Surf dogs get their day

Brian Koerner wished he could be surfing with his dog Banana every day, but he found too few opportunities after moving to Colorado.

But when the 38-year-old Westminster native received an email about the fifth annual Surf City Surf Dog competition in Huntington Beach, he packed his board and his pup and headed west.

"This is our first competition, so we'll learn how it goes and have some fun," said Koerner, who signed up himself and his dog for the tandem competition. "Maybe we'll get serious about it one day, but it's all about fun for me."

He and Banana got some practice time in before their first heat Sunday. The 14-year-old Corgi/Jack Russell Terrier mix, sporting a tiger-themed dye job and a life jacket, barked at Koerner to get back in the water.

"I would come out here every day after work and he would run on the beach and play with the waves," Koerner said. "When I'd go surfing, he'd want to go in, so I started bringing him in. I put a life jacket on him, put him on the board and he just stands there. He's pretty much a natural."

Hundreds of people gathered at Huntington Dog Beach off Goldenwest Street and Pacific Coast Highway to see 54 dogs catch 4- to 5-foot waves and ride them back under the watchful eyes of Huntington Beach Junior Lifeguards.

A portion of the proceeds from the event went to six dog organizations, including Barks of Love, the Orange County Humane Society and the Southern California Golden Retriever Rescue, said Lisa Scolman, co-founder of the event.

Scolman, an Oceanside resident, had seen dog surfing events in San Diego and decided it would be appropriate — some might say necessary — to have one in Surf City.

"It's been an uphill battle," she said. "People didn't believe and it took a while to get it off the ground. But now this year, we have surf legends judging, great new sponsors. So from our first to fifth year, I think we've finally made it. We're on the map."

A panel of judges, including surfing legend Pete Townend, were scoring the pooches on the duration of their ride and technique. Local legend Rick "Rockin' Fig" Fignetti also made an appearance and did some emceeing between heats.

"The judges don't know these dogs. They don't follow them on Instagram," Scholman said. "They totally judge them on their surfing ability."

Owner and dog teams demonstrated different strategies. Some would paddle out farther and try to ride a wave for as long as possible. Others went for style, sometimes with the dog backward on the board as they coasted to the beach.

James Wall and his dog, Faith, utilized the latter method and had a decent run that morning. It was the year-old pit bull's fourth time on a surfboard, but she held her own among the other canines in the water.

The San Diego resident found Faith on the streets with a belt tied around her neck, appearing malnourished and abused. Wall said the dog, about 18 pounds when he found her in November, began to regain weight after a few weeks of rehabilitation.

Wall volunteers at the Helen Woodward Animal Center in San Diego as a surf dog instructor, and having taught 180 dogs how to surf this summer, he figured it was only appropriate to teach his own as well.

"She caught a few good waves, a couple backwards," he said. "All in all, I think she did pretty good. I'm pleased with her, and it's all about having fun. So as long as she had fun and she enjoys it, that's all that matters."

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