She and I only knew each other for 10 minutes and didn't speak a word when we were together. But during that time, I knew I'd felt something. Something very special.
Her name was Tonka. She was an 8-pound Alaskan Klee Kai and Chihuahua mix. I'd borrowed her from her owner and taken her into San Diego harbor to experience a fast-growing spin on one of today's hottest recreational sports trends: Stand-up paddle-boarding with your dog.
Clad in a floatation vest, Tonka got over her rookie jitters quickly and perched herself on the bow of my board, perfectly at ease. As we paddled, I grew increasingly comfortable as well. Strangely, I started to feel a connection, a joy, a euphoria — almost as if I was falling in love.
What the heck happened out there?
"It was trust," says Nicole Ellis, 30, a Los Angeles trainer of dogs for movie and therapy who SUPs with Maggie, her 6-year-old miniature poodle, border collie and bichon frisé mix. "Dogs put their trust totally in us. You felt that."
"Dogs are a part of the family," says Peter Noll, 62, a San Diego architect who founded SoCalSUPdogs.com last year. His pet Nani, a 90-pound Bernese mountain dog, "starts barking with excitement when she hears the velcro rip open on my board shorts."
In fact, according to Regina Barella, special events supervisor at the Helen Woodward Animal Center in Rancho Santa Fe, which offers dog surf and SUP clinics in San Diego beginning June 20, dogs love paddle-boarding so much that "you can actually see them smiling out there."
But I was a stranger to Tonka. She had no reason to trust or want to please me.
According to animal emotion expert Marc Bekoff, professor emeritus of ecology and evolutionary biology at the University of Colorado, it might be that SUPing forced Tonka and me into a "mutual gaze" — a non-verbal cue signaling intimacy. And when she brushed up against me, it may have released oxytocin, a neurotransmitter known as the cuddle hormone, released during intimate acts.
"You know the joy dogs have catching Frisbees with you? SUPing goes further; not just sharing a fun activity but sharing balance, proprioception — the same movements," Bekoff says.
I've ridden a tandem bike with my son for years, but for those 10 minutes in San Diego harbor, Tonka became an extension of me, and me of her. It was beyond bonding. It was like a shared consciousness.
Or as Bekoff puts it: "When you do something together with a dog, like SUPing, he's having a blast. And so are you."
Here are some suggestions from Marc Miller at Isle SUP & Surf for stand-up paddle-boarding with a dog.
1. Buy your dog an inflatable vest.
2. Make sure you can stand-up paddle-board comfortably. Dogs will mirror your stress.
3. Let your dog watch you paddle from the shore. Wave and call out, smiling and laughing.
4. Put your dog on the board on the beach to get comfortable. Then put the dog on the board in shallow water and walk, holding the board. Let the dog jump off to get used to the water. Don't force the dog back on the board.
5. Put dog and owner on the board. Start paddling on your knees with the dog in front of you.
6. Stand up. Initially, place the dog between your legs so you don't bop it on the head with your paddle.
7. Teach your dog commands like "stay" "sit" and "stand" in case a bird or a fish come by.
8. Let small dogs perch on the bow. Keep heavy dogs on the back third of the board.