Do Dogs Really Like to Surf?

Dogs try to break a world record for most on a surfboard at Loews Dog Surfing Competition.
Corbis

THE GIST

- Dog surfing instructors say that dogs who dislike the water are not trained for competition.

- So long as safety is observed and dogs show enthusiasm, experts think the sport is cool for canines.

- When trained, dogs are first "desensitized" to the boards used.

Dog surfing trainers say the dogs are actually enjoying themselves as they take to the board.

"You only attempt surfing with dogs that really love the beach and water," explained Rob Kuty, the official animal trainer at the Helen Woodward Animal Center in San Diego. "Dogs who fear or dislike either are almost impossible to train to surf, so you won't find those dogs at these types of competitions."

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Kuty works with such dogs at the center's Surf Clinics conducted in June, July and August. Participants can then compete in the annual Surf Dog Surf-A-Thon fundraiser for the center that is held each year.

Kuty begins by "desensitizing the dogs to the board," which consists of getting them comfortable standing on the surfboards, when still on the sand, and then reinforcing "how great it is to stand on the boards by praising them when they are on the board and ignoring the dogs when they are off the boards."

He added that "this has the positive result of making the dogs enjoy standing on the surfboards because they have been trained to understand that these boards are positive places to be."

Once canines are comfortable on the surfboards, Kuty and his helpers will take the dogs out into the water and hold the boards while letting the dogs feel the rhythm of the water. At this time, canines usually exhibit their particular surfing style. Some like to surf standing forward, while others take a side position or even orient themselves so they are backwards on the board.

"All in all," Kuty said, "the dogs that do a lot of surfing are water and beach loving beings who have developed a positive association with their boards and have found a comfortable way to hang ten."

So long as a dog fits that bill, has an appropriately sized surfboard and is healthy, Kuty indicated that most breeds could participate. Bulldogs like to lie down on the board, however, probably due to distribution of their weight, he said. Other breeds may prefer standing or sitting.

Judging during competitions depends on the particular event. The recent Loews Coronado Bay Resort Surf Dog Competition, for example, judged the dogs on their confidence, length of ride and fashion, according to judge Teevan McManus. The word "fashion" could not only refer to clothing but to the style of movement the dog has on the board. Some canines come dressed in flashy canine clothing and sunglasses.

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Betsy McFarland, The Humane Society of the United States' vice president for companion animals, hopes that one piece of "fashion" is a life vest.

"Common sense needs to prevail," she said of the canine sport.

Owners should first have their dogs checked out thoroughly by a veterinarian to make sure the pets are healthy enough to withstand the activity, often cool water temperatures and more.

"Dogs should not overexert themselves" when surfing, McFarland said.

Like Kuty, she believes dogs should initially show a natural interest in swimming, surfboards and the beach life. Not surprisingly, many surfing dogs belong to surfer humans who enjoy taking their pets out with them.

If dogs are enthusiastic about the sport, are in good health and are monitored very carefully with safety in mind, McFarland gives the thumbs up.

Surfing "could then be a very good thing," she said.