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Throw a dog who has never made a go at swimming into a pool and, basically immediately he will start moving his four legs in an arrangement of movements we are calling the dog paddle.

Toss a human who has never made a go at swimming into a pool and if he’s lucky he might come to his senses in time to work his way to the side of the pool. He will do so not utilizing an instinctual breast stroke or freestyle movement. Instead he will do something similar what dogs do.

Apparently the dog paddle is instinctual. It’s primitive. Exactly how primitive it might be is under investigation by Dr. Frank Fish, a professor of Biology at West Chester University who has used a large portion of his professional career trying to find out how marine mammals evolved as creatures that can swim.

Swimming-walking-Comparison borderless sm

Comparison canine running and swimming movements

He has also been studying the swimming movements of canines, and he concluded that the dog paddle is very much alike the movements dogs use in running. That clarifies the ease with which most dogs can make the move from land to water requiring no lessons, and little persuasion. They fundamentally push themselves forward in the water the same way as they do on land. Dr. Fish and his fellow researchers saw that dogs swim much like they run — with diagonal sets of legs moving in the same direction, as reported by Science Daily. Dr. Fish presented his discoveries at the 2014 Society for Integrative and Comparative Biology (SICB) meeting in Austin, Texas.

Inspired by Dr. Fish’s research, we performed a little investigation ourselves. Of course not as scientific as Dr. Fish but just out of curiosity we searched for underwater videos of swimming dogs on the internet and analyzed the swimming patterns. And what we discovered was similar to what Dr. Fish found. The only difference we noticed was that the dogs in ‘our’ videos moved their front and hind legs of one side in the same direction whereas Dr. Fish found that his test subjects were moving diagonal sets of legs in the same direction. This could be caused by the fact that the dogs in our videos where relatively long-legged and long-legged dogs tend to pace instead of trot while on land to avoid interference between front and hind legs. But in fact, our findings are supporting Dr. Fish’ hypothesis that the dogs’ gait in the water is similar to the one on land.

Nonetheless, although all dogs generate sufficient push on land to move forward, not every dog paddle is sufficiently effective to keep the animal afloat in the water. In addition, many dogs have no idea how to move to shore or to the side of the pool. In fact, when it comes to swimming capabilities dog breeds can be divided into 3 categories. There are those that can swim, those that can be taught to swim and those who just are not built for the water.

The latter category includes dogs with a heavy chest and small hindquarters such as the English and French Bulldog, short muzzled dogs such as the Pug, and dogs with very short legs, such as the Dachshund. There simply isn’t enough push from their relatively short legs to keep their relatively heavy bodies comfortably afloat in aquatic environments or they have a hard time swimming because their shortness of breath results in easy fatigue.

Water Loving Dog-Breeds

Dog breeds that excel in swimming

At the other end of the spectrum are the excellent swimmers such as the Water Spaniels, Retrievers, Irish Setters and Newfoundlands. This is mainly because of the strong push that they manage to create with their legs and probably simply because swimming is in their genes. Many of these breeds were bred specifically to retrieve game from the water or for water rescue and most of these dogs truly enjoy being in water.

Now that we know more about canine swimming the question arises under what circumstances and for what kind of dogs we need to use a flotation device in order to keep him safe. Unfortunately we have not been able to find any research about the conditions surrounding dog drownings to be able to provide a scientific answer to that question. Also official governmental organizations such as the US Coast-Guard have not defined any criteria for the use of dog flotation devices.

But it’s needless to say that a life vest will help keeping your pet safe while in or around any body of water or aboard your boat. And since you do not want to take any risks if it comes down to your dogs’ safety, you should never let your dog swim in a large body of water without a floatation aid or life vest. Certainly in this case an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure.

A summary of the related scientific article is recorded below.

How Dogs Do the ‘Dog Paddle’: An Evolutionary Look at Swimming

Fish, F. Society for Integrative and Comparative Biology (SICB). ScienceDaily, 5 January 2014.

Most adults remember their first success in learning to swim using the ‘dog paddle’. This classic maneuver has been used to describe swimming in armadillos, turtles, even humans — just about everything except dogs. Dr. Frank Fish, a professor of biology at West Chester University, set out with his colleagues to understand how real dogs perform the dog paddle. Fish has spent most of his career studying the swimming of marine mammals such as whales. But looking at swimming in dogs afforded Fish the opportunity to investigate how swimming in marine mammals may have evolved from walking in their terrestrial ancestors.