teaching a labrador to swim -- 9/3/21

Today's selection -- from Good Dog by David DiBenedetto and the editors of Garden and Gun. Dominique Browning writes in "Swim Team" about how she taught Ozzie, a neurotic Labrador, how to swim:

"That dogs are emotional creatures -- that they keen with sadness, leap with joy, wiggle in friendship and waggle in play, that they endure heartbreak and separation -- is a thing well known to all who count these fascinating creatures among their best friends. But that dogs suffer neuroses? That they can be crippled by anxieties buried in their tribal past? That fears as deeply buried as last year's bones can ooze up out of the primordial pink of their brains, and keep a dog from being all the dog that she can be? Or that their genetic pools might get twisted and polluted as ours do? I had no idea, until I met Ozzie.

"There was something off about Ozzie from the moment she entered the lives of her owners -- dear friends of mine, so I was able to observe her case at a close distance over many years. She was adorable; what puppy is not? A chocolate Lab, full of bounce and energy, Ozzie never met a shoe she did not chew. But what was cute in a baby was less so in an adolescent, and intolerable in a young adult. Dogs, as you know, have a way of bounding through these stages at warp speed.

"Ozzie seemed untrainable. ... Those sweet, indulgent friends of mine ... finally sent her off to boot camp so that she might have a chance to pull herself together. And it worked, sort of. Still, Ozzie could not stop chewing. Chewing herself, that is. And she was chronically depressed, putting on weight, listless, turning her back on all the doggyness the world had to offer. Finally, she was diagnosed with obsessive-compulsive disorder. Before too long Ozzie was chowing down Prozac, or Wellbutrin, or some such chemical cocktail, so that she might have a chance at a full and happy life. ...

"We were living on the coast of Rhode Island, and we went to the beach every day to walk and play. When Ozzie was a puppy, I looked forward to doing that thing everyone does with Labs -- throwing balls and hanks of driftwood into the ocean, watching as their Labs hurtle across the sand, dash out into the foaming surf, and retrieve the things, battling the break of waves, riding the swells, return joyfully triumphant to drop the thing at their owners' feet, gaze soulfully up, brimming with quiet dignity, tail wagging proudly to do it, please, just one more time. 

"But Ozzie was afraid of the water. Very, very afraid of the water. She wouldn't go near it. ... This is when I began to suspect that something was really wrong. ... One day, I had an idea. I decided that somewhere deep down inside, Ozzie knew that she was a swimmer. She knew she was supposed to frolic in the surf; she knew she was meant to pull through cold water. Ozzie knew all this, in her doggy Labby soul.  She was suck ... She could not see a way out. ... But I could. I would teach Ozzie to swim.

"We went to the beach ... I sat down next to Ozzie in the warm sand. I began to talk quietly to her about water. ... As I talked, I moved slowly, gently, closer to the tideline. Ozzie huddled next to me. ... I held her paw in my hand, as we sat, and as the waves came up, she flinched a bit -- I could feel a shudder pass through her -- but then she settled down. ... Before too long, we were sitting in a few inches of water, just holding paws. I coaxed Ozzie into a lying down position, and I got onto my own tummy. ... Soon the water was high enough to give me some buoyancy.  I pinned my elbows into the sand, and faced the waves, tadpole style. Ozzie scrambled to her feet, but she stayed with me. I moved a bit deeper into the water, and Ozzie began wading. I laced my arm around her leg and up under her neck. She knew I was right there with her. She was knee deep, then gut deep, determined to stay on her feet. I let a wave push me up against her, and gave her a little bump, just the tiniest shove, and Ozzie was off her feet -- just for a few seconds, until the wave retreated. ... 

"I took her paw again, and on the next wave, the next moment of buoyancy, I crooked her leg, and showed her how to paddle, She backed off, so I told her I would do it, a little dog paddle just the way people learned to swim, and just the way other dogs did it. ... Ozzie was getting excited I could tell. A spark lit in her eyes. ... Before too long, we were swimming. ... Ozzie was swimming."

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Dominique Browning


Good Dog


Harper Wave


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