Why Do Labs Have Webbed Feet? & What REALLY Makes Them Great Swimmers


There are a lot of urban myths and misconceptions about many dog breeds going around, and Labradors are no exception to this. One of the most common urban legends about Labrador Retrievers is that they have what is referred to as “webbed feet”.

So, is this a myth or is it true? Do Labs have webbed feet? Yes, Labradors have webbed feet. In fact, most dog breeds have webbed feet to a certain extent, but the webbing tend to be more prominent in Labradors than they are in other dogs.

Since it’s not an urban myth, you must be thinking that they have a purpose. And you would be correct in thinking that as well.

So, why do Labradors have webbed feet? Labradors have webbed feet to help them swim better. The webbing in their feet is a result of being bred to retrieve game such as birds from lakes. The webbing in a Labrador’s makes paddling more efficient and swimming easier.

Your dog’s webbed feet are actually a lot more interesting than they seem, and they deserve a closer look. Let’s take a minute to learn more about your Lab’s feet.

Golden Retriever peeking

Everything About Labs Webbed Feet

There are a lot of misconceptions and urban myths about the webbed feet of Labradors and of dogs in general, so I have done the difficult research for you and will try to break it down the best I could.

What is a ‘webbing’ in your dog’s feet?

The webbing in your dog’s feet is a membrane that connects the toes. This webbing is very prominent in birds that swim – such as duck – as they help the animals paddle more efficiently by increasing the surface area the animal exerts a force on.

Here is a close up photo of both a Labrador’s webbed feet and a Duck’s.

a side-by-side comparison of labrador paw and a duck's claw to show why do labs have webbed feet and how it helps them swimming

Humans have figured out the importance of this webbing thousands of years ago, and we’ve modeled paddles and, more recently, flippers around the same concept.

There are two main advantages for webbed feet on dogs.

Two Advantages for Webbed feet on dogs

For any dog, there are two main advantages their webbed feet gives them;

  • Makes them better swimmers
  • Better Stability over uneven surfaces

Better Swimmers

The increased surface area is great for swimming for two main reasons.

  • Increased surface area
  • Better paddling efficiency

My fellow engineers and engineering students out there will easily recognize the importance of an increased surface area; You can increase the pressure applied on the water without increasing the surface since (Pressure = Force * Area). And yes, I do have an engineering degree.

It also traps the water and stops it from escaping through the openings between the toes, which would’ve meant wasted energy. This trapping of water means less energy is wasted which means the animal doesn’t lose as much energy paddling.

Better Stability over uneven surfaces

The webbing makes your dog’s legs artificially larger on land, which gives them better stability over uneven surfaces.

Remember that these animals were bred to go out with hunters on long trips where they would go over lots of uneven surfaces, and the dogs needed more stability over these uneven surfaces in order to walk and run on them more easily.

What REALLY Makes Labradors Good Swimmers

Labrador swimming in clear waters

If you take a closer look at the image above, you will notice that the webbing on your Lab’s feet isn’t as prominent as it is on the duck’s. If you think that this means it’s less efficient, you would be correct.

If the webbing on the dog’s feet was as prominent as it is with ducks, the dog would have a lot of trouble running on land. However, Labradors have other advantages that makes them great swimmers.

5 Reasons why Labradors are great swimmers

  1. Webbed Feet
  2. Water-Resistant Double Coats
  3. Short fur
  4. Bred for fishing
  5. Strong and energetic

We’ve already discussed the webbed feet.

Water Resistant Double Coats

The water resistant double coats insulates Labradors from water, keeping them dry on the inside and enabling them to get immersed in water without the water reaching their skin and irritating them.

Their coats are also naturally oily which is why they can insulate their skin so well from water even when completely immersed in it.

By the way, did you know that Labradors can also change coat color as they grow? Find out here why dogs change coat color as they grow.

