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Coast Guard warns against following your dog into the surf

Published: Sunday, February 3, 2013 at 3:30 p.m.
Last Modified: Monday, February 4, 2013 at 7:54 a.m.

OAKLAND -- Gabe Pulliam has saved a single dog in the 12 years he's been a rescue swimmer for the U.S. Coast Guard, and he was rewarded by being bitten.

A dog owner himself, Pulliam said he'd risk his own safety again to try and save a canine. But that's only if he is on the job and decked out in a dry suit and other rescue gear.

For everyone else whose noble impulse is to go into Northern California's rugged surf after a pet in distress, Pulliam's message basically boils down to a single word:

"Don't."

The Coast Guard on Friday hosted a media event at the East Bay SPCA in Oakland to highlight that message amid a particularly deadly winter in which four beachgoers have perished in Northern California during events triggered by efforts to save dogs from drowning.

Since 2008, at least seven people have drowned off the coast while making such an attempt. Others have had near misses or been killed after they and their dogs were swept away by a wave, as was the case last Sunday at Shelter Cove in Humboldt County, where officials said a 32-year-old woman drowned after she, her boyfriend and their dog were overcome by a large wave.

The sad irony is that the dogs in all of these cases survived the ordeal save for one, a pug that in 2008 drowned off Portuguese Beach in Sonoma County.

Troubled by the trend, the Coast Guard has launched a public awareness campaign aimed at getting people to reconsider their own natural impulses to rescue their pets.

The campaign features a poster depicting Pulliam wearing his rescue gear and next to him his dog, Peaches, beneath the headline: "Naturally speaking, who is the better swimmer?"

Without the protective gear, the award goes to the dog, which because of its anatomy is more naturally buoyant and better able to withstand the ocean's frigid temperatures.

"We get in the water and we're in deeper," said Allison Lindquist, executive director of the East Bay SPCA. "A dog will bob along."

She said dogs also don't panic like humans do.

The dog Pulliam rescued had been stranded on a boat in a river delta, not flailing about in rough surf.

Lindquist said it's "understandable" that people try and save their pets. But her "unequivocal" advice is to never attempt it.

"Just don't," she said.

Two women have died off Portuguese Beach in Sonoma County since 2008 after they attempted to rescue their dogs. A third woman drowned that year after she went after her dog off Gualala Beach.

On Nov. 24, three members of a Eureka family drowned at Big Lagoon in Humboldt County after one of them tried to save the family dog from drowning.

And on New Year's Day this year, 59-year-old Charlie Quaid of Richmond drowned at Point Reyes National Seashore after Quaid's wife and the couple's pit bull were swept up in the waves.

Even at beaches where the surf appears calm, hidden riptides or steep underwater drop-offs represent a risk to anyone who ventures into the cold water without proper attire and advanced swimming skills.

By law, dogs are not allowed off leash at any beach on the Sonoma County coast and in several places dogs are banned outright to protect sensitive wildlife or vegetation.

In other places where dogs are allowed off-leash, Lindquist said, she would not go so far as to recommend that every dog-owner keep their animals tethered to keep them from going in the water.

Instead, she advised people to consider their animal's size and capabilities before deciding whether to let their pet run free at the beach.

Experts on Friday also recommended against tossing a ball or other object in the surf for their dog to retrieve. They said an animal can get so focused on that effort that it forgets where it is and gets into trouble.

The same can be said of their masters, who can get caught unaware by so-called "sneaker" or "rogue" waves simply by turning their backs to the sea.

"It only takes six inches of moving water to knock over a full-grown, able-bodied adult," said Alexandra Picavet, a public affairs officer for the National Park Service.

Winter is a particularly dangerous time because of the high surf, said Pam Boehland with the Coast Guard. She said when she accompanies her husband on one of his surfing outings, they leave their dog, Rascal, at home.

"I sit away from the water and read a book," she said.

You can reach Staff Writer Derek Moore at 521-5336 or derek.moore@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @deadlinederek.

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