Dogs take to their boards, no leash required

Surf-a-thon hits Dog Beach this weekend

Golden retrievers, Jack Russell terriers and bulldogs can shred.

Anyone who doubts this statement must head to the beach this weekend when the Helen Woodward Center hosts its third annual Surf Dog Surf-a-Thon in Del Mar Dog Beach on Sunday, Sept. 7. In three short years, the event has swollen from humble micro-mini beginnings to monster-wave size.

Surf Dog has become known internationally, with the animal center fielding calls from news outlets from Canada and the United Kingdom interested in covering the event. A video of dogs surfing at last year's contest even became the highest rated video on YouTube one day.

"I'm so amazed that our little dog surf event is something that the rest of the world is watching," said John Van Zante, Helen Woodward spokesman. "To be honest, we're stunned."

Van Zante had to ask one British news show what the fascination was with the event. He was told that the contest represented how most of the world views Southern California - that everyone lives on the beach and surfs, even the pooches.

If dogs aren't fans of the water, they can still participate in the Beach Bum and Bikini Babe Canine Costume Contest. More earth-bound breeds like pugs are able to strut down the runway in sunglasses and their best Hawaiian shirts and leis.

"I have to warn people, some of the girl dogs go topless," Van Zante joked.

Proceeds from the event go toward the animal center, which specializes in adoptions, education and outreach with programs like pet therapy and "Animeals," which helps provide pet food for elderly animal owners.

Vendors will have tents set up on the beach, there will be an agility course for dogs and there will be prizes for the surfers and costume contest winners including a surf trip to K-59 in El Salvador.

Putting a dog on a surfboard was an idea that arose from conversations with Helen Woodward staff, among them surfers and beachgoers who loved taking their dogs to the water. They realized there was no organized event that got fellow surf-minded dog lovers out to the beach, so, in 2006 they put together their first surf-a-thon, which drew a dozen registered surfing dogs and about 50 two-legged surfers.

The event drew an enormous audience from the built-in crowd of pets and their people at Dog Beach and the crowd inspired them to try it again in 2007.

Increasing questions of "how can I teach my dog to surf?" prompted them to add on a dog surf clinic element to the event.

"We dipped our paws in the water so to speak and we needed to step up and make it happen," Van Zante said.

With the involvement of the San Diego Surfing Academy, Swami's Surfing Association, San Diego Pet Training and world champion surfer Guy Takayama of GT Surf Designs, they were able to tackle teaching dogs to surf at pre-event clinics at the beach.

The well-known Takayama has competed in tandem surfing where he lifts and throws a female riding partner, so he is used to having a companion with him on the board. He adopted a puppy from Helen Woodward about six months ago and has been taking the canine grom out on the water at recent clinics.

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