Hang-20

At the seventh annual Loews’ Surf Dog Competition in Imperial Beach, more dogs are wearing sunglasses than are humans. The competition is held each year in Imperial Beach to raise money and awareness for the ASPCA, and it is no small event. News stations have camera crews on risers made of thin metal pipes, and each time a dog comes in from its heat, it is immediately swarmed by reporters. Spectators stand knee-deep in the Pacific to get good iPhone pictures. Many have given up trying to keep their clothes dry and don’t bother rolling up their pant legs. My clothes are soaked through too, but it’s mostly because a group of kids in the surf zone are running around, splashing everyone except the friend they are aiming at.

The competition is composed of three main heats. While human surfers are segregated by gender, age, and experience, with surfing pooches, it is all about size. The first heat is for small breeds; the second heat is for large breeds; and third is the tandem heat, which includes various combinations of dogs and humans.

Four panting dogs line up with their surfboards and owners in a roped off runway in front of the judge’s table. An announcer shouts that it’s time to surf. The dogs and humans sprint down to the water. The four contestants have 10 minutes to catch waves. When the humans get knee deep in the brine, they lay the surfboard down and the dog leaps aboard. The owners then tow their dogs to the breakers and launch them onto whatever swell they find promising.

I track down one of the judges, Brian Johnson, general manager of Loews Coronado Bay Resort, as he carries a box of fruit to his car. He tells me the dogs are scored based on everything from “technique, to time on the board, to overall wave to beach performance.” His navy blue polo shirt sports the Loews’ logo and his sandy hair pokes out from beneath his baseball cap. “I’m not a surfer,” he admits, “so I don’t know the lingo.” He pauses, as if considering his credentials and what I might think of them. “But I own a dog.” he adds.

Though the waves are short and choppy, most dogs manage to stay on the board until they reach the sand and leap off. In case they wipe out, they have little lifejackets equipped with a handle on the back so owners can yank them out of the water. Every time a dog wipes out, everyone on the beach openly panics until the dog resurfaces. The Bulldog wipeouts are the most amusing. While the other breeds kind of flop sideways into the water, Bulldogs, with their low-slung sturdy build, only get knocked off when the nose of the board catches under the edge of the water, and they are launched into the air like furry shot puts.

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Bulldogs, with their low-slung sturdy build, only get knocked off when the nose of the board catches under the edge of the water, and they are launched into the air like furry shot puts.

At this point, a woman inexplicably parks her toddler in a stroller next to me (and I should point out that I’m ankle-deep in water) and abruptly abandons it to take her Chocolate Lab to the water. I stare awkwardly at the little kid lying inside. Is it worse to leave a tot burning in direct sunlight or to get caught moving a child that isn’t mine? The mom suddenly runs up and tells me that her dog escaped his choke chain and asks if I could watch the tyke. Before I can answer, she sprints off.

The little girl has eyes the size of Frisbees. I ask her if she likes seeing all the doggies. She stares blankly at me, unblinking. I ask her what her name is, and she keeps staring. I go back to taking photos of the dogs.

When the mother returns, we have a brief conversation about how tough it is to raise kids with a large dog, and I leave before she can somehow stick me with watching her elderly father so she can get a better grip on her responsibilities.

Halfway through a heat, a bulldog turns around on her surfboard and rides to dry land backwards. I know it’s probably unintentional, but I can’t help myself; I start cheering wildly. The woman in front of me, apparently a stony dog-surfing veteran, is not impressed. She dismissively mutters, “Low center of gravity”—as if the bulldog’s build is an unfair advantage, like juicing before the homerun derby or blood doping for the Tour de France.

When I first discovered there was such a thing, I imagined dog surfing as a sport that would evoke the wrath of PETA. In my head, they were middle-aged people with empty nests stuffing their dogs into bikinis and tossing them into cold water. I am astounded at how many of these dogs actually enjoy surfing. Sure, there was one shaggy pooch that clearly wanted nothing more than to run back to the sand, but most of the dogs are so excited to go back on the waves that they immediately jump back onto the board before their owners can set it down.

I wander the beach, working up the courage to strike up a non-creepy conversation to use in this article. I am wishing one of the surfers’ humans would strike up a conversation with me—and that actually happens. A photographer with a press badge around his neck on a lanyard (probably one not hastily laminated at Kinko’s, like mine was) is taking a picture of a Golden Retriever wearing a lei and a pink lifejacket with white polka dots (the dog is wearing the lei, not the lensman). The dog won’t look in the right direction, so her owner suddenly shouts for me to get Missy’s attention. I wave my arms around in the air and call the dog’s name, like I’m trying to hail a taxi. When the man gets the shot and leaves, the owner and I sit in the sand and talk about how she got to the idea that she should put her retriever on a surfboard.

