Meet the dog surfers who have reached "a new plateau"
"I think the spirit of surfing opened her up to new experiences."
The Dog's Guide to Surfing, the manual that inspired the World Dog Surfing Championships, warns dog owners to expect a change in their pets if they ever manage to catch a wave.
"If they are lucky they may get on a board and hop a curl, and when they land, they will be forever changed. That dog will have dug deep, been high, and reached a new plateau," the manual reads.
It takes a special kind of dog to learn to surf, but you'll find the largest gatherings of them at the World Dog Surfing Championships, an annual event that occurs in Pacifica, California. Unlike most of the not-sports events Inverse has covered, this year's World Dog Surfing Championships is actually on track to proceed.
On Saturday, September 26, the canine competitors will surf and be judged on Zoom. The broadcast of their performances will be live-streamed.
It's at that event — or at the countless others scattered across Southern California — where you might find Faith, a surfing pit bull, and her coach/human James Wall.
Wall, is a father of three children and four dogs – and not a surfer himself. But Faith, who he found in a parking garage in 2012, has since become a prolific surfer. In 2013, she placed third in her first-ever competition.
Faith has never placed at the World Dog Surfing Championships but it's clear she has "dug deep and been high." You rarely see a photo of Faith on Instagram (she has over 75,000 followers) without a pair of wide reflective sunglasses, her tongue lolling out, and waves breaking in the background. She can surf breaking waves, white front-paws outstretched, hind legs jutting upwards into a downward dog.
It's the perfect recipe for a viral TikTok (counterintuitively, Faith has never gone viral on TikTok). She's also an example of a dog that's reached that new plateau.
"It's like a calming thing for her," Wall tells Inverse. "I think the spirit of surfing opened her up to new experiences."
What makes Dog Surfing a sport – Dog surfing has, allegedly, been around since the 1920s. The first official Dog Surfing competition happened in 2006.
Dog surfing is judged like human surfing with some key differences: Instead of paddling franticly, their humans push them into waves. Judges take note of the length of the ride, steadiness, footing, and how confident they look on the board.
Achieving that perfect ride requires thought on both the human and the dog's part. For Wall, it was about learning what kind of waves that might set up Faith for success. Too steep, and a large surfboard might nosedive. An easier wave, made from white water, might make for a short ride – but it's not enough of a challenge.
"I've learned what size board to use and what size waves I can send her in on with positive outcomes," says Wall. "Right when the breaking point is, when to send, when not to send; when they're doubling up [two waves that come in on top of one another, making a lumpy, unrideable face]. It was a lot of time out on the water learning this."
But once the wave arrives, it's up to the dog.
Naturally, they fall off. Sometimes, it's the owners' fault. A nosediving board sends a dog off the front like a catapult, says Wall. When Faith falls off, she knows to swim to shore — occasionally she'll pull herself back on.
Confident dog surfers do evoke a kind of attitude – a composure in the water that's only attained by the best human surfers (who are undeniably athletes, surfing is one of the world's fastest-growing sports). That composure takes years to cultivate, partially because it takes years of poundings on the bottom of the beach to even get close. In his seminal surfing memoir Barbarian Days, New Yorker writer William Finnegan uses a Jerry Seinfeld quote to explain it:
"That wave is so much bigger and stronger than you. You’re always outnumbered. They always can crush you."
Faith, the surfing pit bull, and other pro-dog surfers don't have the words to describe waves. But they have the grace to deal with them.
The dogs at the World Surfing Championships have been known to exude an awareness in the water that you don't see in most people. For instance, in a 2017 incident that was covered by USA Today, one competitor —bound on a collision course toward another dog surfer — jumped off of his board and onto the other's and rode the board to the safety of the beach.
The Michael Jordan of Dog surfing – A.K Crump is the organizer of the World Dog Surfing Championships and the founder of the event's sponsor TasteTV, a San Francisco based media company. Crump is also one of the editors of the Dogs Guide to Surfing.
Crump tells Inverse that he has tried countless times to create a ranking of world dog surfers, but the community chaffed in response.
"We've tried to put together a list like that in the past, but the surfers reminded us that they all just do it for the love of the sport, not for any super hardcore competition," Crump explains. "So a list was kind of the opposite of what most of them wanted to see."
That said, there are reigning champions in a variety of categories based on size. The 2019 top dog (or Best in Surf) was Cherie, a nine-year-old French bulldog from Newport Beach. Crump specifically mentions Cherie as one of four "legends," all based in California.
There's Buddy, a Jack Russell terrier from Ventura, and Abbie Girl, the holder of the world record for longest wave ridden by a dog in open water at 107 meters. Finally, there's Skylar, a dog known for "surf-therapy" sessions in Santa Cruz, where kids can ride along with her.
Faith is one dog that Crump mentions as "just awesome."
The spirit of dog surfing – Faith is still chasing a podium finish at the World Dog Surfing Championships, but she's uniquely qualified to exemplify the sport's spirit. She won the event's Spirit of Surfing Award in 2019.
Wall says that Faith's surfing life, which they have forged together, is built upon a fundamental value: trust. Crump, the organizer of the World Dog Surfing Championships agrees.
"The spirit of the sport is that it really is a true bonding experience between person and dog," he says.
When Wall first rescued Faith from the California parking garage, he says she was shy, if not fearful. "We would go for try to go for walks and [if we saw] somebody with a bicycle down the street she would get fearful. She would hide from trash cans, stationary trash cans. There was lots of fear built up."
But since taking to the waves, Faith has become more relaxed. That's partially from acclimation to beach-goers and random bystanders. It's also because she has learned to trust Wall as he pushes the board into the waves at their local beach break.
Faith's aptitude for the sport has changed them both. Wall, once not a beachgoer, now spends three days a month in the water. Faith, a dog once intimidated by trash cans, is hurling down the face of unbroken waves.
"Working with her and doing this with her help build our trust and bond," he says. "So don't ever count a rescue dog or a stray dog out of anything."