Throw a dog who has never gone swimming into a pool and, pretty much instantly, he’ll start moving his four legs in a series of motions we’ve come to call the dog paddle.
Throw a human who has never gone swimming into a pool and — though the possibilities are much higher for helpless flailing about, cussing, drowning, or becoming traumatized for life — he may eventually come to his senses enough to try and work his way back to the side of the pool. He’ll do so not using a butterfly stroke, breast stroke or Australian crawl, but by doing what dogs do.
The dog paddle: It’s seemingly instinctual. It’s primitive. And though we humans mostly outgrow it, it remains sort of the default mode of propelling ourselves through water.
Just how primitive it may be is under investigation by Dr. Frank Fish, a professor of biology at West Chester University who — maybe because of his name, maybe not — has spent most of his career studying how marine mammals swim.
Most recently, he has been studying the swimming motions of dogs, and he has concluded that they are very similar to the motions dogs use in trotting. That explains the ease with which most dogs can make the transition from land to water — requiring no lessons, and (generally) little coaxing: They basically propel themselves the same way in water as they do on land.
That their stride and strokes are nearly identical is interesting in itself, but Fish thinks it could also help explain how whales and dolphins ended up in the ocean.
Fish subscribes to the theory that marine mammals were intitially four-legged land dwellers who ventured into the water one day (likely dog paddling at first), decided they liked it better there, then evolved into such super swimmers that they no longer needed legs, or, for that matter, land.
For his research, Fish set up some underwater video cameras and enlisted eight volunteer dogs (including his own) of six different breeds, ranging from Yorkshire terrier to Newfoundland.
He borrowed a swimming pool used to rehabilitate horses at the University of Pennsylvania.
Analyzing the video, Fish and fellow researchers saw that dogs swim much like they run — with diagonal pairs of legs churning in unison, according to Science Daily. Fish presented his findings at the 2014 Society for Integrative and Comparative Biology (SICB) meeting in Austin.
While there’s plenty of dog research we’d categorize as a silly waste of time, we find all this pretty intriguing.
First, it reminds us that practice makes perfect — to think that long, long ago there might have been a couple of four-legged dolphins who didn’t know how to swim, hesitating at the edge of the water: “I dunno, it looks dangerous … should we go in?”
Second, in an era when we’re increasingly relying on computers to do our thinking for us, it serves as a warning that those muscles we don’t use can disappear. It raises a host of interesting questions about our future, and our past.
Why is it we humans tend to dog paddle in our first encounters with water? Is that some sort of instinctual nod to a past when we got about on four legs, instead of two?
If cavemen had spent more time at the swimming hole, might we homo sapiens have evolved into something more amphibious?
Given that, might mermaids really exist?
It’s kind of inspiring to think there might have been a day when dolphins, the planet’s most graceful swimmers, were total klutzes in the water — that they started off splashing about with some awkward looking dog paddling and progressed to the point where they could actually leap out of the water.
It reminds us that, maybe, anything is possible with enough hard work — even when it comes to behaviors we might think are genetic and therefore unchangeable. Do we sometimes wear our genes too tightly, and allow them to restrict us from leaping into new things, and getting over old ones?
We wish Fish luck in unraveling how four-legged terrestrial forms evolved into no-legged, finned ones. And as long as the dogs involved in his research are having a good time — given Fish is letting his own dog be used in the study, we assume they are — we have no problem with them helping the professor prove his point.
In other words: Go Fish!
(Top Photo, Society for Integrative and Comparative Biology; bottom photo, from the book Underwater Dogs)