Adrienne is a certified dog trainer, behavior consultant, former veterinarian assistant, and author of Brain Training for Dogs.
Dog breeds with webbed feet can certainly be quite a conversation piece. Have you ever personally taken a look at your dog’s feet? Probably not as close as you have their face—after all that’s pretty memorable—but a dog’s paws are pretty amazing works of art too.
Not only do dog feet come in many different shapes, colors and sizes (sometimes to an adorable effect, especially when you’ve got a pup with big paws to go with a small body), but they also give your pooch other information about their surroundings.
Your dog's feet allow your companion to walk on all sorts of terrain and surfaces without going splat on their furry bottoms. It provides them with sensory information about what they’re walking on and gives them traction. Imagine we could use our feet in the same way without having to resort to so many pairs of shoes for every situation?
And then you have some dog breeds that have an extra added feature: webbed toes. What's up with this? Aren't web-footed creatures mostly those that live near water? Interestingly, some dog breeds were meant to have webbed feet due to their past histories.
The Purpose of Webbed Feet
Webbing is defined as the presence of connecting tissue between the toes of the foot. It is found in various animals such as ducks or geese which are meant to live both on land and water. Such webbed feet are used as oars to navigate through water.
It can be therefore said that webbed feet offer an optimal compromise between aquatic and terrestrial locomotion.
Now you obviously aren’t going to see your dog waddling around like a duck or other waterfowl while they are on land, and that’s because they aren’t crafted in the same way.
Dogs primarily are terrestrial, cursorial animals and so their bodies operate to get them across land as quickly as possible. Amphibious animals, like ducks or geese, are instead meant to live on both land and in water and therefore are blessed with thicker, wider webbed feet which allows them to navigate on wet terrain like mud and to propel themselves through the water.
Now that’s not to say that ducks and geese (and other animals such as frogs) get around as dexterously as your dog can. After all, they don’t have the gripping strength or ability that your pup does when he’s moving through the grass or climbing up a hill.
But thanks to selective breeding (because let's be honest, humans are always seeking to get the best traits in their canine companions!), you may see some dogs with a modified version of webbed toes.
It's worth mentioning though that all dogs have some level of membrane connecting their toes- just like humans have some between their fingers and toes. This connective tissue allows them to have better traction, allowing them to move through snow at a clip without getting bogged down. However, for some dogs that webbing extends further up the toes.
Like the many other traits humans have found desirable in their dogs, some folks have actually bred a more pronounced webbing into their pups, although this trait wasn't really purposely selected for-it just sort of "came along for the ride," so to say.
Let’s take a look at some of the more common breeds with webbed feet and what purpose this extra enhancement might add, but before getting to that, did you know that all embryos (human or canine) start off with webbed feet from the get-go? Here's a brief summary of evolution 101.
Programmed Cell Death
Apparently, we are all created with webbing between our toes, but sometimes the webbing gets turned off at a cellular level as unnecessary—a process known as apoptosis, also simply referred to as programmed cell death.
"In the earlier stages, it is, therefore, simplest for the skin to form uniformly, but once formed, the excess skin has to be removed somehow,'' explains scientist Bridge on Quora.
This process occurs in all sorts of vertebrate species known for having finger- or toe-like digits. Less apoptosis results in more webbing between the digits. It's pretty fascinating to see how this process can be sort of “altered” in certain animals and dog breeds!
The commonalities you’ll note regardless of whether the dogs on this list are big or small, fluffy or wire-haired is that they are all mostly helping their humans with specific water tasks.
We may confidently infer that no man ever selected his water-dogs by the extent of to which the skin was developed between their toes; but what he does is to preserve and breed from those individuals which hunt better or best retrieve wounded game, and thus he unconsciously selects dogs with feet slightly better webbed.
— Charles Darwin
Dog Breeds With Webbed Feet
Here s a list of dog breeds with webbed feet. Once again, one clarification: Webbing in this case refers to the more extensive connective tissue seen in several dog breeds selectively bred to work in water. The webbing, therefore, extends more toward the end of the toes.
While all dogs have a touch of webbing between their toes, these breeds have been specifically bred to work in water and therefore nature has allowed this trait to enhance.
Ideally, feet for swimming should be large and with excess skin between the toes. These features allow a greater area for pushing against the water, while also helping dogs walk through the tidewater mudflats, point out Edward M Gilbert Jr., and Thelma R Brown in the book: K-9 Structure & Terminology.
1. Portuguese Water Dogs
These furry pups equipped with a curly coat and webbed toes are just one of many breeds who have been bred to work in the water.
This breed's task entailed assisting fishermen gather fish into the fishermen's nets. Not only would they help gather the fish into the nets (think a herding mentality), they could also retrieve broken nets and equipment.
