Why Do Dogs Swim in Air – 4 Key Reasons

Dogs are amazing creatures that always seem to bring joy and warmth into our lives. The way they wag their tails when we come home, the way they cuddle with us when we’re feeling down – or simply how they’re always there for us – dogs truly are man’s best friend. But sometimes, these furry friends do things that leave us scratching our heads in confusion.

One of those behaviors is what’s commonly known as “air swimming.” You’ve probably seen your dog do it before – they start paddling their legs in the air as if they’re swimming, even though they’re not in the water. It’s weird behavior, to say the least, although you won’t see them do it regularly. So, why do dogs try to swim in the air?

Air Swimming Over Water

This is the most common scenario where you will see a dog attempting to swim in the air, and it is also the easiest to understand.

Your dog, being held above the water’s surface, anticipates being submerged soon and begins to paddle in preparation. This behavior is a manifestation of the dog’s bradycardia reflex, commonly referred to as the mammalian diving reflex.

Why do Dogs Swim in Air

Air Swimming Away From Water

This is probably what most people do not fully understand. Air swimming over water appears to be a logical behavior. Air swimming when away from water is a bit more nuanced. It is also less clear about the exact cause.

Reasons Behind This Odd Behavior

Commonly, dogs exhibit this behavior when they are held up or when their front paws are placed on something – like a table or chair. It almost seems like they’re trying to reach something that’s just out of their grasp, and the only way to get there is by swimming through the air.

Sometimes, when you pick up a dog from the water, you’ll start noticing them paddle their front legs in the air. People used to believe it’s because these dogs anticipate being placed back into the water, but that’s not always the case. In fact, many dogs will swim in the air even when they’re not near any bodies of water.

Behind these myths are some facts that help explain a dog’s air-swimming behavior.

1) A Sign of Panic Response

While it’s true that seeing a dog paddling in the air might seem cute at first glance, it might be a sign of something more serious. In some cases, air swimming is a panic response caused by anxiety or stress. When a dog feels threatened or is in an unfamiliar situation, moving its legs in a swimming motion as if it’s trying to escape might be its way of dealing with the situation.

For example, when you hold a dog up, and it’s not used to being picked up, it might start air swimming, trying to escape or reach the ground. It’s an unfamiliar feeling for them, and they might start to feel anxious.

This panic response often involves wiggling their torso, trying to escape, or yelping. If you see your dog exhibiting these behaviors, it’s best to place them back on the ground and let them calm themselves.

Happy Dog

2) Natural Reflexes

Generally speaking, dogs are born to be quadrupeds – meaning, they walk on all fours. Unlike humans, that are used to balancing on two legs, it’s not natural for a dog to be in a standing position. So when they are held up or placed on something high, their natural reflex is to start moving their legs as if they’re trying to find something to grip onto and keep themselves steady.

This is often seen in puppies since they’re still getting used to their bodies. They might start air swimming when you pick them up because they’re not used to the sensation of being off the ground. As they grow older and become more comfortable with their surroundings, this behavior will start to disappear.

3) Adapted Behavior

Dogs are very adaptable creatures and often learn new behaviors from their owners. A dog’s behavior mainly depends on its environment and the way its owners treat it. If you often hold your dog up and you praise them for air paddling, they might associate this with being picked up. As a result, they might start air swimming as a way of getting your attention, so you’ll pick them up. This is believed to be the primary answer to why dogs swim in air.

At the end of the day, all of these behavioral responses might be part of their subconscious, depending on the dog’s individual personality and experiences.

4) A Way of Showing Excitement

Another common behavior that’s often mistaken for air swimming is a dog’s way of showing excitement. When they’re excited, dogs might start jumping around, landing on their hind legs, and using forelegs to support their weight. This often happens when they see someone they love or are about to go on a walk.

Is Air Paddling a Bad Thing

Depending on the context, air swimming might not be a bad thing. If your dog is doing it out of excitement or as part of their natural reflexes, there’s no need to worry. Unless you’re bothered by this behavior, there’s no need to train it out of them.

However, if your dog is air paddling as a response to anxiety or stress, the first thing that you need to do is to address the root of the problem. If they’re air swimming because they’re afraid of being picked up, try to make the experience more positive for them by slowly getting them used to it. Some rescued dogs might have had bad experiences with being picked up, so it’s important to be patient and understand their feelings.

Take things slowly and make sure that they’re comfortable before moving on to the next step. If your dog is air swimming because they’re anxious in new environments, try desensitization training and help them get used to their surroundings. It’s important to seek professional help if you’re unsure of how to proceed. A qualified dog trainer or behaviorist can assess your dog’s behavior and provide you with the best course of action.

Is Air Paddling a Bad Thing

Proper Way of Picking Up a Dog to Prevent Air Swimming

By now, you might be wondering how you’re supposed to pick up a dog without triggering its air-swimming behavior. If your dog is prone to anxiety or if they don’t like being picked up, here are some things that you can do:

Let the Dog Sniff Your Hand Before Picking Them Up

If your dog is anxious around new people, they might manifest this behavior when someone tries to pick them up. This could be a natural reaction to their anxiety or a way of trying to get away from the person. Let the dog sniff your hand before picking them up to prevent this from happening. This will help them feel more comfortable and less anxious around you.

Letting the dog or pup know you’re not a threat will help immensely.

Use a Calming Voice

They say that your energy and tone of voice can influence a dog’s behavior. If you use a calm and soothing voice, your dog will be more likely to relax and feel comfortable around you. On the other hand, if you use a loud or aggressive voice, your dog might get scared and just feel more anxious. At this point, you want to instill a sense of trust and safety so that the dog knows there’s nothing to be afraid of.

Use Both Hands When Picking Up a Dog

Depending on the dog’s size, you might need to use both hands when picking them up. This will help you support their weight and prevent them from wiggling out of your arms. This also provides support and stability, making the experience less stressful for them. Dogs have a natural instinct to run away from perceived threats, and being picked up by one hand might trigger this instinct.

For larger dogs, make sure that you bend your knees with slow and gentle movements. Using your dominant arm, place your hand under the dog’s chest while using your other hand to support its hind legs. For smaller dogs, you can pick them up by placing one hand under their chest and the other hand supporting their hind legs and rump.

Support Their Hind Legs

Picking them up and supporting their hind legs will help to reduce their anxiety. This is because it mimics the way their mother would pick them up when they were puppies. So when you’re picking up a dog, make sure to scoop them up from behind and support their hind legs with your hand.

Incorporate Treats and Rewards

One of the best ways to reduce a dog’s anxiety is to associate positive experiences with the things that they’re afraid of. If your dog is anxious about being picked up, despite your best efforts, try incorporating treats and rewards into the experience.

When you pick up your dog, give them a treat or praise them for being calm. This will help create a positive association and make the experience less stressful. Over time, your dog will start to associate being picked up with something positive instead of something to be afraid of.

Why Do Dogs Swim in Air: Final Thoughts

Air paddling or air swimming is a relatively odd behavior that dogs can display when they’re anxious or stressed or excited and happy. If this behavior manifests because a dog is anxious, going through some of the steps above can help to reduce their anxiety and prevent air swimming.

In addition, don’t forget to take into account proper carrying techniques, as this can also help to reduce a dog’s anxiety. Finally, try to create positive associations with being picked up by incorporating treats and rewards.

At Cozzzy Together, we love dogs. If you are a dog lover, we would encourage you to browse our collection of dog bandanas, accessories, as well as products to treat yourself.

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