Swept Away at the Beach

Experts say not to jump in after dogs in the ocean
By JoAnna Lou, April 2013, Updated July 2016

Although none of us are big on swimming, my dogs and I love running around on the beach. There's something about the cool breeze and sand that makes it a great natural playground.  

Back in November, I read about a couple and their son who drowned trying to save their dog at Big Lagoon beach in Northern California. The dog was chasing a thrown stick and was sucked into the ocean by a massive wave. The boy instinctively went in after the pup, followed by his father and mother. Tragically all three of them didn't make it out, while the dog eventually emerged from the water.

It seemed like a tragic freak accident--one that terrifies me because my pups and I are not good swimmers--but it turns out that five people have died in attempted dog rescues since November in Northern California alone.

Because of this, Coast Guard Petty Officer 2nd Class Pamela Boehland has teamed up with the National Park Service and the East Bay SPCA on a campaign to keep people from going after their pets in the water.


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To any dog lover it seems absolutely crazy not to attempt a rescue, but Dr. Lynn Miller, DVM says there are many reasons to stay on solid ground.  First, the average dog is a better swimmer than the average human.  Second, the canine body is better designed to float—their heads are above water, they have a low center of gravity, they have four legs for propulsion, their lungs have a higher capacity than human's, and their fur keeps them warm in cold water. Some breeds even have waterproof undercoats or webbed feet.

Additionally, animals are single-minded, focused on finding safety. While dogs will go with the flow of the water until they're rescued, humans often panic and exhaust themselves before help arrives. And finally, even if you do reach your pup, it can be difficult to carry them back safely in the water.  

Pamela's campaign recommends leaving ocean rescues to the professionals. And, as in the Big Lagoon case, many times the dogs are able to make it out of the water on their own.

If your dog does end up in the ocean, East Bay SPCA Director Allison Lindquist recommends following your pup along the shoreline while calling their name. This can help orient them to land while help is on the way. If you end up in the water, swim parallel to the waves and remain calm.

Dr. Miller also says that it's essential for some breeds to wear life vests at the beach. These include breeds with breathing issues, such as Pugs and Bulldogs, breeds with short legs, such as Dachshunds and Corgis, and toy dogs, like Chihuahuas.

I still don't know what I would do if one of my dogs were swept into the ocean. It would be hard to fight the instinct to jump in.  However, these are good points to remember as the weather gets warmer and the beaches become more enticing!

JoAnna Lou is a New York City-based researcher, writer and agility enthusiast.