A version of this story first appeared at Coast Guard Pacific Southwest and was written by Petty Officer 2nd Class Pamela Boehland.
Shortly after the 2012 Thanksgiving holiday, a family and their dog were walking along Big Lagoon Beach near Eureka, Calif., when a wave suddenly swept their dog out to sea. The 16-year-old son went into the breaking surf to attempt to rescue the dog, and when it became apparent that he was struggling, both of his parents rushed into the water to save him. The dog made it safely back to shore unharmed. The mother, father and their son did not.
A month later, on New Year’s Day, a Bay Area man died attempting to save his wife and dog from the surf at the Point Reyes National Seashore. Two weeks later a 32-year old woman was walking her dog along the coast at Shelter Cover, Calif., when a wave carried her out to sea.
Winter is a particularly dangerous time to be on the beaches of Northern California. Tragically, every year, people and their pets fall victim to sneaker waves. A sneaker wave is a large wave in a series of coastal waves. They frequently catch beachgoers, dog walkers and dogs off guard and wash them out to sea.
At least seven people have died in Northern California since 2008 while attempting to rescue their dogs from the ocean, according to the Santa Rosa Press Democrat. In all but one case, the dogs made it safely back to shore and without any human intervention.
“We love our dogs and will do anything to save them – but we must guard against the instinct to jump into the surf,” said Allison Lindquist, executive director of the East Bay Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals.
The simple truth is that most dogs are better swimmers than their two-legged masters. Army veterinarian Capt. Lynn Miller said, “Compared to their human counterparts, many dog breeds have a compact center of mass in relation to their long limbs and an elevated head and neck, which makes them good swimmers in calm water.”
However, the Northern California coast isn’t often described as calm at any time of year. Vigilance and prevention needs to be on every beach goers’ mind to protect themselves and their dog from the frigid Pacific Ocean.
If you take your four-legged buddy to the beach, you must keep a few safety tips in mind. Dogs that weigh less than 40 pounds should not be allowed to run off leash near the surf zone, according to Miller. She also warns that even though larger breed dogs like Labradors and Irish setters that are naturally strong swimmers, need to be protected from the ocean.
“Even the fittest canine athlete isn’t made for pounding surf, and dogs should be discouraged from going near rough water and rocky areas,” Miller said. “Remember, a small wave that comes up to your dog’s elbow is the equivalent of a bigger wave that comes up to a human’s knee.”
She also advises not to throw toys into active waves, as some dogs can become so focused on a ball or Frisbee that they will miss hazards under the water they would have caught otherwise.
If your dog is swept away, give him or her the opportunity to swim back to shore.
“Dogs are far better equipped to ‘go with the flow’ and get themselves to shore than are humans,” Lindquist said. She advises, “Should your dog end up in the surf or rip current, stay safely on the shore.”
Lindquist said dog owners should also, “Be aware that the current may move the dog down the beach, and they may come ashore a distance from where you are located. Ensure that your dog has a microchip and a collar with ID, as this will make reuniting you both much quicker,” she added.
If, however, you find yourself pulled into the water, it is important to remain calm and swim parallel to the shore. If you are not a strong swimmer, try to get the attention of those on shore and tread water and float calmly until help arrives.
Dogs provide us with an excellent opportunity to get out and enjoy the great outdoors. Beaches are a popular spot for both canines and their humans. But if you decide to spend the day at the beach, do so with caution. Safe guard yourself, your family and your best friends and don’t get carried away.
Other Safety Tips from Dr. Miller:
-Make sure your dog has plenty of fresh water to drink—salt water is poisonous to a dog’s stomach and intestines.
-Rinse your dog’s coat off to remove the saltwater and prevent skin irritation.
-Cold water can shock even mildly arthritic joints and turn a pleasant day at the beach into a nightmare that can last for days or lead to drowning.
-Also, as a safety precaution, any dog that is entering open water – beach, bay or riding on a boat – should be fitted with a life vest, regardless of the dog’s size.