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Annual Dog Swim sees four-footers racing across the water – or not

13:37 11/10/2021

You think cats are unpredictable? Try entering your canine in the Dog Swim.

Hundreds of people once again took to the banks of a tributary of the Leie in Sint-Baafs-Vijve yesterday for the traditional Dog Swim. The event has been taking place annually for 170 years.

The rules are simple: Dogs swim across the water at a specific spot in the village – a district of Wielsbeke in southeast West Flanders – heeding the call of their masters on the other side. The tributary is 50 metres across at the spot, and the dogs are split into three categories according to size. Divers are in the water to ensure that everyone remains safe.

Following the first swim, a swimming final among the top contenders in all categories is arranged. The first dog to climb out of the river wins. There’s no real prize – except fame and glory among the citizens of Wielsbeke for a whole year. Most of the crowds gathered at the river are spectators.

Dogs at the Dog SwimSome dogs take to the water very enthusiastically; others can’t be bothered  ©Hondenzwemming Senteboas/Facebook

Some owners take the Dog Swim very seriously, training their four-legged friends in advance to swim directly across to them when they call. Others, well, just kind of let their dogs jump in and see what happens. Some dogs do head across when their owners call to them; others just splash around or swim in another direction.

Still other doggies decide against the whole thing, choosing to stay on shore as their owners call and call from the other side, completely ignored. “Oh no,” remarked one such young man whose dog indeed chose to stay on dry land. “It’s not working out, it’s a bit too much to ask. But we didn’t train for it, perhaps we should have. It’s probably a bit of nervousness and all the activity here.”

It’s true that there are many people calling at once, making it tough for the dogs to pay close attention. Also, there are a whole lot of other dogs around, which – hello – is pretty distracting.

One dog owner, when asked what her strategy, was for the race said: “I have no idea, none at all. It’s the first time we’ve done this. I just find it exciting.”

The exciting moments before the Dog Swim‘Training’ for the Dog Swim can be spotty  ©Hondenzwemming Senteboas/Facebook

The winner of the larger dog category did much better than last year, said her owner. “She loves to swim,” the owner told VRT. “But the last time she couldn’t see me over here. This time she did and swam straight across.”

Following the Dog Swim is a Dog Throw, where dogs are tossed from a tower, or perhaps a crane. Remain calm – they are stuffed toy dogs.

No one is entirely sure how the Dog Swim got started, but it’s thought that it stems from flax farmers working in fields on the other side of the tributary. They crossed by boat, and often the dogs would swim alongside. At the end of the day, the dogs swam back quickly, knowing an evening meal was waiting for them.

In any case, the entire event is recognised as protected heritage in Flanders. For those who want to take this in next year: The Dog Swim is always on the second Sunday of October.

Photo top: ©Frank Meurisse/Het Nieuwsblad


Written by Lisa Bradshaw