Do dogs have a place on the golf course? With the right amount of work, yes

Penny in a rare still moment after a driving range session.

Penny in a rare still moment after a driving range session.

Fellow dog owners can attest that the biggest drawback of indulging in an after-work round of golf is having to leave behind your four-legged buddy, who has been waiting all day for you to walk through the door. It’s the single reason I don’t play more evening golf.

The obvious solution, of course, is to take your dog to the course, and initially it makes perfect sense. She needs a run, and there’s ample room for that, plus there’s plenty of wildlife to keep her entertained and relatively few open roads. My home Florida course, however, is a high-traffic muni with alligators in the ponds. It’s simply not the place to tote a high-energy dog like my German Shorthaired Pointer, Penny. But inspired by photos of much calmer dogs tethered to their owners’ golf bags and legendary “country club dogs” I’ve met and petted throughout the years, I decided to give Penny a chance once I found the right place: the nine-hole course I grew up on in rural Missouri, a place that gets downright sleepy by 6 p.m.

What I quickly realized was Penny wouldn’t be one of those dogs who would stay right with me. I succeeded in keeping her off putting greens (for the most part), away from the occasional golfer we’d see in passing and picked up every nugget of poop she dropped in the most high-traffic of areas.

There was the odd time or two that Penny instinctively went and sat next to a golf ball buried in the rough or, late in the round, obediently laid by the golf cart while we all hit. Mostly, however, my dog will be remembered for the time when, deep into a match with my sister, Penny came screeching across the green, picked up my sister’s ball and deposited it several yards away where she promptly peed on it while holding eye contact with me. Under the circumstances, it was difficult to get mad.

What I had overlooked in taking my dog to the golf course was the number of distractions and totally new situations she would face. Penny had never before seen so much open space, tall grass, ponds (with frogs!) and golf carts. I took her to the course wholly unprepared for the experience she was about to have, and as a result, she was a complete sideshow. Though I enjoy having her out there – and it worked under those specific circumstances – my golf experience is not enhanced by her. But it got me thinking about the possibility of training a dog to be a golf course dog – to obey a sit command when any member of the group hits, to retrieve balls, to stay out of hazards. Could it be done?

The idea led me to Rick Kaplan, the president and master trainer at Canine Angels Service Dogs, a Myrtle Beach, S.C.-based program that rescues dogs and retrains them as service animals. Kaplan isn’t training dogs to be golf-course dogs, but how he’s using Myrtle Beach golf courses as a training ground is both brilliant and heart-warming. Kaplan, a recreational golfer for the past 50 years, likes the temptations and distractions a course presents – from birds to moles to flying golf balls to traffic crossings to strangers and then some.

Kaplan, 71, admits he has a gift and estimates he’s trained more than 5,000 dogs – all of which he has rescued and connected with – to eventually work as service dogs for veterans, first responders and even children with autism. Each dog is a labor of love, receiving roughly 2,000 hours of training over the course of a year (which equates to about $15,000), and no two training programs are alike. Kaplan is a master of modifying behavior, but the peace he’s managed to establish within his dogs on the golf course is something every dog owner would die for.

When Kaplan goes to the golf course, it’s late in the day and often with 15 to 20 dogs in tow, all off leash. Myrtle Beach being a golf mecca, Kaplan has lots of training grounds to choose from, but he’s welcome at all of them because he’s a known face.

And because his dogs know what to do.

“They will remain out of bunkers and sand traps because they know that on the golf course, they’ve been trained that’s not a place they can go,” Kaplan explains. “…On the putting green, they sit at the edge and they never set foot on the green. Out of respect for the golfers, we don’t want footprints or nail prints on the green. The dogs are trained never to go in the water.”

Most ingenius, perhaps, is the “free” command, which Kaplan uses to give his dogs a maximum of 30-40 yards of freedom in which they can go somewhere on their own to sit or use the bathroom. A heel command brings them back.

These golf outings are great exercise for the dogs (Kaplan admits he benefits from the experience, too), and helps de-sensitize them to the real world, which is where they’ll be working. After Kaplan’s golf-course training, he also commits to coaching the veteran or other individual who will get the dog. That part can take up to a year.

Kaplan has never modified his training program for dog owners and said he really hasn’t gotten much interest, probably because most golf courses aren’t receptive to dogs running around (here’s a good place to revisit my experience with Penny).

How many golf courses are dog friendly? It’s tough to nail down a statistic. The Golf Course Superintendents Association of America doesn’t keep those numbers, and the decision is ultimately up to each course. While the GCSAA doesn’t have an official position on the issue, a spokesperson did point out that a golf course dog can be instrumental in pest control (namely, geese) and many are trained just for this. The superintendent’s dog can also be famous at its respective course, living the most coveted of animal lives (two such dogs even considerable air-time this year during the NCAA Championships and the KPMG Women's Championship). The GCSAA, like most of us, clearly has a soft spot for dogs given the annual Dog Days of Golf calendar they produce.

Outside of my home course in rural Missouri, I’ve never seen another golfer bring a dog along on a round. And after my experience, as much as I want it to work, it’s probably better that way – unless, of course, the owner commits to the training.

What Kaplan is doing with his dogs on the golf course is remarkable more for the altruistic end goal than the skills themselves. But it gives me hope that someday, Penny might be able to exercise the restraint and good manners she’d need to be my late-evening golf companion. I can only imagine the satisfaction that would bring.

Says Kaplan, a true dog man at heart: “I’m an old man, I’m 71. This stuff is keeping me young. I feel like 31. The rewards are endless.”