Do Dogs Know That They Can’T Breathe Underwater?

Dogs’ Ability to Hold Their Breath

Dogs can only hold their breath underwater for a short period of time. According to Dogtime, the average dog can hold its breath underwater for 5-10 seconds.

There are some differences between breeds when it comes to breath holding ability. Bulldogs and other brachycephalic (short-nosed) breeds tend to only be able to hold their breath for about 5 seconds. Other breeds with longer snouts like Labrador Retrievers can hold their breath underwater for up to 10 seconds.

Breath holding is an instinctual behavior in dogs. When they submerge in water, their bodies automatically hold their breath to prevent inhaling water. However, this is only a short term survival mechanism. Dogs do not have the lung capacity or ability to consciously control their breathing like humans do to prolong time spent underwater.

Dogs’ Swimming and Diving Instincts

Most dogs, even those not bred specifically for water work, have a natural swimming ability and enjoy being in the water. Breeds such as Labrador and Golden Retrievers, Poodles, Portuguese Water Dogs, and others were historically used as water retrievers and have an exceptionally strong drive for swimming and diving. Their webbed paws, water-resistant coats, and muscular builds give them an advantage in the water over other breeds.

The retrieving instinct is very strong in these breeds – they love to chase after anything that moves, even if it means plunging into the water after it. Their drive to chase a toy or ball overcomes any hesitation they may have about going underwater. However, just because dogs have natural swimming abilities does not mean they can judge how long they can safely stay underwater. Most dogs, unless specifically trained for underwater work, do not have an innate understanding of how long they can hold their breath.


Dock Diving: What You Need To Know

Understanding of Cause and Effect

Dogs have some ability to understand cause and effect relationships, although this varies by breed and individual dog. Through observation and experience, many dogs learn that going underwater prevents them from breathing normally. However, their comprehension is limited compared to humans.

Recent studies show that domesticated dogs do not grasp cause and effect as well as wolves. Turning dogs into pets has weakened this innate wolf ability. However, on an individual level, some intelligent dogs can make fairly complex connections. For example, they may learn to associate a specific action like ringing a bell with getting a treat.

When it comes to water, most dogs can connect going underwater with holding their breath and the need to come up for air. However, their understanding is based more on instinct and experience rather than higher-level reasoning skills. While capable of learning through observation, dogs rely heavily on conditioning and repetition. Overall, dogs have a functional but limited comprehension of cause and effect relationships as they relate to breathing underwater.

Self-Preservation Instincts

Dogs do have self-preservation instincts that drive them to resurface for air when submerged underwater. When a dog’s oxygen starts running out during a prolonged dive, they will exhibit a panic response as the instinct for self-preservation kicks in. This manifests in frantic motions to swim back to the surface and get above water where they can breathe again.

As one dog owner describes it: “When my labradoodle jumps into the pool, he’ll swim around happily for a bit grabbing his toy. But when he’s been under too long, he starts scrambling in a bit of a panic to get back above water to breathe” ( The panic response comes from an innate drive for self-preservation when the dog’s oxygen runs low.

Training Dogs for Water Safety

Having supervision and training dogs around water is very important. According to Dutch’s blog, you should never leave your dog unattended near water. It’s best to be in the water with your dog so you can monitor them and intervene if needed.

It’s also crucial to teach dogs how to get themselves out of the water. As recommended by the AKC, when swimming with your dog, you can point them back to shore or the pool ramp so they learn to exit the water themselves (AKC). This allows them to develop the self-preservation skill of getting out of the water when tired.

Starting slow with short swimming sessions, using flotation devices, and rewarding dogs for coming back to you can reinforce safe behaviors in the water. Proper training and supervision gives dogs the tools to stay safe, while allowing them to enjoy swimming.

Drowning Risks and Prevention

Certain breeds like bulldogs, pugs, dachshunds, and corgis are prone to exhaustion and drowning while swimming due to their short snouts and dense builds which make swimming difficult for them. According to the American Kennel Club, these brachycephalic breeds can easily overheat and drown if they are in the water too long without rest [1].