On top of this, they also acted as couriers from ship to ship, or ship to shore. In between working, Portuguese Water Dogs rode in fishing trawlers take took them from the Atlantic waters of Portugal to the waters off the coast of Iceland where they assisted in fishing for cod.
To aid them in working in cold, icy waters, they were traditionally groomed in a lion cut. This traditional cut helped decrease the initial shock of jumping in cold water while providing warmth to the dog's vital areas.
The hindquarters were left shaved for the purpose of allowing more fluent movement of the back legs and the powerful, rudder-like tail. In 1991, their feet were described as having webbing made of soft skin, well covered with hair and reaching the toe tips.
In Portuguese, this breed is known as cão de água which literally means "dog of water."
Here’s one that might surprise you. Most folks hear about a poodle and immediately think of their sometimes-over-the-top haircuts and shaved torsos, but these dogs were originally bred for duck hunting.
Even their name says it all: The word poodle comes from the German word Pudeln, which means “to splash." Although claimed to be the national dog of France, the American Kennel Club clarifies that the Poodle actually originated in Germany.
Their curly, moisture-resistant acts like a wool jumper in damp conditions. As with the Portuguese water dog, there is a belief that the poodle's fancy coat clips derive from traditional working clips, which were originally meant to provide warmth to their joints when these dogs were immersed in cold water. The rest of the body was shaved to produce less drag in the water.
As with other dogs bred to work in the water, poodles are equipped with webbed feet that allow them to be agile swimmers while also making them capable of walking on mud.
As the name probably suggests, these fluffy pooches (who are quite big in the 80 to 115-pound range) were bred to help hunters track and hunt otters, but looking at that face, I don’t know how you can imagine they’d want to go chasing anything other than a ball.
If you have never heard or seen these dogs before, don't feel bad. Otterhounds are not very popular dogs, indeed, this British dog breed is on the Vulnerable Native Breed List with only around 600 specimens worldwide.
These dogs are blessed with an oily, rough double coat and substantial webbed feet. Charles Darwin claims: "English otterhounds are said to have webbed feet: a friend examined for me the feet of two, in comparison with the feet of some harriers and bloodhounds; he found the skin variable in extent in all, but more developed in the otterhounds than in others."
It is also said that these dogs have a powerful nose capable of tracking scent in the mud and water for an extended period of time.
These large snuggle bugs originate in Canada and were bred to help fishers in the icy winter waters of Newfoundland, Canada. Here, they were often used to pull fishnets and haul carts and other equipment.
On top of this, Newfoundlands exhibit a natural propensity to rescue people from the water and, therefore, they can also be fairly easily trained as lifeguards, rescuing swimmers in trouble.
Their webbed toes help in this task allowing maximum propulsion, while their tails act as rudders and their big furry coats are a bonus.
Interestingly, this breed uses a different swimming stroke compared to the ordinary dog. Rather than doing the ordinary doggy paddle, the Newfoundland moves his legs in a down-and-out motion which yields more powerful strokes.
5. Nova Scotia Duck Tolling Retriever
Similar to their Newfie friends, these dogs not only help their owners hunt ducks (as their name implies) but help attract the ducks to get them in range for their humans.
Their style is rather unique: to lure waterfowl within gunshot range, these dogs will engage in "tolling," a behavior borrowed by foxes. Basically, they'll start romping and playing near the water, which piques the curiosity of ducks and geese, who swim over to investigate.
Once close enough, the hunter shoots, and the toller is then used to retrieve any downed birds. Quite a clever technique, isn't it?
The breed standard calls for feet that are strongly webbed, slightly oval medium in size, and tight, with well-arched toes and thick pads. They are also expected to have a water-repellent double coat which makes it suitable for work in cold, icy waters. A love for water comes naturally for this breed that is often mistaken for a small golden retriever.
It has already been remarked that dogs differ in the degree to which their feet are webbed. In dogs of the Newfoundland breed, which are eminently aquatic in their habits, the skin according to Isidore Geofrroy, extends to the third phalanges, whilst in ordinary dogs it extends only to the second.
— Charles Darwin, The Variation of Animals and Plants Under Domestication, Volume 1
6. Chesapeake Bay Retriever
These pups hang out on the East Coast of the US (Chesapeake Bay) and were used to go chasing down ducks in the frigid waters while staying warm thanks to their coats.
It goes without saying that these dogs were expected to be quite resilient, often working under the most adverse weather conditions, sometimes even having to break ice during their retrieves.
The American Kennel Club expects this breed to have "well webbed-hare feet of good size with toes well-rounded and close." The hindquarters must be especially powerful to supply the driving power for swimming. The harsh outer coat is oily while the undercoat is wooly so to prevent the cold water from reaching the Chesapeake's skin and to help in quick drying.
The American Kennel Club further emphasizes that a Chessie's coat should resist the water in a similar fashion as a duck's feathers do. Upon shaking the coat after emerging from the water, it should not hold water at all, being merely moist. A love for water should be present so much it's mentioned under the expected temperament for this breed.
