The Architect Teaching Dogs to Surf


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Dog surfing tends to draw a crowd, Noll says.

“The salt water of the ocean is my therapy, my church,” Peter Noll says.

A decade ago, Noll may have scoffed at the idea of his dog accompanying him to that church-slash-therapy, but not anymore. Along with a group of other volunteers, he teaches dog surfing clinics over the summer, but hems and haws at that term: dog surfing. “It’s a misnomer,” he explains. “We teach humans how to surf with their dogs. Owners put their dogs on the board, paddle them out, ease them into a wave, and then grab them afterward.”

Noll, who started the group SoCal Surf Dogs, volunteers with the Helen Woodward Animal Center in California to help raise money and awareness by teaching people how to surf with their dogs. His Bernese mountain dog, Nani, is almost 12, and Noll says surfing has helped extend her life. But his other dog, 10-year-old Kiki, wants nothing to do with the water.

Nani’s kind of a big deal. She’s a world champion and a Surf Dog Hall-of-Famer (yes, that’s a thing) who started surfing nine years ago, but Noll has since retired her. Back in her heydey, she appeared in the movie Marmaduke as one of the dogs in the background; she made more money that week than “any of us did,” Noll laughs.

Age: 64
Based in: San Diego, California
Graduated from: I went to junior college and dropped out to take a job in an architect’s office. I still passed my professional exams and got licensed, but now you need a degree before you can even take those exams.

Previous jobs: I’m a semi-retired architect after 32 years.

How did architecture lead to dog surfing? I’m a big surfer, so I was at the beach one day when my Bernese mountain dog, Nani, jumped into the water. I thought it was cute, so I pushed her into a wave, and she sat there like Cleopatra. A friend who saw that told me about a surf dog competition in a few weeks, and I laughed — but then I went home, thought about it and decided to give it a try. We ended up winning the meet, and Nani came in second overall to a dog who had been surfing for years. It was fun.

But you didn’t stop there. It’s really different from teaching humans to surf, so I came up with the idea for SoCal Surf Dogs as a forum for people who wanted to get involved. A lot of people were interested, so that turned into teaching clinics. We give one-hour classes during the summer at Dog Beach in Del Mar — three courses every Saturday and Sunday for five weeks, with about 10 people (and dogs) per class. It’s $45 per class, but that goes to the animal center. I do this for the joy of it; I also started clinics for paddleboarding with your dog.

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Nani, world champion.

What do you teach during those classes? How to put your dog on the board, how to control the surfboard while pushing them through waves and how to let go of it. Then, we run into the water and people try it for themselves. Owners are crying and hugging me afterward, so excited that their dogs surfed. San Diego Pet Training also comes to all our clinics to make sure nothing goes wrong.

Other people — like me — choose to surf alongside their dogs on the surfboard. You put the dog on the board, lay down behind it, and paddle out. Then you sit up, turn around, pull the dog back toward you and paddle for a wave. When you stand up, you’ll just surf with the dog at the front of the board. If the dog inches up, you have to step further back to counter that weight.

Are dogs typically allowed on the beach? In San Diego, there are only four beaches you can take your dog. But when you see dogs on beaches, it’s like they’re in Disneyland — they’re full of joy. Surfing with them is an extension of that.

Pro tips for surfing with your dog: The dog needs to stand on the back third of the board, with its back feet directly above the board’s fins (otherwise, they’ll wipe out). You also need to use a soft-top surfboard so if it hits them, they won’t get hurt. We insist every dog who surfs with us wears a canine life jacket to keep it above water. Some non-water dogs, like bulldogs, can sink like rocks.

Are most of the dog owners surfers themselves? About 95% of the people doing this have never surfed in their lives.

What about the humans who are really into it, but their dogs just aren’t having it? About 75% of the time, we’ll have success getting the dog to understand it’s safe and fun. Sometimes, you can tell that the dog is like, why did you put me on this thing? But you encourage them to try it again and again, and then they get it; its ears relax, its tongue comes out.

Any dog can learn to surf, as long as it likes the water. We have tons of different breeds: labs, poodles, mixed breeds, German shepherds, golden retrievers, bulldogs. And it’s something you can do yourself, too, as long as you have a soft-top board and a life jacket.

Other things to bring, if you’re trying dog surfing solo:

  • Invest in thin rubber booties for your dog if the sand is really hot.
  • You can put doggie sunscreen on the head and snout of soft-haired, light-colored dogs.
  • Even if the sun and sand are super hot, the water can still be cold. A wetsuit shop here makes custom suits for dogs that go around their torsos and provide warmth.
  • You’ll need a waterproof collar made of nylon, not leather.

Is there some hidden world of dog surfing competitions that I’ve just never heard of? There are four surf dog competitions on the West Coast, and they’re starting in other places around the world, too. For the most part, they raise awareness and money for rescuing dogs and other animals.

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Best part of your job: It’s extremely rewarding to see a dog who’s a total natural and its owner had no idea. They’re crying, they can’t believe it. It’s a bonding experience and takes a certain level of trust.

Most challenging part of your job: If dogs just aren’t into it, getting their owners to understand that maybe they should take up another sport. Some people really want their dogs to surf.

Like stage moms, but for dog surfing. And we have people of all ages bringing their dogs to the clinics, from teens to a 72-year-old man. It’s not limited to young people, but you will be huffing and puffing; people don’t realize how exhausting this is for the humans.

What would people be surprised to learn about your job? Dogs are smarter and more courageous than you may give them credit for.

Has a lifeguard ever had to rescue a dog? That’s not exactly in their job descriptions, I’d bet. They watch us, but they’ve never had to rescue one of the dogs.

You can learn more on the SoCal Surf Dogs website and through the Helen Woodward Animal Center, a no-kill shelter. Just make sure to wear sunscreen.

 

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