Dogs have been loyal companions of humans on dry land and the seven seas for many millennia. Some breeds make better dogs on boats than others, while others were bred to be hunting companions for waterfowl.
Some dogs appear to be made for the water, sporting thicker coats, webbed toes, and a sturdy build that enables them to swim with stamina. However, not all dogs are natural swimmers.
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Portuguese water dogs have such a natural affinity for water that it became part of their official name. These avid splash masters don’t have to be asked twice to enter the water. They were originally bred for life as a fisherman’s friend, so it’s a natural sight to see these dogs on boats. The Portuguese water dog made a name for itself assisting Portuguese fishermen by swimming in between boats, herding fish into nets, and even retrieving lost tackle and gear. Today, they’re often used in dock diving competitions, water trials, and agility competitions. They are a natural fit for water-loving families and will happily spend the day aboard a vessel.
Height: 17 to 23 inches
Weight: 35 to 60 pounds
Physical Characteristics: Wavy or tightly curled coat; black, black and white, and brown, though color may also be white or silver-tipped
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You might imagine a poodle to be more at home strolling a city street than pouncing into the water, but the truth is that these are true water dogs at heart. The name "poodle" derives from the German word "pudl," which translates as “to splash in water.” The characteristic curly coat served to keep the dog warm as it plunged into chilly water to retrieve birds and other game. The familiar puff balls of fur over the dog’s knees, feet, head, body, and tail were originally a functional grooming choice to keep these vital areas warm, rather than a fashion statement. It’s interesting to note that standard, toy, and mini poodles are all the same breed and are equally water adept.
Height: Standard: 15 inches; miniature: 10 to 15 inches; toy: 10 inches and under
Weight: Standard: 45 to 70 pounds; miniature: 15 to 18 pounds; toy: 5 to 9 pounds
Physical Characteristics: Curly, dense single-layer coats that may be one of many solid colors, including white, black, grey, brown, and apricot
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Labrador retrievers have long been one of America’s most popular pooches, and these dogs are happy on land or sea, as long as they’re with their people. However, the lab was bred with waterfowl hunting in mind and claims the St. John’s water dog as its ancestor, which is a combination of the Newfoundland and small spaniels. These dogs are always game for hopping into pools, ponds, lakes, oceans and anything else wet—especially if there’s a ball involved. Get these dogs on a boat, and they’ll be ready to go for a ride and happily plunge in to retrieve a favorite toy.
Height: 21 to 24 inches
Weight: 55 to 80 pounds
Physical Characteristics: Medium to large-sized sturdy, athletic build; smooth, water-resistant coats; otter-like tail; a clean-cut head with a broad skull and powerful jaws; and friendly eyes
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Also known as a Chessie, these lesser-known retrievers are a slightly stockier retriever with a thicker, denser coat. Its double coat is oily and provides excellent water-resistance as well as insulation, which makes it perfect for a water-loving dog. These dogs were originally bred in Maryland and Virginia to be hunting companions in search of waterfowl. Their warm coat, combined with strength and stamina, made these dogs a natural fit for spending hours and hours in the wet estuaries of the mid-Atlantic region.
Height: 21 to 26 inches
Weight: 55 to 80 pounds
Physical Characteristics: Short, wavy, waterproof coat that comes in solid shades of brown, deadgrass, and sedgeContinue to 5 of 10 below.
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One of Canada’s most treasured breeds is a small-stature, water-loving retriever that possesses a unique tolling talent. The Nova Scotia duck tolling retriever, sometimes referred to as "a toller," gets its name from its peculiar ability to toll or lure ducks within range of the hunter by using playful antics. Once the waterfowl is downed, the toller is happy to jump into the water and retrieve the game.
Height: 17 to 21 inches
Weight: 37 to 51 pounds
Physical Characteristics: Medium-length, water-repellent, dense double coat with golden-red, orange, copper coloring, usually with white markings on the face, chest, and paws
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The Newfoundland (Newfies) are known as gentle giants. But what you might not know is that they’re really gentle water giants. It is believed that this big breed got its start when European fishermen brought dogs on boats that landed in Newfoundland, Canada. These men lived and worked by the sea and they began breeding a capable, hardworking companion that also had a knack for water rescue.
The Newfoundland’s large size and intuitive ability to help a person in distress have made them a literal lifesaver. If you keep a Newfie for a pet, you’ll have a loyal companion that is right by your side at all times and always ready for a swim in the pool—just make sure the pool is big enough for your Newfie and you.
Height: 26 to 28 inches
Weight: 100 to 150 pounds
Physical Characteristics: Large, heavy-coated powerful body with a broad, massive head with small ears that lie close to the head
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Like other retrievers, the curly-coated retriever is a natural fit for life by the water. The tight, curly coat of this retriever assists it in staying warm and maintaining its body temperature when diving into lakes or rivers on a hunt. These dogs have a rich heritage tied to the water; they’re descended from two extinct breeds that formerly served as water dogs—the English water spaniel and the retrieving setter. It’s also believed that the poodle may be responsible for lending this breed some of its characteristic curls—and no doubt its natural affinity for the water.
Height: 23 to 27 inches
Weight: 50 to 90 pounds
Physical Characteristics: Small, tight, water- and weather-resistant curls that cover the body from the tail all the way up to the top of the head with a feathering fringe of hair on the ears, belly, thighs, feet, legs, and tail
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Hailing from the southern part of the U.S., the Boykin spaniel has a reputation for being an easy-going family companion that’s well-suited for life on the lake—or pond, ocean, stream, or river. It sports webbed toes and a compact, athletic body that is well-suited for swimming. Take this dog on the boat or out for your next duck hunting adventure and you’ll have a happy pal that’s always ready to go. Other spaniels that are well-suited for water include the American water spaniel and Irish water spaniel.
Height: 14 to 18 inches
Weight: 25 to 40 pounds
Physical Characteristics: Medium-sized dog with floppy ears and a deep brown, medium-length, curly coat with a lighter, red-colored fringeContinue to 9 of 10 below.
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In the 1690s, the schipperke became popular on barges in the Dutch-speaking part of Belgium, Flanders, and earned its name meaning "little captain" in Flemish. Often called the canal boat dog, these dogs were popular as ratters as well as served as great guard dogs when boats would anchor for the night.
Height: 10 to 13 inches
Weight: 6 to 20 pounds
Physical Characteristics: Small, sturdy, double-coated squarish body sloping downward from the shoulders to hindquarter; fox-like face
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The Irish setter was developed from mixing the Irish terrier, Irish water spaniel, English setter, and pointer. A gun dog, it was designed for hunting and retrieving waterfowl. Its strong limbs can keep it afloat and in the water for prolonged periods of time. It's a true water lover.
Height: 22 to 26 inches
Weight: 53 to 71 pounds
Physical Characteristics: Flat, silky, long coat of deep chestnut red or mahogany with feathering on the chest, belly, legs, tail, and long, floppy ears
Breeds to Avoid
Dogs that are not designed for swimming include top-heavy breeds, brachycephalic breeds (flat-faced), or short-legged dogs. Avoid breeds like boxers, bulldogs, pugs, and dachshunds. These breeds tend to have problems staying afloat or tire easily due to the structure of their breathing organs. Many small dogs may be good swimmers, but if the water is too cold, most of these dogs may get chilled or may spook easily in uncommon situations. If you have a non-swimmer on your hands and plan to have it on a boat or near water, a pet flotation device is a safe bet.