Short Fur

The fur of a Labrador is relatively short, which is enough to keep them warm without dragging them down while swimming. My fellow engineers here would appreciate this; a labrador retriever will actually have a lower drag coefficient which makes them more efficient while running or swimming.

This means the water (or air) can exert less force on the dog on the opposite direction the dog is moving in, allowing the dog to swim and run faster for longer with the same effort.

Bred for fishing

a GIF of a dog grabbing a fish from shallow waters

Most Labradors are comfortable in the water naturally thanks to the breed’s history with fishermen.

Labs were used by Fishermen to bring in nets, recover escaped fish, and pull ropes between boats.

This means that the dogs spent a lot of time in the water, and they became much more comfortable with it over the generations thanks to selective breeding.

Strong and Energetic

Swimming takes a lot of energy (as I’m sure you must’ve noticed). Not all dogs have the strength to move their bodies through water, but a Labrador can do so easily thanks to their strong build.

Are All Labradors Natural Swimmers?

No, all Labradors are not natural swimmers, and it’s natural for your Labrador to not know how to swim or to be afraid of water. Most Labradors indeed do not need any special training to be good swimmers, but some still need some training to get acquainted with being in water in the first place.

Many people get worried when they find out that their Labs can’t swim or are afraid of what. Don’t worry, this is normal. Most Labs have it by nature, but not all of them do.

a black lab swimming in clear water

If your Labrador can’t swim, it’s okay, nothing is wrong with them. You can still train them to be good swimmers, it will just take a bit more time.

10 Other Dog Breeds With Webbed Feet

The following 10 dog breeds have webbed feet similar to Labs:

  1. Newfoundland
  2. Irish Water Spaniel
  3. American Water Spaniel
  4. Otterhound
  5. Portuguese Water Dog
  6. Nova Scotia Duck Tolling Retriever
  7. German Shorthaired Pointer
  8. Dachshund
  9. Chespeake Bay Retriever
  10. Redbone Coonhound

5 Tips to Keep Your Dog Safe While Swimming

Even the greatest swimmers should still take care while swimming. Here are 5 safety tips to help you make sure your dog stays safe while swimming.

1- Don’t go too deep

Try to keep your dog’s swimming to beaches and pools, taking them on boats to the middle of the ocean is not a great idea. They may be the best swimmers in the world but they can still get drifted easily.

2- Keep a life jacket for them

If you’re going on a boat, you should have a life jacket for your dog as you do for everyone else onboard.

3- Keep it short.

Your dog may be a great swimmer, but they are not a marathoner. They can’t swim for too long and before you know it, they may get exhausted. Dogs are also not great at conveying that they are about to get exhausted and reading body language in the middle of the water can be difficult.

4- Be prepared for emergencies.

Are you sure you know how to handle your dog and bring them to safety if they get tired? Will your dog let you safely drag them across water back to the boat? Do you know what you should do if your dog gets stung by a jellyfish (it happens).

Before you take your dog swimming in deep waters, you need to be prepared for emergencies.

5- Don’t let them drink too much seawater

Just like you shouldn’t drink seawater while swimming, neither should your dog. If you see your dog swallowing a lot while swimming, take them out of the water, the sea’s salty water is not good for them (more on that in another post).

Golden Retriever peeking

Related Questions

Do all dogs have webbed feet?

Yes, all dogs have webbed feet to certain extent. More dog breeds have more webbing between their toes than others. The webbing in a dog’s paws depends on many things like genetic and history of breeding.

Do Golden Retrievers Have Webbed Feet?

Yes, Golden Retrievers have webbed feet similar to Labradors. Goldens were originally bred to be the perfect companions to hunters.

Their tasks included swimming throw waters to get the ducks and other birds shot by the hunters, and so they needed to develop webbed feet to help them swim more easily and more efficiently.

Sources:

Schwarz N, Tichy A, Peham C, Bockstahler B. Vertical force distribution in the paws of sound Labrador retrievers during walking. Vet J. 2017;221:16‐22. doi:10.1016/j.tvjl.2017.01.014

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