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Are Surfing Dogs Really Happy… or Horrified?

Surfing Dog

Story at-a-glance -

  • If you’ve ever wondered if those dogs you see surfing the waves off the California coast or elsewhere are actually enjoying themselves, you’re not alone.
  • According to surfing dog instructors and owners, only pets who like being in the water and show aptitude for the sport are trainable. Dogs who fear or dislike the water can’t be trained to surf.
  • Safety is of principal importance for canine surfers. Dogs should be healthy enough to participate in such a physically demanding activity -- often in cold ocean temperatures -- and they should always wear life vests while in the water.

By Dr. Becker

Most of us have seen videos or pictures of dogs surfing. Have you ever wondered if the dogs are really having fun, or just hanging on for dear life until they reach dry ground?

It’s hard to read every doggy expression, but it’s easy to imagine not every pup on a surfboard is enjoying himself.

However, according to the folks who train canines to surf, the dogs actually like the sport:

"You only attempt surfing with dogs that really love the beach and water," says Rob Kuty, 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."

Kuty conducts surf clinics for dogs during the summer months in the waters off San Diego.

How Dogs Learn to Surf

The first step in teaching a dog to surf is desensitizing her to the board. This involves getting her accustomed to standing on the board while it’s on the sand. Liberal praise is given while a dog is on the board, which tends to reinforce the behavior. Dogs off their boards are ignored.

So the desensitization phase of the training is about not only getting the dogs comfortable on their surfboards, but also positively reinforcing the behavior.

Once a pup is at ease standing on a surfboard on the sand, the next step is to put him on it out in the water. The trainer holds the board with his four-legged student standing on it so the dog can begin to experience the feel of being on the water.

According to Kuty, this is the time when most dogs display their individual approach to surfing. Some like to face forward on the board, others face backwards, some position themselves sideways, and many bulldogs (a breed that isn’t known for its swimming prowess, by the way) prefer to lie down on the board.

In Kuty’s experience, “… 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."

If a dog shows an aptitude for being on a surfboard in the water and is healthy, she’s a good candidate to enjoy the sport, according to Kuty. This makes perfect sense, because let’s face it … no matter how much your dog may want to please you, it would not be an easy task to “force” an unwilling canine to surf. There are many things an unenthusiastic dog can be compelled to do, but riding the ocean waves on a surfboard isn’t one of them.

Believe it or not, there are surfing competitions for canines. The dogs are judged on the length of their ride, their confidence level, and fashion. “Fashion” apparently refers not only to the dogs’ surfing attire, but also to the way they move on their boards.

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Safety Must Always Be the Priority

Dog surfers should always wear life vests while hanging ten.

And they should be checked out by a veterinarian ahead of time to insure they are healthy enough to participate in a physically demanding activity that often takes place in cold water.

Owners and trainers of surfing dogs should take care not to allow them to overexert themselves.

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