Training a Service Dog at a Pool

by Zan Raynor, certified dog trainer and CEO of ELLAS Animals INC

Opportunities for training a service dog at a pool

One of the biggest challenges of training a service dog is finding opportunities for exposure to the surroundings or situations that you want to train for. For example, it can be hard to train for fireworks if you only encounter them once or twice a year (hint: play sound clips from YouTube). We find we’re limited in our opportunities to provide consistent and safe exposure to horses and other farm animals, which made this summer’s county fair more challenging. Similarly, we don’t have a regular opportunity for training a service dog at a pool. Although we take our dogs paddleboarding/kayaking quite regularly and let them swim in natural water like bays, rivers, and ponds, we don’t have a pool and don’t usually encounter them except at hotels, which are short stays rather than the repeated and consistent exposure we’d need to train systematically. This month we have an opportunity so we’ve made a strategic plan to work on this with Pumpkin, one of our service dogs in training.

training a service dog at a pool front
Pumpkin is an almost two-year-old Great Pyrenees and Australian Cattle Dog mix.

The life of a touring service dog

We’re on tour this month, performing at a festival every evening, so we’ve rented a house and arranged for a month-long temporary gym membership (Lifetime Fitness) where they have several pools. Because of our work load, we only brought one of our service dogs in training. Pumpkin has over 400 hours of training in the last 15 months, and manages common public access outings flawlessly, but you really don’t know what your service dog in training can or can’t do until they do (or don’t do) it well. Because even well-trained dogs don’t generalize well, it’s important to ease into new encounters slowly when you can and give them a chance to adjust and test out their familiar skills in this unfamiliar situation. That’s how we approached training a service dog at a pool this month while we have the opportunity.

Timing it right for training a service dog at a pool

Pumpkin was a little off her game the first few days, so we waited until she had adjusted to other changes before hitting the pool with her. That’s to be expected because she suddenly had a new house and a new yard and her pack mates were nowhere to be found, but that’s not an ideal time to introduce something else new. We had to coax her into eating and she was skittish at a performance which was quite familiar to her. After a couple of days she was feeling more herself so we decided it was a good time to start our plan for training a service dog at a pool. 

First steps for training a service dog at a pool

When walking into the gym, Pumpkin just treated it like any other outing. She’s had several experiences at another gym without any pools (Planet Fitness), so that eased this a bit. Even walking through the locker room and maintaining her down-stay while I changed (and kept hold of her leash per the ADA), she was solidly within her comfort zone. It wasn’t until we walked through the door into the pool area that she balked, and even then it was just a little bit. She checked with me and decided she had the courage to venture forth since I seemed to think it was ok. Consider what an overwhelming environment this is for a dog the first time they encounter it. It’s really loud. It’s really hot and humid. It smells strongly of something unfamiliar that can even sort of hurt your nose and throat. The floor is wet and slippery. All of these factors are why we need to focus on training a service dog at a pool as a separate and distinct event. 

Just sitting to get accustomed to the environment

Since Pumpkin balked and was trembling a bit, I walked with her to the nearest seat (about 6 feet away) and sat down. I commanded her to sit but not down since that would make her feel even more vulnerable. We sat there, just watching, until she went from trembling to panting to yawning and then settled down. If she displayed signs of increasing distress, we would have considered that enough for one day and left, but she was visibly adjusting. 

Another easy and familiar command to gain confidence

Since she had settled down while in an easy and familiar command, we tried another one. We walked in heel around the edges of the two big pools (one for lap swimming and the other for families with water slides) and then between these and the two big hot tubs. At first she was looking around a lot with her head on a swivel and mini-balked a couple of times, but then she settled into her normal walking rhythm.

training a service dog at a pool head up vest
First I sat next to her at the edge of the pool.

At that point, we walked up to the family pool and sat on the ground next to each other. When that didn’t increase her tension, I scooted forward and hung my legs over the edge. When she handled that, I moved forward to slip into the pool. She stood and seemed as if she were considering what it would take to follow me in so I commanded her to sit and she did (I may have imagined her sigh of relief). I hung out in-but-at-the-edge of the pool for a while to make sure she was comfortable and then commanded her down. She did so willingly, which was another sign that she was doing ok with this training. Again, at any point, I was ready to step back and consider it a win, but she was obviously adjusting and managing her stress so we kept creeping forward. For a while her head was up in her down-stay but after a bit she put her head all the way down and visibly softened so I knew we had a major win. 

training a service dog at a pool head down
Later I slipped into the pool but stayed close to the edge.

