Watching as a beloved dog is swept out to sea is heart-wrenching. Doing nothing seems unthinkable.
But experts say that is exactly what a dog owner should do: nothing.
"The human-animal bond is no joke. Most pet owners are very attached to their pets," said Dr. Lynn Miller, a veterinarian who runs the animal clinic at Travis Air Force Base, north of San Francisco. "But you're not going to save your dog by risking your own life. It does your dog no favors in the end if he comes back and you're dead. Then what is he going to do?"
Five people have died in attempted dog rescues in Northern California since November, said Coast Guard Petty Officer 2nd Class Pamela Boehland, based in Alameda, Calif.
The average dog is a better swimmer than the average human. Dogs such as Labrador retrievers, German shepherds and pit bull terriers are built like boats, the vet said. 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 a human's, their fur keeps them warm in cold water — and many have waterproof undercoats — and some dog breeds have webbed feet.
Using their namesake swim stroke, dogs can find their way back to shore using currents and their fight-or flight-instinct, Miller said.
Dogs are single-minded, focusing on finding safety, while humans panic or become distracted, Miller said. Owners who try to make a rescue also may go into shock from the cold water, try to fight the current and get tumbled around, or tire easily, she said.
People also don't think about what will happen if they do follow a dog and manage to reach it alive, Miller said.
"A Coast Guard dude in a boat's got a better chance of snatching him up than you do of swimming out and grabbing him and hauling him back. Fifty pounds of wet dog is absolutely no fun to drag anywhere, much less back to shore," Miller said.
Some breeds, Miller said, shouldn't be on a beach without a life vest. Those include pugs, bulldogs and others that "can barely breathe when they are walking"; dachshunds and corgis with legs too short to swim; and chihuahuas and other toy dogs, Boehland said.
It is rare that a dog will be swept away by a rip current, but lifeguards' message to pet owners is the same as Boehland's, said Dan Murphy, a Los Angeles County ocean lifeguard specialist. "They should let a lifeguard know and if we have personnel available, we will attempt a rescue," he said. "Upon reaching the dogs, they are usually more than happy to climb aboard our rescue board or Baywatch rescue boat."