Why Do Dogs Paddle Their Arms Before They Touch the Water?

All dogs instinctively paddle their front paws when submersed in water, according to the Association of Professional Dog Trainers. (Ref #3)
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As you hoist your pup into a tub of sudsy water for his weekly bath or ease him into the pool for a refreshing swim on a hot day, you may notice his front paws paddling away even before they've made as much as a splash or ripple. Fido may not be able to tell you why he paddles in the air when held over water, but there are several possibilities for this curious behavior.


When you pick up your dog to put him in the tub, scooping him up into what for him is an unnatural position -- up in the air, legs dangling -- his reaction may be to paddle his legs, even before he is in the water. Jody Epstein, certified professional dog trainer and AKC-certified canine good-citizen evaluator, says that, for some pups, this paddling is simply a reflexive behavior in response to his being up off the floor and thus feeling a lack of stability.


For some pooches, legs begin paddling out of panic. Dogs not used to being picked up may become very insecure at suddenly being off the floor, reacting in one of two ways. One reaction is to freeze, with the dog lowering his core body weight -- think of the dead weight of a dog who doesn't want to be picked up. The other response is to try to escape. “Escape may be large and obvious movements such as squirming their whole body and pushing away from the person holding them," Epstein says, "or it may be subtle and appear to be ‘air-swimming.’”

Learned Behavior

Another reason for dog-paddling mid-air is that it has become a learned behavior. “If the dog paddled the first time he was picked up,” Epstein explains, “and the response by humans was very positive -- oohs and ahhs and giggles. She adds, “Then the dog may do the behavior again in the future.” If the response is equally positive, the dog will believe that this behavior is good, and he will deliver an encore performance each time he's picked up.

Lifting Small Dogs

You can help your pup feel more secure in this entirely unnatural position, Epstein says, by lifting him in such a way that he feels stable at both ends of his body. For example, rather than picking up a small dog like a human baby, with hands around chest and back legs dangling, first positioning yourself so that you're next to him rather than facing him. Then, in this parallel position, use your arm nearest him to reach over his body and "scoop" him toward you, bringing his back end toward you as you use your arm to gently squeeze his back end against your torso, all the while holding and supporting his front end with both hands.

Lifting Large Dogs

A large dog, Epstein explains, should be approached from a perpendicular position with you facing his side. From this position, she says, bring one arm around in front of his front legs -- under the chin/across the dog's chest -- and the other arm around and behind his back legs. The arm at his back end should land behind the dogs knees, she adds, so that as you gently squeeze your arms together, your back arm becomes something of a "seat" for the dog to rest its behind upon. “In this way,” she says, “with both large and small dogs, we are picking them up in a way that creates the most secure and stable environment for them in this unnatural position.”