Let’s admit it – as kids, we have all competed with our friends and siblings in holding our breath underwater. Sometimes, we did not even have to be in the water – we would just pinch our noses and count. As adults, we now know it is impossible to hold our breath for over 90 seconds without training, but what about dogs?

Can dogs hold their breath underwater? Interestingly, the answer is yes – dogs can hold their breath underwater because of the solid mammalian diving instinct. Maybe you have noticed your dog panting heavily after doing nothing but napping all day. In these cases, the panting is a result of previously holding its breath. As for the mammalian diving response, although present in all breeds, it is more pronounced in certain swimming dogs. For example, Labrador Retrievers will instinctively hold their breath underwater, while French Bulldogs will probably take a few gulps of water before the instinct kicks in.

This article will explain the dog’s breath-holding instincts and go through the benefits and risks of letting dogs swim – both above and underwater. Finally, we will offer some helpful tips on ensuring a safe swimming experience for your special pooch.


Dogs can hold their breath underwater because of the built-in natural defense mechanism known as the mammalian diving response. As with any other instinct, this mechanism overrides the basic reflexes, or in this case, it overrides the breathing.

The mammalian diving response is present in all mammals. However, its efficacy varies among species and individuals of the same species. For example, the result is most potent and most efficient in large aquatic mammals like walruses or whales.

When it comes to dogs, the mammalian diving response is more potent in dogs explicitly bred for swimming tasks. Anyway, with time and practice, all dogs can master the arts of swimming and diving.


The mechanism behind the mammalian diving response is simple yet highly efficient. Namely, when exposed to low oxygen levels, the body makes three adjustments to adapt to the new conditions:

  • Bradycardia – decreased heart rate to limit the body’s overall oxygen needs (the more slowly the heart pumps, the less oxygen it needs to work correctly)
  • Peripheral vasoconstriction – blood vessels narrowing to decrease the oxygen needs in the limbs, thus ensuring normal oxygen levels in the organs that need it most (heart, brain)
  • Blood shift – occurs to enable deeper diving and handling of the high pressure associated with more considerable depths (not very applicable to dogs since they do not dive that deep).


Sadly, not every dog breed has what it takes to join the canine swimming team. When it comes to swimming, dogs can be divided into three categories.

Dogs that can swim

This group includes dogs that carry the swimming skills and anatomical features in their genes – they have webbed feet, strong muscular legs, deep chests, and long muzzles. The group of natural swimmers lists breeds like:

  • Labrador and Golden retriever
  • Portuguese water dog
  • American and Irish water spaniel
  • Otterhound
  • German wirehair and short-hair pointer
  • Weimaraner
  • Chesapeake bay retriever
  • Nova scotia duck tolling retriever 
  • Poodle.

Dogs that can learn to swim

Because of their anatomical limitations, breeds like Bulldogs, Boxers, and Dachshunds have trouble keeping afloat. The flat face and narrow breathing passages combined with a stocky body and short legs do not equal a keen and skilled swimmer. However, with practice, these dogs can learn how to swim – they will not swim as effortlessly as the dogs in the above-described category, but they will be able to make few paddles safely.

Dogs that are scared to swim

Finally, some dogs are simply scared of swimming and dislike any activity that involves water. Even if a dog is anatomically and physically equipped for swimming, if it genuinely fears water, it does not make a good swimmer – stress leads to panicking, thus increasing the risk of drowning.


When someone says to teach your dog, we usually imagine a lengthy training process that requires tons of patience and tons of treats.

When it comes to swimming and holding breath, the teaching process is straightforward – all you have to do is let your dog swim, and your dog will learn independently.

Just make sure your dog is safe while learning – to prevent unwanted situations and accidents, do not take your dog swimming in places other than a small pool.


Swimming is excellent for dogs as it provides both physical and mental physical stimulation. In addition to helping dogs lose weight, swimming has therapeutic effects for dogs with musculoskeletal issues such as arthritis. It is also refreshing and will keep dogs cool on hot summer days.

The diving is beneficial too. Like in humans, holding the breath increases the lung capacity in dogs, thus improving the overall working efficiency. In the long run, increased lung capacity will allow the dog to tolerate more strenuous physical activities.


As described going underwater has its perks. However, it also has some risks. For example, certain body waters can be ridden with bacteria or parasites, harming the dog if ingested in significant amounts.

The good news is the amount of water a dog accidentally gulps while swimming and diving are rarely enough to cause any health concerns. However, if the dog drinks purposefully, it is possible to ingest enough germs. 


Unless practicing safety precautions, every activity can be dangerous. Here are some helpful tips for safe swimming and diving:

  • Never force your dog to swim (if scared and panicking, your dog drown or accidentally scratch or bite)
  • Equip your dog with a life jacket while learning how to swim
  • Check the water temperature before letting your dog swim (if the water is too cold, your dog may develop hypothermia – a life-threatening decrease of the body temperature)
  • Always make sure the body water is deep enough before letting your dog jump
  • Make sure your dog has access to clean and drinkable water (you do not want your dog drinking on chlorinated pool water, stall pond water, or saltwater)
  • Look for the presence of fishing gear before letting your dog swim (your dog’s feet can easily entangle in the fishing nets)
  • Freshwater bodies (lakes, rivers, ponds) harbor bacteria, parasites, and algae and sometimes can be treated with chemicals for algae growth control – these chemicals can be harmful to dogs and humans
  • Bathe or hose your dog after swimming to remove any chemicals, germs, or salt from the coat (use eye drops or saline to flush these potential hazards from the eyes and cotton balls to dry out the ears)
  • If your dog swims frequently, ask the vet for oral tick and flea preventives, as the topical options tend to lose efficacy when repeatedly exposed to water.   


Swimming is an excellent form of physical activity for dogs. In fact, swimming is recommended therapy choice for dogs with certain musculoskeletal conditions. In addition to exercising the body, swimming offers reasonably high mental stimulation for canines.

As for the diving and breath-holding part, we should refer to the old saying – “practice makes perfect.” Although the mammalian diving response is present in all dogs, it comes more naturally in certain swimming dog breeds. The other dogs will need to get used to the taste of swallowed water before mastering the skill.


What dog can swim the best?

The best swimmers in the canine world are members of the Retriever and Setter families, Poodles, and Portuguese water dogs. These dogs were initially bred to perform various water-related tasks, thus making excellent swimmers and divers. 

What breeds of dogs can’t swim?

Because of their disproportional body and facial anatomy, certain dog breeds like Bulldogs, Pugs, Dachshunds, Pekingese dogs, Bloodhounds, and Boxers do not make excellent swimmers (some cannot swim at all while others can but not as effortlessly as swimming breeds). Although the paddling instinct is present in all dogs, the instinct is physically limited in these breeds.

How long can dogs last underwater?

In theory, dogs can last underwater like untrained humans can – between one and two minutes. However, most dogs go underwater only when jumping or retrieving an object, meaning they rarely spend that much time submerged.

Why do dogs bite the water when they swim?

Dogs experience the world through their mouths, and biting is an essential part of their playing process. When swimming or diving, if overly excited and in play mode, dogs can see the water as a giant toy and bite on it as part of the playing.

Do dogs drink water when they swim?

Dogs drink some amount of water while swimming – part of it accidentally and part intentionally. The good news is the amount of water drank while swimming is rarely enough to cause health issues. However, this does not mean you should encourage your dog to drink pool or lake water – your dog needs constant access to fresh and clean drinking water.