Dogs, Summer and Poolside Etiquette

06/14/2013 12:36 pm ET Updated Aug 14, 2013

I woke up last Friday, took one look at my daily roster, and felt my metaphorical tail start to wag. My 4 p.m. appointment would reunite me with an old time student, a pit bull named Zach, and his parents, Bill and Nancy, from Greenwich, Conn.

When I first met Zach, he'd just been adopted from a humane group in New York. Zach was lithe, athletic, and, well... spontaneous. He could, for example, spontaneously leap from the floor to kiss your face. He might spontaneously goose your backside with his signature snout-jab in a moment of great excitement, or spontaneously destroy a shoe when left to his own devices. There was not a mean bone in his body, but teaching him social etiquette proved to be challenging. Private lessons, group class, socialization outings -- he was my groupie, and through it all an eager and enthusiastic student. I was smitten with Zach the moment I set eyes on him. Had it really been four years?

The family reached out to me after the installation of an in-ground pool. They thought their dog would be overjoyed, as he loved nothing more than a splash in the brook or to course the ocean waves. Zach's reaction to the pool, however, was far from favorable. When taken poolside he would eye it warily, resist any enticements to come closer, and bark furiously if anyone dove beneath the surface. His parents described it as a "full blown panic attack," and were distressed to see their dog morph from eager and lovable to frantic and inconsolable.

When I arrived I expected the usual treatment, a sloppy gaited, lip flapping, paws outstretched greeting from one of my favorite students. Who should greet me at the gate but a calm, full figured, version of his young-self. At first he hesitated, eyeing my enthusiasm with caution, but after recognizing the cadence in my voice he approached calmly. Smelling my outstretched palm, I saw the light of familiarity crease his brow and off he raced to take a few happy-laps across his yard. It felt exhilarating to be in his presence.

And then it was pool time. Modern and fancy, the pool measured 18-34' and had a dark colored bottom. To a child's eye, it might look like a tomb for a giant were it not filled with 23,000 gallons of water. If you read my recent columns on canine vision, "Teaching a Dog to Come" and "Does Your Dog Need Glasses," you might already be predicting the crux of the problem. Three hints: Black bottom pit, a dog who lacks visual depth perception, and people who used loving affection to try to intercede, but who inadvertently reinforced his anxiety.

Pools, as well as stairs, cars, elevator, tunnels are incomprehensible to other species, though most pets condition to our way of life so seamlessly it rarely causes anyone pause to consider it. But then there are the Zachs of the world -- a category of canines that over-thinks modern civilization. Initially refusing to accept our idiosyncratic designs, they must be patiently and creatively conditioned to trust people even when their brain refuses to conceptualize a distraction. For these dogs, for the Zach's, we need to take some extra steps.

As Bill dove in the deep end, I watched as Zach clicked into high gear, looping the poolside like a parent forced to watch their child drowning. From my perspective, it appeared to be an altruistic concern as he was clearly not upset about his own safety. Perhaps my theorizing will spark a lively debate, and while I hope it will, once his family left the pool his behavior returned to normal almost instantly. The first step in shifting his perspective did not involve food, toys or interaction. The first modifications centered on changing the landscape he was visualizing.

I sent Bill and Nancy inside to fetch some bright white towels and hand weights, instructing them to sink the towels to the bottom of the pool in a patchwork formation. This would give the pool contrast to indicate a secure bottom. Taking Zach to the car, I collected an armload of children's pool toys and floatables to embellish the pool surface.

Before returning to the pool I played with Zach, interweaving cues, including Wait, Sit, Stay, and Come, rewarding him with dried chicken. We finished up our respite with his favorite ball game, taking his toy back with us when we returned to the pool. This time instead of displaying trepidation, he exhibited curiosity, giving pause to consider the broken patterns and floatables. We all sat at the edge rewarding Zach with food and petting him reassuringly. We progressively inched closer to the water, until he showed signs of distress, including opened-mouth panting, ears drawn sideways and pupils dilating to take in more information.

The rehabilitation will progress gradually, as Zach takes his meals poolside, eventually accepting his portion while his family is submerged, one toe at a time. Play training will take place around the pools edge, using whistles and clickers to alert and reinforce his attention. Finally Zach and his family will bone up on his relaxation protocol as best described by Dr. Karen Overall, DVMl, reviewing stationing both in and out of the house to ensure when he's directed to settle down on his mat that he picks up a bone and doesn't fret.

Have your own summertime woes or poolside frustrations? Describe them in the comment bar. I will address your concerns either directly or in an upcoming blog!

Note of Safety:
Many dogs drown in pools over the summer, though not for lack of a naturally ability to swim. The accident happens when they mistakenly fall into the water chasing prey/object or horsing around poolside. Conceptually they try to get out where they fall in, but if a lip or angle projects them backward they eventually exhaust themselves and drown. If you have dog/s who have easy access to the pool, teach them "Outta the Pool," said in a positive but commanding voice. Lead, carry them, or encourage them in from the deep end, directing them to the stairs. If they are particularly frantic, attach a long line or retractable lead to guide them. Though this technique may cause momentary confusion and stress, it quickly soothed and is far better than the possible alternative.