How to Train Your Dock Diving Dog
Thanks to Photographer Wayne Ramsay
I am a dock diving dog addict. I have spent years following Ultimate Air Dogs around the country helping to put on shows. And, it just so happens that I am now a UAD judge for our local club.
It seems a natural progression from following them from Illinois to Florida to now judging our own competitions so we can bring more fun opportunities for people to compete. I have also been getting dogs of all shapes and sizes involved in dock diving for years now! So here are a few steps to help you get started and help you find a competition near you!
Not All Dogs Can Swim
First of all, it is critical to understand that NOT ALL DOGS CAN SWIM. Somewhere along the way we fell under the pretense that all animals can swim, including dogs. Nothing is farther from the truth.
I have had my skin scratched, broken and ripped by dogs who panic when they can’t touch ground or the bottom of the pool. They scratch, they crocodile roll, and they often sink when they panic. It is true if they calmed down, breathed and kicked their legs they could swim; but just like some people panic in water, some dogs also panic.
And, dogs with less body fat have a more difficult time floating and more work learning to swim. I have held countless dogs through their temper tantrums until they can begin to relax. Life vests can really help!
I also either hold their tail up so they can learn to swim horizontally and not vertically and often I take their back legs and pull them back toward me, this usually forces them to try and kick me away; and if they can kick me they learn that the kicking of their legs propels them forward.
Paddling your front feet is important, but kicking your back legs is also important!
Breed Does Not Matter
There are many breeds that are natural-born swimmers. Many retrievers and spaniels will swim with little encouragement, but dogs with body types less suited to swimming, like Bulldogs, may need more encouragement and should wear a life jacket when swimming.
But it is important to note that breed doesn’t matter. I have seen some Mastiffs and Chihuahuas swim better than Labrador Retrievers. As a matter of fact, two of my most difficult cases were a Standard Poodle (water dog) and a Chocolate Lab (also a water dog).
Funny enough, as I write this, I have an appointment in 2 hours with the Lab and his owner. We have taught him to swim, enjoy jumping off of the ramp and today it is time to help him learn dock jumping! However it has taken over a dozen sessions with me alone, not to mention the amount of time he has been just swimming without me (now).
Dock jumping is one of the fastest growing dog sports in the country and training your dog dock jumping is going to be a lot of fun, but there are a few things you need to get started and ensure a successful result.
To start with, you need a place to practice; a lake with a sloping shore and a dock are your best bet. Then, of course, you will need a few special toys just for when you go out dock jumping. Always carry a bag of treats to reward your pup, and of course, be patient--each dog learns at his own pace. One word of caution, be sure you know what your dog is jumping into.
Check that the water is deep enough and is not stagnant. Some lakes and ponds can contain bacteria or algae that can make your furry friend seriously ill.
Start with Easy Swimming
Regardless of breed, all dogs should wear a life jacket when first learning to swim. Most pet supply stores stock life jackets in many sizes and styles appropriate for all body types. Look for a lifejacket with a handle that you can use to guide your dog in the water and a D-ring to attach a leash.
Before using the lifejacket in the water, put it on your dog at home and get him comfortable with it by feeding him dinner while he wears it, as well as rewarding him with treats while he wears it.
I will note that warm weather also makes a difference. I have been in our competition dock diving pool in March when the temperatures outside were barely above freezing and the temps inside were undoubtedly below freezing in a wetsuit. Although owners want to get a new dog interested in a fun sport at the beginning of the season, it is better for the dog if he is not battling his nerves AND the temperatures!
If your dog is new to swimming, and especially if you’re looking into dock diving as a way to give you puppy exercise, get him started when the water is actually refreshing and tempting for a dog. Find a lake, stream, or body of water where the dog can wade out and touch bottom. Nothing is more conducive to panic than a big drop off and no ability for your dog to touch and reassure himself.
Start in shallow water with your dog on leash, ideally, where you too can enter the water. Wade in a few steps and encourage your dog to follow with some tasty treats. Reward him when he steps in the water, even if he only gets his toes wet. Gradually ask your dog to step further and further into the water until he has to start swimming to reach you.
You can wade out further and encourage your dog out; but throwing him off of a dock, out of a boat or into a deep body of water (even if it is only a 4 foot pool and a Chihuahua) is not the best way to teach confidence with water! And, most of us can touch the bottom while still assisting our dog and helping him with is confidence. I say “most” because I have worked with the occasional dog that is actually taller on their hind legs than me.
