Behaviorist Tony Nila on surf dog training

Tony Nila was in his element Saturday — and so were the dogs he trains.

Surfing next to the Imperial Beach Pier.

Nila looked out at waves of dogs — 60 in all, some wearing wetsuits — riding boards with owners and handlers nearby at the Unleashed by Petco Dog Surf Dog contest, in its 10th year.

Dog behaviorist Tony Nila with Giselle, owned by Susan Gan, at Imperial Beach. Photo by Susan Gan courtesy Tony Nila

Six of his 15 surf dogs were at Imperial Beach. “We surf every Saturday and Sunday in Huntington Dog Beach,” he says.

What’s it take to get four-legged critters to hang loose amid frothing surf?

Trust — both the dogs in their handlers and vice versa.

“We don’t just throw them out there and hope for the best,” he said with a laugh.

Based in Orange County, where he operates Grumpy Puppy Dog Training, Nila has been a dog behaviorist for two decades. But he didn’t start training dog surfers until a year ago after being introduced to the sport by veteran trainer Pam Lucado.

He says getting dogs to surf is essentially a process of getting Fido to face his fears.

Abbie gets a ride back to shore with owner Mike Uy. Photo by Chris Stone

“If I can get a dog over his fears … it builds a stronger bond between the owner and the dog — like a parent teaching a child how to swim,” he said, wearing a wetsuit for his own seagoing moments.

Like being terrified of a teeter-totter, or a tunnel, some dogs can’t fathom being in the water, he says.

Steps to getting them ready to surf include a taste of zen — “teaching the dog how to have a calm state of mind — and to be stationary.”

That accomplished, dogs are introduced to the ocean, where they first simply float on a board. Then the trusted owner or handler lets go, and they start surfing.

Countering the natural flight instinct, trainers must get dogs to obey a “stay” command — on a board. This requires canines to gain confidence as well as trust.

“A dog giving you control of their movement — that’s like giving you control of their heart,” said Nila, 41, and a Lake Forest resient.

He used the analogy of a firefighter outside a home, telling a panicked resident not to keep looking for a way out of the flames but to trust the rescuer’s word: “I’m punching a hole here.”

Water dogs pose a different problem, he said. They want to jump into the sea rather than stick to surfing.

Nila says everyone’s No. 1 concern at the annual event is the safety of the dogs, whose entry fees and associated fund-raisers support the San Diego Humane Society and SPCA.

Imperial Beach Mayor Serge Dedina, a connossieur of fine surfing, joined hundreds of others at the beach, where dogs competed in small, medium, large, extralarge and tandem divisions — with the cutest little ones starting at 9 a.m. and the heftiest taking to the waves at 11:20.