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.
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.”