When I take my dogs to a surf festival, more spectators turn up to watch them on a board than the human competitors. People are fascinated with the whole concept but it’s a very natural thing to do, especially if you live by the sea in a warm country, like here in Australia.
My three dogs love to surf with me, quite often all at the same time. They’re just normal animals and haven’t been specially trained. To them it’s the same as going for a walk; it has never been a case of forcing them to jump on the board. They run into the sea and jump on the front, then I paddle out through the waves.
I’m 51 and live near the surf resort of Noosa, in Queensland. I work as an animal therapist, helping owners to train pets with behavioural issues. I started taking my first dogs on a board about 20 years ago. At the time I was competing in tandem surfing – that’s where a man holds a woman above his head and surfs in to the shore. It’s all about balance and catching the right wave; I went on to become world champion in 1999.
After carrying a woman on a surfboard, balancing with a dog was easy. Obviously, smaller animals are best because if a large dog moves around, it messes up the balance and you could wipe out. Most surfboards have a hard surface, which is difficult for a dog to grip, so my boards have an area of neoprene stuck to the top that is more comfortable for their paws.
My oldest surf dog is Lani, an 11-year-old border collie cross. She has been surfing since she was six weeks old and loves to sit at the very tip of the board. Murph is five and also caught the surfing bug young, while Rama is still growing and prefers riding the big waves.
Anybody can teach their pet to surf if they have time and patience. I started training all my dogs using a paddleboard on rivers and lagoons, where there are no waves or white water. First, I walk them on and off the board while it’s resting on the ground, just so they get used to the feel of the plastic. Then I put them on the board and use a paddle to reach a sandbar, where we get off, run around and play with sticks.
That helped my dogs associate the board with having a good time, so it was no problem transferring to a normal surfboard and trying the sea. I don’t fit them with life jackets or leads because they find it much harder to swim that way when we fall off. None of my dogs has ever been injured and I’m careful to look after them.
The best surf dogs are those breeds that like the water, such as Labradors or retrievers. But there’s no real way of knowing until you put them on a board and see how they fare. It’s important to start on small waves with no wind because it’s not a natural pastime for dogs. We don’t wipe out often because the dogs are so used to being on a surfboard – if we do go over, it’s usually a rogue wave. But with two or three dogs, it’s difficult to get your balance back again and we all end up in the water. The dogs love it – they pop up out of the sea and swim back to the shore, ready to go back out again.
Dog surfing is starting to catch on now, mainly because of people using paddleboards to explore inland rivers and creeks. The boards are 12ft long and almost 3ft wide, so stability is excellent – and they are also great in the sea.
I sometimes put one of my dogs on a conventional surfboard and swim with it out to sea. I wait for the right wave and then let them ride it back in to the shore. Once I tried it with 10 dogs squashed on a surfboard at the same time but I wouldn’t recommend that to a beginner.
The first time people see a dog on a surfboard they always stop – they’re thinking, that’s an incredible sight! My dogs use their balancing skills to travel on the back of a scooter too, although I’m not sure that is strictly legal.