Surf’s Up Dawgs!

In past issues of Viking you may have seen numerous articles about normal sports, but why limit ourselves to just human sports? Welcome to the world of animal sports where dogs can surf just as well as humans. Dog surfing has its own community filled with energetic owners and eager dogs. Dogs compete in different surfing events and take part in many competitions.

Jenna Hickey and Hana Erickson

Bobbing up and down on the ocean waves, the light glints off his golden curls. The sun beats down upon him as he patiently waits for the perfect wave. Waiting…waiting…waiting. 

The spectators excitedly watch from the shore. Out in the distance, a wave catches his eye, he turns on his board, and with a small push he’s off. He gracefully jumps to his feet and rides the wave all the way to the shore. He sees his best friend and runs towards him. He jumps onto him…with his tail wagging? This is no standard surf competition: the dogs are in the house.

Derby is a surf dog who competes in dog surfing competitions. Derby was adopted by his owner, Kentucky Gallahue, seven years ago when Gallahue was looking for a goldendoodle. Four years ago, they moved from Atlanta to San Diego. At the time, Gallhue was sporting a mohawk and decided that Derby should get one too so that they could be twins. This look is a signature hairstyle for the duo and they’ve also had some fun experimenting with different colored hair. 

Photo courtesy of Karen Ambrose Hickey

The hair stood out on another level when the two began to surf. Surfing was on Gallahue’s bucket list and so when they moved out to San Diego it seemed like the perfect opportunity to start. He brought Derby thinking he would stay on the beach and play with the other dogs, but as Gallahue waded into the ocean to start practicing, Derby followed him in. Gallahue put Derby on a board and Derby stood up and rode the wave all the way to the shore. 

“I was happy but mad at the same time because it was so crazy,” Gallahue said. “But then again, he learned to surf before I did.”

Coming from the East Coast, Gallahue had only seen surf videos, but once he moved to Southern California, he understood it wasn’t just a sport, but a lifestyle. While riding the waves one day, someone approached Gallahue and told him about a surfing competition for dogs. Gallahue signed up despite him never attending a surf competition

At the competition in Imperial Beach, they got fifth place out of 30 dogs. Even though they were new and this was their first competition, many people still came up to them and asked where they came from and how long they had been surfing. They began making friends with other dog owners which allowed Gallahue to learn tips from his peers. 

It took a while for Gallahue to learn to surf individually but he then had to re-learn with an additional 60 pound weight on the front of the board. 

“A lot of my surfing friends do really well with their dogs, but they’re surfing with 20 pound dogs, and they’ll stay at the tip of the board,” Gallahue said. “When you’re surfing with another basically human and you’re doing all the work, it can get tiring.” 

The pair competes in dog surfing events and at four competitions: Imperial Beach, Del Mar dog beach, Huntington Beach, and Pacifica, the world dog surfing championship.

During these events, Gallahue has loved meeting other surf dogs and their owners. 

“Learning tips from them was the best thing because I didn’t really understand how the waves work,” Gallahue said. 

Gallahue additionally works at an animal center during the summer to teach other owners how to teach their dogs to surf. 

Photo courtesy of Karen Ambrose Hickey

“People we taught three years ago are actually surfing with us today in the competition,” Gallahue said. “It’s just so crazy that now I can pass on this knowledge to people who want to have fun with their dogs out in the ocean.”

The dynamic duo has garnered international fame, featured not only on Good Morning America, but also BBC and in Chinese/Japanese articles. Showing up to their interviews in matching hoodies and blue mohawks, it is clear this is something they enjoy doing together. The two even ride a motorcycle with a sidecar and scooter together. 

Gallahue says their biggest accomplishment is the fact that they can both get on the surfboard at the same time. Surfing in general was on Gallahue’s bucket list of something to do eventually, but he never thought he would be doing it with Derby. They got to travel the world together and have crazy adventures. 

“We do this for the smiles,” Gallahue said. “We love to put smiles on people’s faces, I love hanging out with my best friend here and doing any kind of crazy adventure.”

Derby and Gallahue are going to be on an Amazon Prime show called, The Pack, which is coming out on November 20th. Filmed earlier this year, Derby and Gallahue got to participate in an Amazing Race style competition with other dogs. They travelled around the world and ran through cities such as Mexico City, Costa Rica, Switzerland, London, and many other places. 

“We’ve met so many great other contestants who are now our greatest friends,” Gallahue said. 

Photo courtesy of Karen Ambrose Hickey

They are opening their own store where you can get matching hoodies to match your dog along with working on a children’s book, and they are even hoping for a cartoon.

Due to Covid-19, they have found other ways to keep busy. Derby learned how to open the refrigerator, balance treats, and played his favorite game, fetch. They are both active so it was difficult to stay cooped up in the house, but now that some restrictions have been lifted, they are excited to get back to the beach. 

“Now that we can kind of go back out to the beach, as long as we stay safe, we go out,” Gallahue said. 

While Derby and Gallahue do compete in competitions, they don’t do it for the glory.

It’s all about having fun with your best friend out there in the water

— Kentucky Gallahue

It’s all about having fun with your best friend out there in the water,” Gallahue said. 

