That Time of Year: Pool Opening

It is getting to be that time of year. The air is warming up and a backyard pool sounds like a desirable place to relax and beat the heat.

Whether you have a pool or recently installed one, there are a number of things to keep in mind for making it safe for your family. If you have a dog or your neighbors or guests have a dog, that includes thinking about their safety.

Dogs and Swimming Pools: Backyard Fun or a Deadly Combination

Let’s face it, most dogs love water. As the weather gets hot, the backyard swimming pool is a preferred destination. The water is enticing and most dogs don’t think about how they will get out until they need to.

Though largely unreported, accidental drowning of family pets in residential swimming pools is common. Pet advocacy organizations believe up to 5,000 family pets perish in swimming pools each year. With over 10 million swimming pools in the U.S. alone and 40% of households having at least one dog, that number is likely to increase.

Although healthy dogs can swim short distances, escape from a pool may be a life and death struggle. Barking is sometimes difficult once the dog is in the water. The untrained dog instinctively heads for the nearest edge of the pool and tries to claw its way out. Panic quickly leads to exhaustion. While dogs can be trained to go the shallow end where there may be steps, climbing to safety may be impossible for smaller dogs. Vinyl liner pools offer no grip and often include only a vertical ladder, which is nearly impossible for most dogs to climb. Even if they can climb the vertical human ladder, the risk of injury is high.

The Right Stuff: Dog Pool Safety Items

There are several items that will make having a pool with a dog safer and more enjoyable. Besides the obvious like having food and water for the dog and a place to get out of the direct sun when necessary, we recommend the following:

Dog Pool Barrier – Make sure you can prevent your dog (or a visiting dog) from getting into the pool without supervision. Most inground pools will require a perimeter fence, but an open gate or open door from the house are paths to potential trouble. Above ground pools may seem difficult to get in, but dogs can usually jump higher than we expect. That 4-foot high pool wall can be hurdled by a motivated dog. Even if it can’t, most above ground swimming pools have decks adjacent to the pool with access from the house or have steps to the deck. You can train your dog to not go in the pool without permission, but there are a lot of stimuli that can cause even the best-trained dog to jump in. If you need to restrain the dog while you are setting up for a pool party, use a leash or chain to tie them up temporarily. The location and length of the restraint is extremely important. You will want to make sure they can change position, but not be able to choke themselves. Test their freedom to move before leaving them unsupervised. Restraining your dog should only be done when necessary and for short periods of time. Make sure they have access to shade and water when restrained.

Dog Life Jacket – Purchasing a life jacket for the dog, especially if they are not a strong swimmer, will keep them afloat and provide a handle for lifting them out of the swimming pool. Like PFDs (personal floatation devices) for humans, they may also be referred to as life vests. The market is flooded with choices for dogs, but not all are constructed the same. Make sure the jacket is not too tight or too loose and the construction includes high quality stitching and attachments. A life jacket is only as good as the sewn connections, straps and handles. Make sure the jacket is not rubbing or chafing the dog and that they can properly move their legs to swim. Also make sure there aren’t any exposed flaps or straps that could get hooked on a pool hazard. Dog life jackets are often a situation where you get what you pay for. Also keep in mind that, when not swimming, the dog can get overheated with one on.

Dog Pool Ladder / Dog Pool Steps / Dog Pool Ramp – Purchasing a product so the dog can safely get out of the water and back onto the pool deck or surround on its own is the best solution for making swimming pool ownership safe and more enjoyable with a dog. While dog life jackets will prevent them from sinking, it does not get them out of the water without you lifting them up and back on deck. An injury to you or your dog while lifting can require expensive treatment and keep you out of the pool for the season. Even small dogs that can be easily lifted require you to set your drink down or interrupt what you were doing. If you are at the other end of the pool or distracted with conversation, you aren’t even there to lift them out of the water. Dog pool steps or dog pool ramps, often referred to as dog pool ladders, allow your dog to come and go from the swimming pool on their own without you needing to be there to lift them out of the water. As with dog life jackets, dog pool ladders are definitely a category where you get what you pay for. While most dog life jackets look similar, dog pool steps or dog pool ramps are very different and there is a lot to consider besides price.

Dog Pool Ladders: What to Consider

When purchasing a dog pool ladder, there are several considerations for selecting the best solution for your application. Most importantly, the product must be dog-friendly or your dog will get hurt using it or not use it at all.

