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.
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."
Lay the surfboard on a stable surface, Kuty suggested, and every time your pet gets on the board, reinforce the behavior with praise, petting or a treat. Giving approval after the dog gets off the board is counterproductive.
"Dogs learn in the moment, so we want all the learning to happen on the board," Kuty said.
Once you take the surfing lessons to the beach, allow the dog to once again get comfortable while the board is on dry land. Gradually move the board and dog into the water, first in shallow water with two people stabilizing the surfboard so the dog can get its balance and then allowing the dog to surf solo with spotters on each side.
Weber recommended the pitcher-catcher setup: having a person accompany the dog out to waist-high water while another person prepares to retrieve the animal on shore.
Watch your dog for clues, Kuty said. "If they're nervous, they're going to let you know. If they're having fun, they're going to let you know."
Grommets and beyond
Young surfers, or grommets, will gain skill with practice, so explore new ways to have fun with your dog.
Six-legged surfing, said Weber, can be done by lying on your belly behind the pooch, kneeling or even standing.
A number of canine surfing competitions are held in and around San Diego, most of which are held as fundraisers for various nonprofit organizations. Dogtown San Diego (www.dogtownsandiego.com) offers a list of events, as well as other dog surfing resources.
Fridono, who runs a service dog training program, has used Rip Curl Ricki's wave-riding abilities to help those with spinal cord injuries enjoy surfing through an adaptive approach. Ricki has also used her talent to raise money for a variety of causes.
While she herself is not a surfer, Fridono said dog surfing is a great way to enjoy time with your pet.
"I think everybody should try it," Fridono said.