If your dog likes to retrieve, you can toss his ball or toy a few steps into the water; call the dog and throw the toy, trying to keep the toy in front of the dog's nose so he chase’s it into the water. Each turn toss it a little further so gradually your dog will need to swim to reach his toy. These steps should be done over a period of several days so as not to overwhelm your dog in one session.
Step 3: Build Confidence
Any sport is all about confidence! Although a competition dock diving pool is completely different than a lake, a pond, a bay or a stream; swimming and the joy of water is crucial. Take your dog fun places to swim and encourage him to get lean and have fun!
After all, swimming is excellent exercise! 30 minutes of intense swimming and retrieving is exhausting even for my high drive dogs. I toss my dog’s toy as far as I can (within reason of course) so that he gets a good swim with his toy retrieval!
Step 4: Build Toy Drive
Very few dogs will go into a regulation pool and swim for “the fun of it”. Sure, we have some! But most dogs get into dock diving pools for the joy of the chase and a toy. Dogs get into streams and ponds when they are hot, but getting into a dock diving pool takes a concerted effort.
And, there are usually 2 things that take a dog into those pools.
- Toy drive
- Joy of water
It is the combination of those 2 things that make a good dock diver! Just like not all dogs can swim; not all dogs seemingly have toy drive or an outward desire to chase and play with toys. Just like some dogs need to be taught to swim, some dogs need to be taught how to play! Ironically my youngest Malinois hated water… but his desire to rescue his toy from the pool and his high drive is what took him into the water.
Plus, it made swimming fun and goal oriented! He is now a dock diving addict! Most dogs need a reason (toy) for them to take the leap off of a dock and into a pool!
Step 5: Find a Pool
Thanks to Photographer Wayne Ramsay
Yes, there are some dock diving events that are held at lakes or ponds. But, if like me, you get addicted to the sport, you will want to find a person, club or training organization that has a regulation dock and pool. There are organizations that pack these pools up and take them to local fairs, dog expos, and even sports shops (like bass pro shops) for people to show up and have fun while providing a fun show for families and on lookers.
You can look up Ultimate Air Dog events online at www.ultimateairdogs.com find and go to one of their events and for just $10 one of their staff members will help teach your dog to swim and get comfortable in the pool. This is how we started dock diving, former World Series pitcher Milt Wilcox who owns Ultimate Air Dogs with his son, taught our nervous Malinois how to get comfortable in the pool. His first jump was a whopping 1 inch (he slithered into the pool like a snake) but later went on to jump over 23 feet once he gained some confidence!
Step 6: Always Take Your Dog up the Ramp
This was ingrained in me from the beginning and learning from the best. The most important thing about dock diving is the dog knowing how to get in and out of the pool or body of water. And, the ramp isn’t always on the same side of the pool.
You don’t want your dog to jump in and panic that he can’t find his way out! It is also best for the dog to temperature test the water and get his body wet prior to jumping. I have noticed that even seasoned veterans jump better if their body is wet rather than jumping in dry.
Even with as much time as I have spent jumping my dogs, I always get them up the ramp and have them swim prior to heading on the dock. A new dog needs to learn how to get in and out of the pool using the ramp and swimming around. Once a dog is jumping off of the ramp into the pool then, and only then is it time to consider taking the dog up to the dock.
Think about it If a dog is tenderly swimming off the ramp and is very careful about his foot placement he is unlikely to jump off of a dock that is 2 feet above the water. If he is hurling his body off of the ramp after his toy he is more likely to take the big plunge!
Step 7: Jumping off the Dock
Thanks to Photographer Wayne Ramsay
Remember this isn’t easy for most dogs. It literally takes a leap of faith for a dog to jump off of a dock and trust that he will land in water. Most of us don’t want dog that will jump off of anything and care about falling.
After all, we don’t want a dog to jump off of a cliff. Unfortunately I have heard of dogs doing this for a toy or ball that accidentally went over the side. Most dogs need to start at the end of the dock and the toy should be thrown in at about 10 feet. If you throw it too far 20+ he won’t think it is achievable.
If you throw it too short 2 to 6 feet he won’t be able to calculate a jump. For instance if it is 2 feet out he would almost have to fall in on his face to get his toy; and we certainly don’t want him to jump or fall in this way. When a dog is ready to jump, he usually lowers his shoulders, rests on his elbows while his rump is in the air.
If he is just pacing and whining or backing up he likely needs more time jumping or swimming off of the dock. If he continually lowers his shoulders while looking at his toy and contemplating jumping but doesn’t seem like he will jump on his own; I typically encourage people to help the dog with a quick bump into the water. I try and bump with my knee.