During this chat, Missy sits and lets Grace Vanderwaall Barnett fuss over her outfit. Surfing seems very taxing on dogs as Missy barely reacts when I scratch her behind the ear.

Grace didn’t set out to teach her dog to surf. She was part of a golden retriever group four years ago, when Missy was one. She heard about a surfing class and just showed up to see what would happen. Now they enter into two competitions a year. From Barnett I learn that most people don’t buy specialized dog surfboards. Missy uses a normal surfboard bought from Costco[1].

Before I leave, Grace rearranges Missy’s lei and tells me to make sure I get her medal in the photo.

I wander back to the shoreline, and an overexcited woman begins screaming ‘Ricochet’. When I dart a confused look in her direction, she launches into the tale of one of the greatest dogs in the History of the Universe.

Ricochet, a cinnamon colored Golden Retriever with a white tuft of fur on her chest that resembles a heart, was raised to become a service dog, but instead she became, according to her website, a “surfice” dog[2]. The woman somehow manages to tell me the dog’s life story without stopping to breathe. After a year of being trained as a service dog, Ricochet was suddenly pulled out of the program because she couldn’t stop chasing birds, which would obviously be very dangerous for a visually impaired owner. Trying to work on what Ricochet could do, her owner arranged for her to surf in a fundraiser for Patrick Ivison, a quadriplegic adaptive surfer. Ricochet was meant to surf on a separate surfboard, next to Ivison, but the dog leaped on Ivison’s board and rode in with him.

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Ricochet has an uncanny ability to balance a surfboard’s second occupant, so she has surfed with special needs children, disabled adults, and wounded warriors.

The woman removes her sunglasses to show how serious this next part of the story will be. “They raised enough money for him that he was able to walk across the stage at his high school graduation.” Ricochet has an uncanny ability to balance a surfboard’s second occupant, so she has surfed with special needs children, disabled adults, and wounded warriors. At the age of four, she’s raised over $200,000 for charities. “I have a friend[3] who drove all the way from Nevada to see her surf today,” the woman tells me. She cups her hands into a megaphone and screeched the dog’s name again. With that, I go on my way.

The Tandem Heat starts, and the owners splash out to enjoy a wave with their dogs. There’s a father-daughter combo (both human) who do poses which involve the daughter balancing on one leg on her father’s shoulders as their tiny pup clings to the nose of the board. A woman brings out three dogs all sporting stars and stripes life jackets. She waves a flag above their heads, and I’m not sure whether to salute or giggle. And one of my favorite moments happens when a man loses his balance and falls into the water, but the dog manages to stay aboard and only seems to realize he has lost his human when he gets back to the sand.

An announcer gathers all the contestants to announce the winners. Abbie Girl, an Australian Kelpie, takes the title for small breeds. Ricochet wins first place for the larger breeds; and Zoey, a Jack Russell Terrier, and her owners, Scott & Tyler Chandler, win for the Tandem Heat. Though there is supposed to be an ultimate showdown between all the winners to see which dog will be poster dog for Loews’ Hotel, I take five minutes to sit down and somehow miss it. No one I ask can give me a definite answer as to what happened in the showdown, which makes me suspect it might not have happened. There is an alarming lack of rigor in the world of dog surfing.

On the drive back home, I’m still scoffing over how ridiculous the whole event was. I mean, who does this? Who takes their pooch to the beach when they’re in the mood for surfing? Who dresses a dog up and invests in custom made life jackets? But sometimes it’s hard to leave something at home that loves you so much. My boyfriend’s sister once trained a service dog. After the dog went to its new owner, her family kept the training vest. They now put it on their own dog (a 14-year-old Chihuahua, who could use a service dog of his own) whenever they want to take him to the airport or the grocery store. And if I could find a way, I wouldn’t leave my dog anywhere either.


[1] Earlier in the day, a world record was broken for most dogs surfing with one human. I missed it, but it was filmed so footage could be sent to the Guinness Book of World Records. Scott Chandler, the human on board, built his own surfboard specifically for the stunt. But with a board that is 15’ long and43’’ wide, the resulting footage is actually very boring as it is basically 14 or 17 dogs (the number changes depending on who is reporting) aboard a ferry that floats forward a few feet on a swell that never breaks. (Also, how canI have missed the dog surfing section of the Guinness Book all these years?)

[2] This website also offers other great plays on words such as ‘talk about new doggie doors opening’, ‘my bio & ruff’sume’, ‘little surFUR girl’, “board’ meeting’, and ‘paw-abunga’.

[3] Right. A friend.


HEATHER BUCHANAN lives and writes in San Diego.