Dogs ‘swim’ above water under certain conditions:
This is evidence of how algorithmic dogs are. It seems that one trigger of the swimming motion is: ‘water-like surroundings + not touching the ground’.
In this video you can see many instances of erroneous swimming:
All of these dogs swim when they shouldn’t. At 1:52 in particular, a dog is just held over a sprinkler, which isn’t enough water to swim in.
The algorithm dogs use to determine when to swim is so buggy that no water is required at all. For example, at 0:30 a dog is held over an empty pool. Nonetheless the dog tries to ‘swim’. The pool is blue so maybe that is reminiscent enough of water.
Even cool air can be enough to get a dog to ‘swim’, as witness this dog held over an air-conditioning unit:
This last case is particularly interesting because some humans seem to have the same bug (though it manifests much less dramatically and, as opposed to dogs, humans can correct this error pretty easily). For example, when I shave for the first time in weeks and then expose my face to cool air (also from an air-conditioning unit), for a split second I think my face is wet. Sometimes I even touch my cheeks to make sure it isn’t.
This leads me to guess that some of the criteria dogs and humans use to determine whether they’re wet are shared and inborn. I asked a couple of friends if they ever feel like their faces are wet under the same conditions but they said they don’t. It’s unclear whether this refutes my guess as they may simply have corrected the error so quickly they didn’t even notice it. Or they may have forgotten.
When one’s face is wet, it does feel cooler. So biological evolution may well have endowed ours and dogs’ common ancestors with an adaptation that detects wetness based on coolness. But it also leads to the non-adaptive result of misidentifying wetness in some situations. In dogs, this manifests as erroneous swimming. In me, it results in thinking my face is wet when it’s completely dry. It only happens when, as I said, I haven’t shaved in at least a few weeks, which makes me think the algorithm in me goes off of how drastic the change in temperature is. When you have a beard your face is more shielded from changes in temperature. Once you shave, that shield is suddenly gone.
I suspect the dogs’ algorithm likewise goes off of how drastic the change is. For example, if you slowly cooled down a room and held a dog in the air the whole time, I’m guessing it wouldn’t start swimming mid-air. This is all reminiscent of the famous experiment of frogs not jumping out of water that’s slowly being heated.
Whatever the case, the crucial difference between how dogs deal with this error and how humans deal with it is this: dogs don’t seem to deal with it at all—they seem to be completely clueless—whereas humans can become aware of the error and correct it. Humans have a moment of curiosity or wonder: they wonder why their face feels wet. They then feel their cheeks to test whether it is wet and conclude that it isn’t; that they must be mistaken instead. They are critical and learn something. None of this can be said of dogs—they don’t even look down to check if there’s any water to swim in.
I have written more about the topic of animal intelligence (or rather, lack thereof) in my book. On the topic of ‘swimming dogs’ in particular, I wrote (p. 108):
[…] it is intuitively clear that no intelligence is at work here. Why? Because an intelligent being would have noticed errors in its behavior and corrected them. If one of these dogs were intelligent, it would know that it is being held above water, and therefore need not swim. The dogs in these videos do not even realize they remain stationary because they are being held. In other words, to be intelligent, they should expect to move while swimming, and have the desire to understand the problem when this expectation is disappointed.[*] There appears to be no such desire for error correction in dogs or other animals.
I have also shared some more thoughts and details on animal intelligence in this Twitter thread (click on the preceding tweet after clicking this link to see the whole thread).
* That consciousness may have to do with disappointed expectations is from Karl Popper’s book Objective Knowledge: An Evolutionary Approach, 1983, Oxford Clarendon Press, Oxford, p. 344.