative article and consideration of my request.

    • Bastian

      I’m trying to understand how my friend’s dog succumbed to water intoxication and desperately trying to learn how to avoid this from happening to my water-loving lab. When I break down this lengthy article to simple facts, I read contradictory counter-measures. It states that dogs exercising in water may ingest too much water accidentally by the act of retrieving. This may result in water toxicity. But the article goes on to conclude that prevention is afforded by keeping your dog hydrated and offering small sips of water.

      I’m confused – if they’ve ingested too much water accidentally then surely offering more water for hydration will only exacerbate the situation.

      • Meagan Karnes

        Sorry for the confusion. Yes. Dogs that retrieve in SALT water, need more hydration, as to balance the salt intake. And really, the ailments that affect dogs working in water are many – not just water intoxication – More often dehydration and rehydration problems are actually the most likely culprits. By resting often and rehydrating in small doses, these things, water intoxication included, can be avoided.

    • dawn

      I first read this article in the DVG magazine. I’ve seen many warnings about hot cars, hot pavement, and pest control all over the internet but nothing about water safety. Thanks for bringing this to our attention.

    • Angela Griffiths

      Dear Megan
      Fantastic article that is very clear about the dangers of swimming.
      I am the owner of as specialist veterinary rehab centre and train hydrotherapists in the UK, Canada and South Africa.
      Could I have permission to share your article via our facebook page (we have 3,000 followers) and also with NARCH
      Unfortunately I see very poor hydro practice by untrained hydrotherapists but also by pet owners who are unaware of the dangers. It would help to spread the word.
      Kind regards
      Angela Griffiths CCRP, DipHSA, RCH, IAVRPT

    • Jodi Oscar

      omg! mine swim every day sometimes 2ce/day in summer in pool and in lake! I will definitely watch much more closely I am so glad you posted this!!!

    • Joel Taub

      I am the owner of a Dock Diving Facility and have a salt water pool. The amount of salt in this type pool is ~3000/million salt. Compared to the ocean, it is very minimal. Would they need the same amount of hydration as in the ocean retrieving?

      I had become aware of water intoxication a few years ago when two friends lost their Border Collies from this. I have a article by our pool and caution my clients about this and have them take breaks every 10 to 15 minutes of training.

      Thank you for a great article.

    • Jim Hagstrom

      Another concern is Swimmers Tail.

      A friends dog went through this at my pool last weekend. It is basically over use of the tail.


    • Dave Antosh

      this is great information as our dutch Shepard cross loves swimming for her toys & is very high drive & would go for hours if we let her. She also take a long jump into the water now so she might swallow some
      the issue we have been seeing with her a couple times is she seems to cramp up an hour or 2 after a hard swim.
      she panics & tries to hide & kicks her leg out so we assume its a cramp.

    • mandy Jones

      I am so glad Machete recovered well! Tex my ESS loves swimming, but when we go to the beach, he loves drinking the salt water!! He will literally drink and drink until he vomits and has the most watery diarrhoea. I always give him fresh water with electrolytes in to drink as well, and I never knew about Salt water intoxication, so THANKYOU for that information! The vomiting and diarrhoea only lasts for a few bursts and when we are ready to leave, it has completely stopped, but how do I stop him from drinking the salty sea water?? If i tell him ‘no’ he just moves on and drinks further along the beach! How do I stop him drinking it? No other dog I know does this, its like he really enjoys it!! Thanks for any advice!

      • Meagan Karnes

        My dogs do this too. I think it’s quite natural. Lots of breaks, with access to fresh water has been my best solution. And giving them a toy to keep in their mouths 🙂

    • Kathy Longwell

      Great article!! One of my clients almost lost his SAR lab from Water Intoxication at a lake. I think the high drive dogs are more susceptible. I can’t let Shasta drink from a hose because she will swallow too much too fast…..water crazy girl that she is……These dogs keep us on our toes!!

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