Surfing dogs ride waves for top dog title in global contest

Helen Woodward Animal Center's annual  dog surfing contest
Dogs can participate virtually in Helen Woodward Animal Center’s annual canine surfing contest by submitting a video riding the waves.
(Courtesy of HWAC)

Dogs can’t gather this year for Helen Woodward Animal Center’s annual canine surfing contest at Del Mar’s Dog Beach, but the contest is still on, virtually. Dog surfers can show their prowess riding the waves on video. Contestants are expected from around the world.

Rothstein, a bulldog, riding the waves
Rothstein, a bulldog, riding the waves at Mission Beach. He won second in his division in last year’s Helen Woodward Animal Center surf-a-thon.

Even though dogs don’t have to practice social distancing during the pandemic, they can’t gather this year at Del Mar’s Dog Beach for the annual canine surfing contest run by Helen Woodward Animal Center.

But pooches can still compete for the top dog title in a virtual contest by having their families send videos showing their prowess on the waves.

Typically, the competition draws dozens of dogs from throughout California, but this year the contest is going global and has already attracted competitors from Japan and the U.K.

Cherie, a French Bulldog, surfing at Del Mar Dog Beach.
Cherie, a French Bulldog, surfing at Del Mar Dog Beach. She won several Best of Surf trophies at Helen Woodward Animal Center surf-a-thons, including first place in her weight class. Photo by Amy Nykolayko.
(Amy Nykolayko. )

“This year, the fact that we can bond over our love for our dogs with people from all over the world just makes it that much sweeter,” said Jessica Gercke, a spokesperson for the Helen Woodward Animal Center.

“Fetch A Wave to Save A Life” is the theme of this year’s Surf Dog Virtual Surf-A-Thon. The event, in its 15th year, is presented by Blue Buffalo pet food, and will raise money for the Rancho Santa Fe-based nonprofit animal center’s programs, which include caring for orphaned pets before they are adopted, providing horseback riding therapy, offering a pet food bank along with running educational workshops for animal shelters around the world.

Pups will be judged on length of ride, size of wave and wave technique — catching a critical part of the wave (swell area before it breaks and becomes white), along with maneuvers, such as walking on the board, turns on the wave, hanging 20 and kick-outs. Confidence on the board, enthusiasm and barking play into the picture.

“The most challenging part of teaching your dog to surf is finding the right waves to surf them on,” said Newport Beach resident Dan Nykolayko, whose French Bulldog Cherie has won several Best of Surf trophies at Helen Woodward surf-a-thons, including first place in her weight class. She was also among the event’s biggest fundraisers for five years.

“A dog is so much more athletic than a human, so as long as they are comfortable on the board and are given a great wave to ride in on, they should do great… picking that great wave is the challenge.”

Cherie started taking Helen Woodward’s dog surfing lessons in 2013 and came back over four summers and then kept practicing. The practice shows in her surf contest video. Standing up on her surfboard, wearing a pink doggie rashguard and blue life vest, she rides the waves confidently, turning around on her board. After a long ride to the shore, she casually walks off the board.

The virtual contest, sponsored by the Petco Foundation, includes a freestyle surf contest where costumes, flair, tandem tricks and creativity weigh in the score.

In past years, contestants had a chance to practice during several dog surfing camps. But this year, the center put out a free video, “How To Teach Your Dog to Surf,” narrated by Fernanda Lopez with a troupe of seasoned surf dogs, some wearing sunglasses, doggie rashguards and life jackets. (Visit

“Since lessons got canceled, being able to provide a how to-video was the next best thing,” said Mission Beach resident John Garcia, who volunteered as a surf instructor last year and helped make the training video this year with his dog, Rothstein, a bulldog who won second in his division in last year’s surf-a-thon and was the top fundraiser.

“The funnest part of making the video was spending a day out surfing with my dog” Garcia said. “Rothstein seemingly always had a fascination with surfing and the waves. Even before I took him out in the water he loved to sit and watch the waves and people surfing them.”

Tips include finding the sweet spot on the board where the pup should stand, positioning the board properly to move out to the waves and controlling the board with the nose out and perhaps offering a doggie treat. Some dogs just love water and surfing while others seem more reluctant to get on the board, but play along out of loyalty to their owners.

“At the heart of this competition, it has always been about the owner and dog doing something they enjoy together,” Gercke said. “We can’t gather together in large groups this year, but we can have the very best time with our very best friend and capture a video to share with other people who love the sport as much as we do.”

Beginning the week of Sept. 7, a panel of judges, including celebrities, surf pros and aficionados, will study the “best wave” videos and announce winners on Sept. 13.

First-, second- and third-place “Best Wave” winners will be picked in each of five weight classes from small to extra large (over 86 pounds).
The 1st place winner from each weight class will be selected and each will move on to Best in Surf. There will be a 1st, 2nd and 3rd place winner for Best in Surf.

There’ll also be awards for Freestyle Surfing Champ, People’s Choice Surfing Dog and top Couch Surfing Photo contest winner.

Videos are going up in a gallery on the Helen Woodward Animal Center’s website ( and folks can vote for their favorite surfing dog. The pooch with the most votes will win the “People’s Choice Surfing Dog” award.

All video footage will be compiled into an official Surf Dog Surf-A-Thon video, which will be made up for viewing on Sept. 13.

The deadline to submit videos is Sunday, Sept. 6. Videos should be recent and should not have been filmed before Aug. 6. The video should show the size of the wave, where the wave was caught and any special maneuvers by the surfing dog.

“Filming our contest video was a blast because we got together with Faith the Surfing Pitbull and Surf Dog Rothstein for a surf sesh at Del Mar Dog Beach,” Nykolayko said. “ It’s great being able to get together with our surf buddies to catch a few waves and have a few laughs which has been in short supply throughout the pandemic.”

Non-surfing pups can participate by entering the Couch Surfing Photo Contest, sponsored by Naturally Fresh, and by creating a fundraising page to support the orphan pets and programs at Helen Woodward Animal Center.

The Couch Surfing contest was inspired by Nykolayko and his wife Amy. “Early on in Quarantine Life, as the weather was getting nicer, we really wanted to get to the beach but, like most people, were staying home. One weekend, we thought it’d be fun to stage a “surfing” photo in the house, so we grabbed her board, a blue blanket, and Cherie’s favorite shark toys and hit the shutter a few dozen times,” Nykolayko said.

“We figured it would put smiles on her Instagram followers’ faces during this unprecedented time.”

The entry fee for “Best Wave” Contest is $25; Freestyle Surf Contest, $15; virtual Couch Surfing Photo Contest, $5. Donations can also be made without surfing.

Visit or call (858) 756-4117 x 350.

— Linda McIntosh is a reporter for The San Diego Union-Tribune