Sit! Stay! Surf?

A new breed of 'surfurs' is hitting San Diego beaches

The upcoming Surf Dog Surf-A-Thon on Sept. 13, sponsored by Helen Woodward Animal Center, highlights a recent trend spawned by Southern California dog lovers and their four-legged friends.

Surfing canines now have dedicated competitions, a professional organization - the San Diego Dog Surfing Association - and even a line of surfboards designed exclusively for man's best friend.

"It's just like surfing with your child," said Guy Takayama, world champion tandem surfer and creator of Surfah Dog boards. "It brings bonding and camaraderie between you and your dog."

While experienced "surfurs" such as Ricochet, aka Rip Curl Ricki, a golden retriever from Escondido, make it look easy to hang 20, there are a variety of safety issues that should be addressed before hitting the waves. For dogs new to water sports, training tips can help ease the transition from sand to surf.

Safety first

Like any water-oriented activity, surfing - even for dogs - should be conducted in a safe, supervised environment. This means assessing how well a dog can swim, monitoring the animal for signs of exhaustion or anxiety, paying attention to other swimmers and surfers, anticipating possible distractions and using appropriate equipment.

Canine flotation devices, available at pet stores or online, usually feature a handle that makes it easier to work with the dog in the water and on the surfboard. The device is also helpful in the event of a wipeout.

"If they're in a life jacket, they don't have to swim as hard," said Judy Fridono, owner of Rip Curl Ricki.

When it comes to selecting a board, Pat Weber, owner and head coach at San Diego Surfing Academy, said size will vary depending on build and breed.

"You want a foam board that is big enough for your dog," Weber said.

Fridono said she prefers a foam board instead of fiberglass because it allows the dog to "get a grip."

Keep in mind other common beach dangers such as sunburn and stingrays, Weber added.

Dog surfing 101

"You don't just grab your board and your dog and go into the ocean," said Alyssa Neubarth, an instructor for Surf Diva's Surf Pup program in La Jolla.

Dogs should already know basic commands such as sit, stay, heel and come. Even more important is a strong bond of trust between owner and animal.

One technique Neubarth has found helpful in training dogs to stay on a surfboard is called "target" training. Create a target by marking an X on a small piece of carpet, then teach the dog to go to that spot. The carpet section can then be moved to various locations, including the board. Establishing the target command is especially useful when working on the water and the board becomes unsteady, Neubarth said.

Before investing too much time or money, Rob Kuty of San Diego Pet Training said it is important to determine whether or not your dog even likes the water.

"That's only half the battle," Kuty said. "The next step is building up a lot of confidence and encouraging and reinforcing and having your dog become best friends with the surfboard."

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