Story and Photography by Ruffwear Ambassador Maria Christina Schultz
Maria Christina Schultz is an outdoor enthusiast, American Canoe Association-certified stand up paddleboard instructor, and author of two books. Her dogs Riley and Kona are her constant companions while paddling, camping, mountain biking, and running. They’ve joined Maria on rivers, lakes, trails, and road trips up and down the east coast and have paddled all five of the Great Lakes. Maria has discovered that sharing the paddleboard with Riley and Kona strengthens their human-canine bond and inspires her to push the boundaries of what’s possible. She shares her passion for paddling with her dogs through her books, How to SUP with your PUP: A guide to stand up paddleboarding with your dog and Paddle Tails: Reflections on people and dogs who find balance on the water. Maria also teaches clinics and regularly contributes stories to the Ruffwear dog blog.
Week after week, I returned my favorite book of dog stories to the Colonial Village Elementary School Library, only to check it back out again immediately. I was addicted to stories of sled dogs, police dogs, guide dogs, and more. I couldn’t have a dog then, but nothing could stop me from reading every dog book I could find.
My mom had made it clear from the very beginning, dogs deserve tons of attention. She said if I wanted a dog, I’d need to be completely committed to caring for one. It just wouldn’t be fair to leave a dog home alone when our busy family travelled so much. So, growing up in New York, I was simply told, “You’ll just have to wait.”
When I grew up and got a house of my own and a job with an easy commute, I knew it was finally time. Riley, with his blue eyes and splotchy brown coat, was the dog I’d been waiting for my whole life. I left him alone as little as possible, but when I did, my Mom’s words rang through my head. So, I started bringing Riley everywhere!
Riley and I were unstoppable. We’d hike, bike, swim, run, do agility, and therapy work. There was little we didn’t do as a team, and even less Riley couldn’t do. While rock climbing, I’d look up over the top of a boulder to see him waiting for me to finish, as if to say, “You know there’s an easier way up the back, right?”
When Riley was five, we took on a new outdoor hobby: Stand up paddleboarding! I loved the idea of being on the river with him. When our board arrived, I unrolled it in the living room, inflated it, and went right to work training Riley.
For an entire week we sat on the board, stood on the board, ate meals on the board, and did everything I could think of to make Riley love our board. Then we headed to the Shenandoah River. I was nervous - I had never tried this before. But Riley wiggled and howled as I put the board in the water. What a sensation - I was walking on water!
Next came the true test: Would Riley like this? Could we balance together? I called Riley, and he jumped right on just like we had practiced in the living room, but the board moved! He did a whole Bambi-on-ice maneuver and immediately fell off. With a handful of treats I coaxed Riley back over. We sat on the board and floated until he relaxed enough for me to kneel, then stand. We floated downriver and the rest was history. That whole summer was magical. Together on the water we found something special.
By the end of the season, our beloved inflatable board was leaking, and I noticed Riley was slowing down a little. Meanwhile, the competitor in me was starting to think about racing. I wanted a faster, newer board. I wanted to push myself! I decided to upgrade to a sleek and narrow race board. It wouldn’t be dog friendly, but I could buy a new board for Riley next summer.
Within the same week that my new board arrived, Riley had his annual exam. I told the vet he seemed less eager to run, and something seemed off. After his exam X-rays, we got news that swallowed the air in the room and filled my eyes with water. Riley has hip dysplasia. Wait. What? No! How can that be? Not my adventure dog!? The best thing we could do for him, the vet said, was to keep his legs strong and muscular. And the best way to do that was swimming.
More importantly, the idea of racing suddenly felt empty and selfish. How could I ever be on the water without Riley? Being able to share the experience with him was more important than competing. I immediately returned the unused board, and got a wide dog friendly one for us to paddle on year round.
Miles of adventure ahead. Riley turned 11 this year, and he still has miles of adventure ahead. Shifting sports and keeping Riley in the water with me is the biggest reason he’s still going strong into his senior years. Paddling with Riley taught me that it’s not about how far or how fast you go, it’s the company you keep that makes the adventure of life special. Seeing Riley dance in circles and howl when I put the board on the car is all I need.