Next steps after training a service dog at a pool

Since we were still in good shape, we decided to progress to another level for training a service dog at a pool. When I got out of the pool (where I just hung out by the side and kept hold of her leash), we went back to the locker room. I could tell she was eager to leave the pool area because her heel had a bit of a pull, which is unusual at this point in her training. In the locker room, she easily maintained her down-stay while I got my shower caddy out of the locker and then she walked, somewhat tentatively, toward the showers. I walked right into the shower and pulled the curtain behind her. Apparently it was close enough to her experience of bathroom stalls because she sat easily and waited it out while I showered.

A bit of a hiccup in the showers

At one point, I relaxed enough, confident in her training and current comfort level, to close my eyes while I brushed my teeth. I felt a tug on the leash (tethered around my waist) and noticed she had moved farther out toward the curtain than I wanted her so I tried to command her closer. Unfortunately, I had toothpaste in my mouth, water in my eyes, and an electric toothbrush vibrating in my hand, so my command was incomprehensible to her. In my effort to clear up enough of this to command her effectively, I dropped the toothbrush on her, which vibrated madly down her back while splatter painting her vest with minty white dots. As proof of her training, she barely flinched – just sat there patiently staring at me like I was an idiot. I pulled myself back together, finished up my shower (but not the rest of my toothbrushing), and toweled off while she just hung out.

Noisy dryers

We took the wet swimsuit to the spinning dryer and I thought the noise might bother her, as sometimes loud, unfamiliar noises do, but she just watched it with curiosity. We went back to the locker where she maintained her down-stay while I got dressed (at this point standing on the leash so I was in compliance with the law). Things were going so well that I even took a few minutes to blow dry my hair, again thinking the noise might startle her but again discovering that she just didn’t care. By the time we walked out, she was a little eager again with her heel but managed nicely enough out through the entrance and an opportunity to potty on the grass before loading into the car. 

Second session training a service dog at a pool

Over our months of training together, I’ve noticed that Pumpkin’s learning curve tends to be 4-6 repetitions. That is to say, if an environment or activity is really overwhelming for her and causes a lot of tension, we generally need to repeat it 4-6 times before she relaxes completely and considers it just part of her job. I anticipated this would be her pattern with my plan for training a service dog at a pool, so I didn’t expect much when we returned the next day. In fact, I’ve noted that Pumpkin sometimes does worse the second time around, when she knows what’s coming, before getting better and better from the third time forward. I was prepared for that, but pleasantly surprised that this wasn’t the case.

Starting from the beginning when training for the hot tub

training a service dog at a pool hot tub

She marched right into the gym, into the locker room and even into the pool area without any balking. She showed no signs of distress or tension so I didn’t bother with the sitting and heeling steps to orient her. We walked over to the hot tub. She did a mini-balk when we were about 3 feet away, probably because that’s when the motor sounds got pretty loud. We hadn’t done this the first day so we just sat for a while, me on the edge of the hot tub and her outside of it but next to it. She wasn’t at all stressed so I turned around and hung my legs into the tub. She didn’t seem to mind so I slipped into the tub, still holding the leash of course, and relaxed while she maintained a down-stay just outside the tub. If she had shown more reluctance or stress than the first time, I would have backed up to where she wasn’t showing any distress. Since she actually seemed more confident, I was able to go a step further and introduce something new. 

Forming a strategic plan for refining her pool skills

Pumpkin and I have been at this for quite some time together and I recognize her confidence level and can anticipate that she won’t have fear issues with the pool again. Now I can develop a strategic plan for refining or fine tuning exactly the skills and positions I want her to do while I’m enjoying the hot tub and the family pool. In our Public Access course, we help owner/trainers of service dogs become creative and strategic trainers by developing training plans like this to introduce new environments slowly and deliberately. 

Shout out to both Planet Fitness and Lifetime Fitness for being supportive of service dogs and service dogs in training. On every occasion I have found their staff to be helpful and welcoming.

Nothing in ELLAS Animals INC’s website or blog is intended as medical, legal, or financial advice. We receive no compensation for recommendations or reviews.

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