It’s also important to never leave any dog unsupervised around water like pools, beaches, or lakes. An estimated 5,000 pets drown in pools each year according to statistics from Lakeview Pool Fencing [2]. Dogs that fall into a pool may not be able to get out on their own due to lack of grip or high pool walls, so supervision is critical to prevent accidents and drowning incidents.

Life Jackets for Dogs

Life jackets for dogs are recommended for recreational water activities where there is risk of falling into the water and drowning, such as boating, kayaking, paddle boarding, and swimming. Proper sizing and fitting of a life jacket is crucial for it to serve its purpose. Life jackets should fit snugly without restricting movement. A properly fitted life vest will not ride up on the dog’s body or neck. Measure your dog’s chest girth to ensure a proper fit according to manufacturer sizing guidelines.

Look for a life jacket made from durable, quick-drying materials with flotation padding and bright colors for visibility. Adjustable straps, handles, and a leash attachment point are other useful features. Test out the life jacket in a pool or shallow water before relying on it in an emergency. Make the dog wear the life jacket for increasing periods to get them accustomed to it.

Providing Oxygen After Near-Drowning

If a dog has nearly drowned and is not breathing on its own, it is critical to provide oxygen quickly. This can be done through dog CPR techniques to get the lungs working again.

To perform dog CPR after a near-drowning:

  • Lay the dog on its right side on a firm, flat surface.
  • Open the mouth and pull the tongue forward to ensure an open airway.
  • Place your mouth over the dog’s nose and mouth sealing it. Blow firmly to make the chest rise.
  • Give 1 breath every 3-5 seconds. Take a deep breath yourself, and repeat until you feel resistance or see the chest rise.
  • After 10 seconds, stop and watch for breathing. If not breathing, continue breathing for them until you reach veterinary care or they begin breathing.

Veterinary care should be sought immediately in any near drowning situation. Even if a dog seems to resume breathing, water may still be in the lungs and further care is needed. Call ahead to the veterinary office so they can prepare oxygen support and continue breathing for the dog.

With rapid CPR and veterinary treatment, many dogs can recover after being underwater for a couple of minutes. But time is critical, so starting rescue breathing is essential for the best chance of survival and limiting brain damage.

Signs of Water Inhalation Injury

If a dog inhales water into their lungs, even just a small amount, it can cause serious respiratory issues. Some of the most common signs of water inhalation injury in dogs include:

Difficulty breathing – Dogs may breathe rapidly, take shallow breaths, gasp for air, or be unable to catch their breath after inhaling water. This is because water in the lungs interferes with oxygen exchange.

Coughing, choking sounds – Dogs may cough, gag, choke or produce wet rattling sounds when breathing as their body tries to expel water from the airways and lungs. Frothy or blood-tinged discharge from the nose may occur.

Lethargy – Lack of energy, weakness and extreme fatigue are common after near drowning incidents. Oxygen deprivation from water inhalation causes the dog to be sleepy and less active.

Other signs like bluish gums, vomiting, confusion and collapse can also occur with water inhalation. Even small amounts of water aspiration can be dangerous for dogs. Prompt veterinary treatment is crucial to prevent secondary drowning complications like pneumonia or respiratory failure.

Treatment for Water Inhalation

If a dog inhales water, quick treatment is essential to remove fluid from the lungs and prevent complications. According to the High Street Vet Clinic, the main treatments for water inhalation are draining fluid from the lungs, oxygen therapy, and monitoring for pneumonia.

To drain fluid, the dog’s head and chest may be positioned downward while being monitored or tapped gently to encourage expulsion of water (High Street Vet Clinic, n.d.). Providing immediate oxygen therapy can help counter the effects of oxygen deprivation and fluid in the lungs. According to Today’s Veterinary Practice, oxygen therapy is a standard treatment for environmental lung injuries like near drowning (Cortright, 2021).

The dog will need to be closely monitored for symptoms of pneumonia or other issues after inhaling water. Pneumonia is a top concern after water inhalation due to inflammation and the risk of inhaled contaminants (Cortright, 2021). With proper drainage, oxygen, and monitoring, many dogs can recover well after inhaling water if treated promptly.


Cortright, V. N. (2021). Treating environmental lung injuries: Drowning and smoke inhalation. Today’s Veterinary Practice.

Near drowning syndrome. (n.d.). High Street Vet Clinic.

Scroll to Top