Why Do Dogs Paddle Over Water?
If you’re in the group that a) has a pet dog, b) is really bored, and c) doesn’t know what this post is about–then we have something entertaining for you to do right now. Your furry friend could probably use a bath anyway. So if you’re running a bath for your dog and you can hold them, why not watch what happens as you hold them above the water. They’ll start paddling as if they’re already in water. So why do dogs paddle above water? If you want videos of dogs doing this, there’s a subreddit dedicated to it.
It Might Not Have to Do With Water
Despite the motion in question being something we associate with swimming, your dog might not be paddling because of water at all. We will get into swimming reflexes and the like later, but the paddling could actually be out of panic. If your dog doesn’t like being picked up, they might paddle not because they’re trying to swim, but because they’re literally freaking the heck out.
Don’t panic your dog if they don’t like being picked up. You’ll probably know if your dog panics when they’re picked up or not.
Dogs Paddle and Dogs Walk
For those keeping track, dogs have four legs. Like all quadrupedal animals, they walk differently from us bipeds. Chiefly, the movements required for us to walk are more fine and require a lot more micromanagement than walking on four legs. Makes sense, it’s a lot harder to balance when you only have two points of contact with the ground, opposed to the dog’s four.
What that means is a lot less “conscious control” (if you will) is dedicated to walking for quadrupeds. It’s mostly automatic–which is why you’ll basically never see your dog looking down to keep track of their feet. On the other hand, we humans reflexively check in on the ground now and then–especially when we’re on uneven terrain.
So for dogs, movement of the legs is largely controlled by whether or not they feel the ground.
Which means it’s more likely that dogs aren’t actually walking or preparing to swim. Your pup is probably just looking for the ground.
It could also just be learned behavior for dogs–especially if you’ve had them swim before. Either that or you were laughing when you held your dog over the tub.
You can even observe humans doing a similar thing. Some skydiving instructors will tell you you might want to run really bad while skydiving–which some people do out of reflex.
The Diving Reflex
Turns out, mammals really don’t like having their normal environment upset either. You know, like having your internal body temperature go up even just a little is called a fever. It’s all homeostasis–literally “same state.” As far as we’re concerned, it’s mostly stuff like maintaining consistent blood pressure, having an empty bladder, stuff like that. When things are upset, you get a series of homeostatic reflexes to bring yourself back to baseline. Think stuff like shivering, bladder control, etc.
One thing that really upsets homeostasis is being in water (who would have thought). Which is where the diving reflex comes in–turns out some homeostatic reflexes don’t always work very well in water. It’s a lot stronger in aquatic mammals like dolphins, but humans also have been known to exhibit it.
So what does the diving reflex even do in the first place? It optimizes oxygen consumption–part of the reason animals like seals and dolphins can stay underwater for so long.
Dog Paddle/Doggy Paddle
The method by which dogs swim has kind of become ubiquitous with swimming. Throw a baby in the water (do not throw, you can just set them down) and they’ll do the same thing. So ubiquitous that studies have been done on this. Ironically, one of the leads of this study is named Frank Fish.
The movements going on are almost identical to how they move on land, which just means your dog is trying to walk in water.
So the long short, your dog’s paddling around probably has little to nothing to do with water. It has more to do with trying to find a ground that isn’t there.
Trivia fact, apparently the US military teaches the doggy paddle since your limbs never breach the surface of the water. Also here are baby animals swimming.