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San Clemente Journal

Gidget the Surf Dog

Feb 27, 2020 01:32PM ● By Mary Colarik
by Mary Colarik

How does a rare, pure white pug from Maine named Gidget end up living in our sunny, Southern California surf town? Life is full of coincidences, and just like the original Gidget, everybody has a story...

Two Surfers, Two Stories

The story of  “Gidget, the Little Girl with Big Ideas” was written 63-years-ago, by Fritz Kohner about a teenage girl who is enthralled with a group of boys surfing in Malibu in the mid-1950s. Kohner’s teen daughter told her dad about her observation of boys surfing and how she desperately wanted to give surfing a try—even though it was a male-dominated sport at the time. Her father encouraged her to keep a diary about the boys and surfing. (Kohner was a Jewish screenwriter in Germany who moved to Hollywood to continue his screenwriting career after the Nazis began removing Jewish credits from films).  

He wrote up a fictionalized account of his daughter’s experiences—using the nickname the boys had given her when she was eventually welcomed into the “tribe” of Malibu surfers. They nicknamed Kathy Kohner, “Gidget - girl, midget.” She was tiny—five ft. tall and 95 lbs. The name
stuck. The book was published in 1956 and became an instant best selling sensation, promoting the ideal California teen lifestyle - surfing, girls in gingham checked bikinis, evening bonfires, and teens frolicking in the ocean in the charming coastal towns along the Pacific Coast Highway. The book generated several Gidget movies, the first starring Sandra Dee in 1959. 

More than 60 yrs after the iconic Gidget sparked several more books, movies and a TV show featuring Sally Fields, these two stories of Gidget, the girl, and Gidget, the surfing pug, have become intertwined.  Both tell a tale of spunk and determination, being different, overcoming obstacles and yet still being accepted by the common thread of surfing.

The Surfing Dog
Alecia Nelson, Gidget the pug’s owner, is a Malibu native, who grew up surfing a bit when she was young, but in high school and college became a competitive tennis player. Having obtained fitness training focused on biomechanics and anatomy from the UCLA Extension Certification Program she opened Core Fitness. Operating the business for 23 yrs she offered small fitness classes, spinning, personal training, and also spent time working in the Hollywood motion picture studios with private clients.  

Greg Louganis (Olympic gold medalist in 1984 and 1988 for Springboard and Platform diving) participated in some of the fitness classes with Nelson. Louganis owned dogs and was doing agility training with his pets; however, he did not trust others with them until he met Nelson. Soon she was helping him care for his dogs which lead her to opening a second business, Malibu Elite Dog Training and Pet Care which she operated for 12 yrs. simultaneously with her fitness business.

In 2010 she was offered a business opportunity on the East Coast. She and her business partner Fiona Kemptin opened It’s A Dog’s Life Academy on five acres in Maine near the Atlantic Ocean. It was an amazing boarding facility-two stories with private overnight rooms with TV sets for the dogs.

While living in Maine Nelson adopted a pug puppy, naming her Gidget-having no idea that this pup would soon become a dog surfing champion. The puppy was full of energy and like all puppies enjoyed chewing; favoring a leather couch. Remembering Louganis and his dog agility competitions, Nelson felt a spark that led her to agility training with this energetic and fast pup!  They worked with well-known agility trainer, Cindy Ratner, and Gidget was soon doing high balance beam walks, and going through the shoots and tunnels with no problem. She had great balance and was fast--no fear, easily winning agility competitions. These abilities suited Nelson’s naturally competitive sports background just fine-they were a fantastic team. 

One summer day, she decided to put the pug on a paddleboard in the Atlantic Ocean. The waves were choppy and challenging for the pair, however, with Gidget’s agility training, the diminutive 15 lb. pug found her balance, enjoying the ride. 

In 2014, Nelson returned to her home state. She and Kemptin opened It’s A Dog’s Life Academy in San Clemente-a doggie day care and dog training business. Shortly, after their return to Southern California Nelson signed up the three-year-old pug for the 2015 dog surf season. Gidget’s agility training had proven that the little pug had great balance—she took to surfing and riding the waves like a pro. She was able to ride the board forward and backwards and with her great balance she would ride the board all the way into the shore! Wearing her signature pink life vest the little pug placed third in the small dogs Surf Dog Surf-A-Thon event at Del Mar Dog Beach in San Diego. After this event, Nelson knew that Gidget had found her purpose-she would ride the waves for charity.

However, there was a glitch in the plan. Nelson noticed that Gidget was getting very skinny, she was unable to keep food down, every morsel of food went right out of her system--she was very sick. Even with extensive blood work and lots of tests several veterinarians were unable to pinpoint what was wrong with the young pug. Finally, one veterinarian remembered a rare case he had previously treated. Although he said it might be a long shot, he noted that there was an expensive enzyme powder that could be added to her food twice daily, and could possibly resolve the issue. Fortunately, the enzyme worked, and although Gidget will continue to battle the disease known as Exocrine Pancreatic Insufficiency (EPI) the rest of her life, she’s got a champion’s attitude and, now, an understanding heart for those with disabilities and special needs. 

Since 2016 she’s been back in the ocean riding the waves, winning competitions and raising funds and awareness for different animal and people charities. Some of the charities she has supported include: Belinda Carlisle of the Go-Go’s non-profit foundation Animal People Alliance, The Pug Queen Foundation, Pug Nation Rescue of Los Angeles, Southern Nevada Pug Rescue, and Tiny Paws Pug Rescue.

This past summer Gidget became involved with the Stoke for Life Junior Adaptive Team in Oceanside. The Stoke for Life Foundation helps bring awareness to the rehabilitative benefits of adaptive water sports for children, teens and adults with disabilities, such as spina bifida, and MS, as well as amputees, and paraplegics, to mention a few.

Gidget is a tiny powerhouse of encouragement, even though she also has a disability, she continues to enter and win dog surfing competitions. She shares her cheerful demeanor with these adaptive athletes as they happily ride the waves on the surfboard to the shore with her. Children and adults relate to the little dog that has battled a life threatening disease, yet is out and about gladly surfing for charity and attending other benefits that help people and animals have a better quality of life-that’s her gift-her ability to give back and have fun. Nelson says, Gidget’s motto is, “I am Queen of the Seas and I surf for those in need.”

Not only has Gidget won numerous dog surfing competitions, she has nestled her small body with Academy Award winner Jeff Bridges and actor Josh Brolin. At the San Luis Obispo International Film Festival while representing SOCAL Surf dogs short film, Chandler’s Ark she met her surfing idols, Mick Fanning and Kelly Slater, helped Belinda Carlisle at her charity events and appeared on Nat Geo Wild, Pet Talk with Andre Millan, son of the Dog Whisperer, Cesar Millan. On one of the shows Gidget teaches Andre’s pug, Sugar, how to surf.  She has also been featured in several magazines, and newspapers.

One day, Kathy Kohner-Zuckerman, the original Gidget, watched Gidget the surfing pug for over an hour as the pug and Nelson were involved in a photo shoot. As a result Nelson and Kohner-Zuckerman have spoken about the possibility of a photo shoot with Gidget, the little girl with big dreams and Gidget, the surfing pug-both who were able to overcome obstacles and make waves surfing the blue Pacific. 

The children’s book, Gidget the Surfing Dog: Catching Waves with a Small but Mighty Pug, the true story about Gidget the pug’s life, debuts in April 2020. If you are interested in more details about Surf Gidget the Pug check out her website, www.surfgidget.com, Facebook page, Instagram, surf_gidget_the_pug, and to see her in action check out her surfingvideos on YouTube.


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