HALF MOON BAY -- If your dog gets caught in a rip current, don't try to rescue it. It's all too likely that you'll drown, while your pet will clamber from the ocean unscathed.

A recent spate of deaths and rescues along Northern California shores prompted public safety officials to hold a briefing Wednesday on the dangers of playing in and next to the Pacific Ocean, with the top threats being rip currents and so-called "sneaker" waves. One key message: Resist the instinct to chase your pet into the surf.

"Don't go in after your dogs," emphasized Coast Guard Petty Officer Pamela Boehland at a news conference at Pillar Point Harbor just north of Half Moon Bay. "I can't stress that enough."

There have been three drowning accidents involving dogs in the past few months, officials noted, and in each case the dog was able to do what a human could not: make its way back to shore. In the most horrific case, a married couple and their son all drowned in November in Humboldt County trying to save their dog, who had been yanked into the water by a rogue wave.

All but the smallest canines are usually better at getting out of rip currents than people, said Golden Gate National Recreation Area spokeswoman Alexandra Picavet. They don't panic, and being four-legged keeps them horizontal, which means less of their body is in the current, and they can keep their heads above water with little effort.

The best thing to do if your dog is caught by a rip current or unexpected wave is dial 911 and then, from the shore, keep track of its location in the water. Calling to your dog from a position up or down the beach from the rip current can help it swim to safety.

As for humans, the experts noted that the key to surviving a rip current is not wasting energy by attempting to swim directly back to shore. Try to face the shoreline and wave or shout for help. Swim parallel to the shoreline to escape the current, then follow the waves to the beach. If that isn't possible, tread water and try to remain calm.

A Coast Guard crew from the SFO station practices surf training off the coast of Mavericks beach in Half Moon Bay on Wednesday, Feb. 6.
A Coast Guard crew from the SFO station practices surf training off the coast of Mavericks beach in Half Moon Bay on Wednesday, Feb. 6. (John Green / Bay Area News Group)

Rip currents tend to be at their strongest in the winter and spring, said Xavier Agnew, a supervisory park ranger with the Golden Gate National Recreation Area who spent two decades as a lifeguard at Stinson Beach in Marin County.

"The bigger the surf, the bigger the rip current," Agnew said.

When the surf is high, beachgoers should be especially vigilant for rogue or sneaker waves that unexpectedly surge far up the beach, enveloping sand that was previously dry. Officials said visitors should stay "high and dry" -- in other words, remain far from the water line -- and never turn their back on the ocean.

Or they should heed public safety warnings on days when it's best to avoid the ocean altogether.

"When there's a high surf advisory," Boehland said, "I honestly don't go near the beach."

Contact Aaron Kinney at 650-348-4357. Follow him at Twitter.com/kinneytimes.