However, Derby and Gallahue aren’t the only duo in the game. In 2013, Michael Yu and his dog, Abbie, became surf legends when Abbie earned the Guinness world record for the longest wave surfed by a dog. She surfed a 107.2 meters wave at a competition in Ocean Beach in San Diego, California on October 18, 2011. To this day she is still the only dog to hold a Guinness World Record for solo surfing. 

“Getting the record was a lot of fun because no one knew how to measure the length of a ride properly – we ended up taping a GPS running watch to her lifejacket in a plastic bag, and then using custom software to calculate the distance from the data,” Yu said. 

Abbie is the longest competing and most awarded surf dog—13 years of competitive surfing, and dozens and dozens of medals. The largest competition that the pair has been to was the Loews Surf competition, where there were over 30 dogs and owners and about 5,000 spectators on the shore watching. The second largest competition would be the Duke’s Oceanfest in Hawaii, which drew a crowd of 3,000 people on the beach. 

“The Hawaii dog surfing competitions draw more spectators than the human events do!” Yu said. “They’ve become our second family there, both in and out of surfing.”

Both Yu and Abbie have been to many fun competitions each with their own special thing about them. The Dog Surfing World Championships in Northern California is special because that is where Abbie is from. The Surf Dog event in Imperial Beach is a nice beach known for fantastic waves which is a great way to start off the season. The Dog event in Huntington Beach has large and very technical waves similar to a big wave pro event. 

There is a competition in San Diego by a private shelter that is at Yu’s home break. This was the competition they won when Abbie performed the first board swap. She jumped from her board onto the board of another dog. Since then, other dogs have done it, but Abbie was the first, and it shocked everyone. 

Scan here to watch Abbie perform the jump

During competition season, they travel quite a lot—from Northern California to Southern California, and to and from Hawaii. They currently live in Japan, taking the express train from Tokyo to Shonan to go surfing. 

“Carrying our board through downtown Tokyo and onto a train was definitely one of the most unique surf trips we’ve had!” Yu said. 

This incredible bond was created when Yu met Abbie at the Humane Society Silicon Valley. Yu was dealing with many life struggles at the time, while simultaneously Abbie had been abandoned on a highway. Abbie was taken to a shelter while Yu would often go on a drive in his car to unwind. One day on a drive, he decided to peak his head into the animal shelter. Abbie was the only dog not barking when people came into the dog area. 

“She looked sad and confused as to why she was there. She walked right up to me and licked my hand. I felt like she was saying, ‘I don’t belong here, get me out of here,’” Yu said.

The shelter owner gave him the advice to just let Abbie see the world through his eyes. The two became inseparable and shared every moment with each other from then on. 

One day they went to the beach together for a swim and Yu asked a neighboring surfer if Abbie could rest on his board. Rather than lying down, Abbie stood up and with a light push from Yu she rode the wave all the way to shore.

Abbie was able to surf immediately. She wasn’t trained or forced. Yu thinks it’s because she’s an Australian Kelpie. These dogs have a unique talent when herding sheep or jumping up and running across the backs of the sheep. Kelpies have a natural balance and desire to ride things. 

“Once I saw this, I tried to support her by taking her out 2-3 times a day to surf— much more fun than the dog park,” Yu said. “It was actually ME who had to learn how to paddle and pick waves for her. I learned to surf after she did!”

Yu is an athlete himself, loves sports, and has always been a waterman. He has experience rowing, swimming, and diving, but never got around to surfing.

I’ve learned a lot more about the ocean and myself. That’s the greatest gift Abbie has ever given me

— Michael Yu

“In order to support Abbie’s joy of being in the ocean, I’ve had to learn about surfing myself, and finally learned several years AFTER her,” Yu said. “And I’m still not as good as my dog. However, in helping her find her full potential, I’ve learned a lot more about the ocean and myself. That’s the greatest gift Abbie has ever given me.”

Abbie is always training. The pair makes training a part of their lifestyle. Abbie has a lot of rituals like sitting before crossing the street, waiting before eating, and she says bye to Yu when he leaves without her. 

Photo courtesy of Karen Ambrose Hickey

“It’s important to give a dog structure so they understand the world around them. Training provides a routine that keeps their mind working, and reduces stress about what’s going on; it’s not just for tricks and obedience,” Yu said.

With COVID-19, it has been difficult for the pair to maintain their regular routines, but they are making the most of it. Without walking to work, they aren’t able to do their daily commute walk, however, Yu takes her out for a short walk every three hours during the day.

“Having Abbie sleeping next to me while I work, and just being in the house makes it feel less lonely. She has been a great companion during Covid,” Yu said.

The hardest part for them has been telling people not to pet her when they go on walks, so that social distancing is maintained. 

“We have not always been successful, and there have been a few “alcohol baths” when we get home,” Yu said.

Yu believes that the hardest challenge about the sport is making sure people understand that dog surfing is an owender dog bonding activity and an extreme sport. 

“Many people have started hiring surfers to pitch their dogs in competition, like people hire walkers for dog shows. These people are in it just for trophies and awards.”

However, surfing is an opportunity to bond with your dog through sports, and is one of the few dog sports that requires full participation from both owner and dog. 

“We constantly try to persuade people to get out and surf with their dog, even when there isn’t a competition and cameras around.” 

Gallahue and Yu can both agree that there’s nothing they’d rather do than spend the whole day with their best friend in the water, making life-long memories.