Posted 3 months ago
(Image: Kirstie Martin)
By Leila Marshall
Superstar surfing poodle-cross Scooter was a street dog from Portugal, but now spends his days riding waves with watersport-lover Kirstie.
Kirstie Martin lives in Sidlesham, near Chichester, in West Sussex where she surfs at Bracklesham Bay with Scooter. They run a surfing school and Scooter teaches his own surf therapy sessions.
Scooter had a difficult life in The Algarve where he is originally from. Kirstie said: “Scooter was chucked out on the street as a puppy and found by someone running in the road. When they found him they were going to take him to a pound, but it was full, so he was going to be put to sleep.
“The pound contacted Milu’s Corner, further north in Portugal – a sanctuary who are committed to not turning any dogs away. They had 750 dogs. He was vaccinated, castrated, and put up for adoption. I saw his picture and his eyes and fell in love with him. So, I brought him over here.”
Kirstie is a full-time police officer but commits her spare time to helping others and running her surf school which is not-for-profit. She has always loved surfing and paddleboarding. She said: “On Instagram I follow lots of surfy things and dog things, and I discovered one day that over in America there was such thing as surf therapy dogs. I thought, ‘Wow, I wonder if I could teach Scooter to surf’, so we could combine my love of surfing and spend more time together, and also, he could become the UK’s first surf therapy dog.”
Scooter riding the waves solo and Kirstie cheering with pride behind (Image: Kirstie Martin)
Scooter was already a therapy dog with Pets as Therapy because of his loving and chilled out nature. Kirstie followed a training course by the most famous surf therapy dog in the U.S. called Ricochet, to teach Scooter the surfing ways.
She started by teaching Scooter to balance on a board, followed by putting cushions under it to make it more wobbly, and then progressed to a doggy swimming pool. Kirstie said: “I told the owner of the swimming pool about Scooter and she thought I was joking. I made sure he could swim properly and that he was confident in the water before taking his board. When I took it, he ran and jumped straight on it from the poolside.”
Then Kirstie took him to the sea and slowly progressed to deeper and wavier water. The whole process took about eight months. He learnt to balance and ride the wave into the beach.
They soon progressed to tandem surfing on a long board. He’d stand on the front and Kirstie paddled the board behind him. They’d catch small white-water waves and Kirstie would pop up behind him and surf to the beach.
Kirstie said: “People started asking how I taught him, and they wanted to teach their dogs. I started seeing people plonking their dogs on boards without any proper training and you could see the dogs were scared.
“So, I thought I’d teach people how to do it properly, so people can enjoy the hobby with their dog and build a stronger bond. Through doing the training Scooter and I developed really good trust. Lots of people were getting paddleboards and surfboards over lockdown so, if I did a course, it would benefit the dogs and also make conversations about rescue dogs and therapy dogs.
“We’ve just finished our third course; each course has six dogs. It can get quite excitable. The first half of the course is at the doggy swimming pool, and the second is at the beach which can get quite chaotic because it’s very exciting for the dogs. I’ve got another one starting in August and the final in September, after that the water is too cold for the dogs.
“Obviously, their welfare is paramount and everything about the course. We do a lot of conditioning for the dogs because just like humans, the dogs need to be fit enough to do surfing and paddleboarding. We always start it with a warm-up and stretching exercises. They do 15 minutes of a circuit class. I have inflatable toys for them to do balance training to make sure they’re building muscle in their legs and core to be able to cope with the demands of balancing and falling in and getting back onto the board and swimming.”
Kirstie explained that there is a lot of theory behind surfing, and she also teaches her human clients the basics as a lot have never paddleboarded before. She also teaches beach safety including reading the tides and looking at the weather. She said: “I have GoPro cameras so the clients get really good footage and video to keep. I don’t make a profit from it – it’s all to pay for the equipment, the hire of the swimming pool, and we also donate some money to the sanctuary who rescued Scooter.”
Some dogs are more made for the water than others, and Kirstie explained that when the dogs first get to the pool, some of them are scared of the water and need encouragement to get in, so they have ramps to get down slowly.
Kirstie said: “Those clients always worry their dogs will never be able to do it, but what they don’t realise is it’s actually better if their dog isn’t a keen swimmer because they’ll want to stay on the board rather than jump off it.
Scooter has amazing balance on the board (Image: Kirstie Martin)
“That’s what Scooter’s like, he’d rather be on his board which is why he’s so good at it and his balance is so good. Big Labs and spaniels that love the water and run and jump in are quite difficult to manage when we get them on the board.
“At the end of the class, everyone gets a certificate and one of them is named as ‘Star Grommet’. It’s a surf term for a learner surfer, and I give them a little trophy. In the last course, the Star Grommet was this enormous German Shepherd called Bear.
“His owner was this little petite lady, I thought, ‘Oh god, she’s never gonna be able to do it’ but they ended up being the best, so it never ceases to amaze me. Obviously, shorter dogs have a lower centre of gravity, so they tend to stay on easier, but all different shapes and sizes do really well, and the difference from the start to when they graduate is brilliant.”
Scooter is always excited about heading down to the beach. Kirstie said: “When I get his lifejacket out he runs over to me, and when I put his lead on and grab the board he pulls me down to the beach. I put my board on the floor, put my leash around my ankle, and he jumps straight on the board.
“I love him with all my heart, and I’d never make him do something he doesn’t want to. We’ve been surfing for about 18 months now and he just loves being with me and spending time with me. He’s so chilled out and just loves bobbing about on the water.”
Scooter will be taking part in the Dogmasters 2021 UK dog surfing championships. He will be up against 30 dogs this year. Kirstie will be joining him in the paddleboard race and tandem riding, where the owner goes on the board with their dog. There’s also a fancy dress competition – Kirstie and Scooter will be going as sharks as it’s Shark Week.
Kirstie has served 24 years in the Metropolitan Police. She said: “Most people in my career haven’t been pleased to see me because if they see me, they’re usually in trouble or something bad has happened to them.
“So, that’s why I wanted to get involved with Scooter being trained to be a therapy dog because people are actually pleased to see us, and it’s just great making people smile. He’s just amazing and has a sixth sense when we visit our local hospital – he seeks out the most poorly patients or the ones who are most sad and missing their animals. He’s laid with end-of-life patients before who haven’t got any visitors or any family.
“I became ill last May and was diagnosed with PTSD, and I found that doing stuff in the water with Scooter really helped me with my illness and cope day-to-day with it. Scooter is actually halfway through training to be my full-time assistance dog.
“We also do saltwater therapy sessions through a charity called One Wave is All It Takes every other Friday called Fluro Friday. People come in fluorescent clothing, and we raise awareness around mental health issues.
“We do mindful exercises and go in the water with paddleboards. It’s all free of charge. Then we do some yoga poses, breathing exercises and stretching, then the local café gives a free hot drink. Scoot is on hand to make people smile and give people hugs.”
Scooter is famed in his area for his Mohican hairstyle. Kirstie said: “Ninety per cent of people love it and it makes them smile, and also it starts conversations about rescue dogs. Some people ask if it’s natural and I’m like, ‘No, he wasn’t born with it’ so I tell them about his rescue and also about mental health. You get the odd person who tuts at his hair, thinking ‘What have you done to your dog?’ but for most people it makes them smile.”
You can follow Scooter on his adventures on social media: @scooter_surf_therapy_dog
Enquire about the surf school here.