A good, dog-friendly solution must:

  • Extend far enough below the water surface for the dog to get all four legs on it. If the dog cannot get its rear legs on it to climb up, they will be forced to try to pull themselves up using their front legs only. The dog should not have to do gymnastics to get out of the water. They should be able to swim on and walk up. In most cases for large dogs, you will want that low point to be 16 inches below the water surface. Small dogs can require as little as 8 inches below the water surface.
  • Have a reasonable ascent angle. If the dog ladder is a set of steps, the ascent angle should be 45 degrees or less and the step height should be less than 8” with shorter being better for small or older, arthritic dogs. If the dog ladder is a ramp, it should be 25 degrees or less. You should remember that the lower the angle will mean that the dog boarding device will need to stick out that much longer to provide enough surface under the water for the dog to get onto it. Think about where the end will need to be in your swimming pool and pick your installation location accordingly.
  • Be sturdy and not move when the dog steps on and applies their weight. Unexpected movement will scare the dog and they may not trust it. If the dog ladder relies on buoyancy to function, it will definitely move when weight is applied. Keep in mind that not only will the device move (sink down), the ascent angle will increase. In addition, if the device has a high amount of solid surface area, water currents could cause excessive movement.
  • Provide good traction for the dog to climb. Remember, there is water everywhere. Besides splashing, your dog may appear to be carrying and dumping half the swimming pool water up the device. If the dog ladder is flat steps, make sure they are wide and deep enough. The easiest way to assess that is look at your dog’s paw prints in the sand and measure their track (width of all four prints) and the size of the paw print. Most dogs have tracks of less than 10 inches wide and paws less than 4 inches in diameter. The steps should be flat for comfort and have plenty of holes to prevent standing water as well as a toe plate or raised lip on the back of the step to prevent their feet from sliding off. If the dog ladder is a ramp, it will need cross-direction ribs and drain holes to prevent it from being a water slide.
  • Provide good visibility. A dog’s color spectrum is limited to shades of gray, brown, yellow and blue. Obviously, around swimming pools with sunlight and very clear water, yellow is the best color for any dog ramp or steps and white is probably the worst.

In addition, from a swimming pool owner standpoint, the solution should:

  • Eliminate you needing to lift the dog out of the water or be there to help. You should never let your dog swim unsupervised, but keeping an eye on them doesn’t mean you have wrestle a dog out of the pool or set your drink down.
  • Not scratch or damage the swimming pool liner or finish. Avoid products that have sharp corners or require contact with the inside of the pool for support.
  • Be easily and quickly put in place or moved out of the way for humans-only pool parties. If you don’t know already, you will quickly learn that when a dog sees water, they want in. The less time it takes to place in the water, the less time you will hear them barking to go in. You should also evaluate whether the device can be deployed without getting into the water. Dogs are very interested in swimming in water conditions much cooler than humans like such as spring and fall. Dog pool steps or dog pool ramps that can be installed without getting in the water and leaning over the edge of the pool will allow for a longer dog swim season. The ideal solution should quickly pivot in to and out of the pool with very little effort.
  • Be easily removed and stored for the season. You will want to be able to remove and store the device at the end of the season, if you close the pool.
  • Be easily cleaned. Most pool dog ladders will remain clean since they are installed in clean water. However, in the event it was stored in a location where it did get dirty, you will want to be able to use a hose or pressure washer to clean it. As stated earlier, a yellow dog ladder is easier for the dog to see than one covered in brown dirt.
  • Provide years of enjoyment. A good, high-quality dog ladder will be made of non-corrosive components and provide good UV resistance to withstand hours of sunlight. Hardware should be stainless steel to withstand pool chemicals such as chlorine. A dog ladder should not be considered a disposable item. A good one is not cheap and should last. You also should look for one where spare parts and technical support are readily available.

Final Thoughts

Don’t let your dog become a statistic. Invest in a dog ladder so they can always get out safely and enjoy sharing your backyard pool with your dog without need to constantly lift them out. Sure, you could leave your dog inside the house or on the other side of the fence, but you and your family would be missing out on the enjoyment of water play with your dog. Swimming is one of the best exercise activities for your dog. There is nothing like a wet, wagging tail thanking you for letting them join in. Now, go make a splash!

Jim Perkins
April 15, 2022

About the Author

Jim Perkins is the Owner/President of WAG Products, LLC. His experience boating with dogs prompted him to design, develop and patent a dog ladder for his dog and boat that actually worked. As he shared what he was doing and listening to the needs of other dog owners, he introduced more designs. Today, WAG Products manufactures and sells a line of proprietary, American-made dog ladders under the brand name, WaterDog Adventure Gear® (WAG). WAG Boarding Steps™ are available for all types of boats, docks and swimming pools.