Dive into swim classes ... with your dog

For 12 years, I have been braving the waters of the Lowcountry with four-legged residents and their owners. I teach swim classes for dogs. The classes, which provide a social and learning experience for the animals, are held at various locations -- including pools, rivers, oceans and even ponds -- in and around Beaufort County during the summer.

All kinds of dogs come out each summer to learn to swim for fun or safety. Some need to learn to get out of pools safely to prevent drowning; others find out if they enjoy the water. Teaching a dog to get over his fear of water brings such joy to an owner and lifelong enjoyment to the dog.

Do all dogs know how to swim? Innately, yes, but that doesn't mean they can. Some dogs panic in the water, especially if they don't know how to get out. The advice I give owners with pools is to teach their dog, whether swimmers or not, how to exit just in case he accidentally falls in. This requires the owner to go in the pool with the dog, holding him under his belly and walking him in an elongated circle back around to the steps. Taking the time to teach a dog this safety lesson might save a life and will also make the dog more comfortable swimming. He might even enjoy it.

From then on it's all about the fun. Each swim class is set at a different venue each week. Although there is undertow to worry about in the sound or ocean, we are careful with our dogs, and there are plenty of people to assist. Some dogs just romp on the beach with their buddies, while others chase retrieving toys in the water.

Some dogs can't stand to see humans in the water and use their life-saving instincts to safely return people to shore. We teach dogs to circle, allowing the person to grab onto the dog's life vest or his flanks while the dog pulls them to shore. Some dogs might take the drowning "victim's" life preserver in their mouth and pull them in. Over the course of the summer, dogs pull in boats, retrieve paddles, do underwater retrievals and jump off docks and boats.

Dogs that have this life-saving instinct often whistle while "saving" people. It's a sign of worry and stress, and stops once the human is pulled to shore. The downside of developing this instinct? The owner doesn't get to swim as much since the dog keeps coming out to bring him to safety.

Classes are held between 4 and 6:30 p.m. each Friday depending on tide and location. The class is open to dogs weighing at least 35 pounds, adults and children older than 8. Owners are required to go into the water with their dog. Participants must wear water shoes and bring towels. Dogs must have a collar and leash that can get wet. A dog life jacket and water retrieval toys are recommended.

Participants do not have to attend every week. The class will be canceled because of storms but not rain. The sessions are free, but I encourage donations to the Spay/Neuter Alliance & Clinic in Ridgeland.

Abby Bird, owner of Alphadog Training Academy, has been training local dogs for 12 years.