Puppy love on board

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.

Los Angeles Times - - THE PETS ISSUE - BY ROY M. WAL­LACK home@latimes.com

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 to- tally 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 Satur­day, 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.”

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