I stand right behind the dog and give him a quick “bloop” in the tush to send him into the pool. When his shoulders are lowered this way, he is #1 thinking of jumping and wanting to jump, and the way his body is aimed means his head usually comes up and avoids going under water. The last thing you want is to grab or toss the dog in and have his head go underwater (most dogs don’t like their head to go under) because this will create some panic.
By using your knee and not your hands I feel that the dog doesn’t even associate it with you, he just knows one minute he was teetering and the next he was in the water. And, most dogs only take one or two times of helping them and then they realize there is no need to be fearful. Dock diving is a game of confidence and athleticism.
I remember when my dog was jumping 8-9 feet and I was soooo proud of her! She won novice the very first time she competed. I look back now and laugh since she is pretty consistently around 20 feet now with a personal best of 22’10.
Step 8: Two Techniques
There are 2 techniques the “Place and Send” and the “Chase”.
Place and Send
The place and send is where you either throw the toy in the water and then back the dog up down the dog and let him rip. Or, where you quickly toss the toy out as the dog is gaining down the dock. The majority of dogs start out doing some form of the place and send.
Again, this is how dogs gain confidence jumping in the water!
The Chase Thanks to Photographer Wayne Ramsay
The second is more difficult. It requires some timing and training on you and your dog’s part. It looks easy when people do it on “The Incredible Dog Challenge” on TV they just toss the toy in front of the dog and the dog catches it midair.
But it takes a lot of trust for a dog to look up and chase a toy while dropping his focus on the dock. And, the timing of the human has to be perfect! Too soon and the dog won’t be able to catch it, too late and the toy will be behind the dog, and too high the dog won’t be able to jump and get it.
As you can imagine, it builds a dog’s drive to catch the toy midair. And, your dog needs some lift to be able to get the best distance. All the elite dogs that jump over 25 feet use this technique!
But it takes practice! In the next article, I will teach you how to teach your dog to chase the toy off of the dock!
Photo Thanks to Wayne Ramsay
Again, it goes without saying that the average dog must be proficient at simple place and send dock diving before beginning this game. The dog must be confident jumping in the water. If he is not totally confident, he cannot multitask by trusting his feet to carry him to the edge and over the water all while looking up and soaring after his toy.
Think about it in your own terms… run to the end of a dock all while looking up and trying to catch something and not looking down at your feet (this would screw up the timing of your catch). At first, it would be nearly impossible, until you learn to trust the length of the dock and trust that the water is underneath you!
First, you must teach your dog to jump up and catch a toy. Again, it is somewhat silly to expect our dogs to be able to be high off of the ground and trust his ability to jump, catch and fall; unless he is confident. To gain confidence the dog should learn to catch on the ground, where he is not afraid to fall.
Even though I do some play and competition in Frisbee, I do NOT use a Frisbee for dock diving. I believe that Frisbees are too difficult to throw accurately in high wind; and you don’t want the Frisbee to drift out of the safety of the pool!
Ground Work is Crucial!
So is practice!
The people on TV make this technique look so simple, when it is truly difficult and an art form of communication between dog and handler!
As always, HAVE FUN!!!
- Some dogs can be overwhelmed by large bodies of water. Try starting with an empty baby pool in your yard. Get your dog comfortable stepping in while the pool is empty before slowly adding water. Reward your dog for getting in and he’ll soon be happily jumping in every chance he gets!
- Start young! Get your puppy comfortable with water as soon as you bring him home! Your bathtub or a baby pool with an inch or two of water make great places to introduce young puppies. You can also carry small puppies into the water and help them swim back to shore or another person.
- If your dog won’t step off a pool step to start swimming try a pond or lake where they can gradually wade deeper rather than a sudden drop off.
Note: For safety, never allow your dog to swim unattended! Remember to follow all applicable leash laws in your area!
Sources: American Kennel Club
I have been a professional dog trainer and pet sitter for over 20 years. I am a Certified Professional Dog Trainer, through the international Certification Counsel of Professional Dog Trainers. I have trained and worked with police, Schutzhund and personal protection dogs. I trained Assistance Dogs in a men’s prison and ran my own nonprofit organization to take adult dogs from shelters and to train them to assist children and adults with disabilities, at no charge to my clients. My nonprofit organization and I were nominated for several awards of merit and even made the front page of the Denver Post. I was a veterinary technician for many years, where I learned about all aspects of health and preventative medicine. I have trained and worked with exotic animals and cheetahs. I introduced a temperament testing program in my local shelter and sat on the board of directors. I volunteered with my dog “Mr. Snitch” and helped local children learn to read. I have attained obedience titles and several blue ribbons. I am constantly in search of ways to continue my education and excellence when it comes to animals, their behavior and their health.