7. Labrador Retriever
Perhaps the most obvious on the list, Labrador retrievers were bred to retrieve all sorts of things (fish, fishing nets, waterfowl, etc.), and it goes without saying that most Labradors love water.
These dogs were referred to as the "king of retrievers." They are described as being powerful and tireless swimmers capable of tolerating the coldest waters for extended periods of time.
They were known for working quietly alongside hunters, watching for birds to fall to the ground and delivering them with a soft mouth, without destroying the meat meant to be brought to the table.
These dogs are canine mermaids being equipped with webbed feet, an otter-like tail (which serves as a powerful rudder) and a slightly oily, water repellent coat (which provides protection from water, cold and all types of ground cover).
8. German Wirehaired Pointer
These sporty guys, like many on this list, were bred to held hunt down various types of waterfowl. With his webbed feet and sleek construction, this breed makes one of dogdom’s finest swimmers.
The American Kennel Club expects these dogs to have round feet that are webbed and high arched with toes close, pads thick and hard, and nails strong and quite heavy. Their coat must be weather resistant and water-repellent so to protect the dogs when working in heavy cover or in cold water.
9. American Water Spaniel
These sweet pooches were bred to handle the icy waters and the marshy banks of the Great Lakes region in the US. As the name implies, these dogs originated in the United States. They were developed in the state of Wisconsin during the 19th century.
The American Water Spaniel is described as being an all-around hunting dog, bred to retrieve waterfowl from skiff or canoes. Lovers of this breed claim that they swim like seals, and this is courtesy of their bodies built for the task.
The toes are described as being closely grouped, webbed and well-padded. The coat is equipped with an undercoat layer so to provide sufficient density and protection against weather and water.
10. Irish Water Spaniel
This breed became popular because of its ability to perform retrieves in the cold waters of the North Sea. A native of Ireland, this dog was selectively bred to retrieve waterfowl with dashing eagerness. They are even capable of diving underwater!
These dogs are required to have sturdy hindquarters so to provide drive and power while swimming. Their deep barrel chest instead provides stability. Their tails are naked and work like rudders while they're swimming. Their feet are large and webbed to allow spreading which makes them particularly suited for water fowling in marshy terrain.
Other Breeds With Webbed Feet
Webbed feet weren't only useful for dogs who were bred for working in the water. Several other dog breeds have webbed feet for other purposes.
- Dachshunds are known to have webbed feet too. These dogs were selectively bred to hunt badgers and other tunneling animals, and their webbed feet helped them dig through the dirt when they're on the hunt.
- Redbone coonhounds have some webbing which is helpful when they are wading through muddy swamps.
- Even Siberian huskies have slightly webbed feet to help them walk through snow and ice by increasing their surface area and preventing them from sinking in—sort of like snowshoes.
- Akitas have some webbing too so they can walk on snow by distributing their weight more effectively.
- Encyclopedia of K9 Terminology, by Edward M. Gilbert, Jr, Patricia H. Gilbert · 2013
- The Variation of Animals and Plants Under Domestication by Charles Darwin · 1876
- Delphi Complete Works of Charles Darwin (Illustrated)by Charles Darwin
- DogDiscoveries.com, Dog Breeds With Webbed Feet
- K-9 Structure & Terminology by Edward M Gilbert Jr., and Thelma R Brown
- "Apoptosis," by John W. Kimball, in Kimball's Biology Pages (CC BY 3.0).
- Khan Academy, Developmental biology, Apoptosis
This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.
© 2020 Adrienne Farricelli
Adrienne Farricelli (author) on January 02, 2021:
Thank you, these 'canine mermaids" are quite fascinating!
Devika Primić from Dubrovnik, Croatia on December 29, 2020:
alexadry The most interesting and informative hub I have come across about breeds of dogs and webbed feet. You have improved my knowledge about the breeds of dogs and of webbed feet. The purposes are incredible in detail and most fascinating.
FlourishAnyway from USA on December 28, 2020:
What a fascinating article. I wasn't aware of webbing and dogs' paws. I enjoyed reading about each type of dog. Thanks for this information!
Sp Greaney from Ireland on December 28, 2020:
I have never heard of some dog breeds having paws with webbing before. But is does explain why some dog breeds are better in the water today than others.
The list of dogs mentioned that work in the water was so interesting. I never heard that mentioned before in their background about why they would love the water.
Pamela Oglesby from Sunny Florida on December 27, 2020:
This is a very interesting article. I knew some dogs had webbed feet, but I didn't know nearly all the information you provided. I didn't know we all had webbed feet initially, and that is very interesting. Great article!
Peggy Woods from Houston, Texas on December 27, 2020:
Your article about webbed feet in dogs is very interesting. I was not familiar with several of the breeds you mentioned. Thanks for including photos of each of them.