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Fetching photos in 'Underwater Dogs'

A family who adopts a Lab mix that's afraid of water is especially unlucky when it comes to dogs and swimming. But Seth Casteel's book, Underwater Dogs, can fill almost any wannabe water dog owner with hope.

Underwater Dogs
By Seth Casteel
Little, Brown. 144 pp. $19.99.

A family who adopts a Lab mix that's afraid of water is especially unlucky when it comes to dogs and swimming. But Seth Casteel's book, Underwater Dogs, can fill almost any wannabe water dog owner with hope.

Swimming wasn't for our old Lab mix, Peanut. That landlubber Lab departed this scary mortal coil two years ago, his fear of water matched only by fear of storms, fear of having his paws held, fear of being alone.

But the Sturgis clan has since discovered the joy of underwater dogs and joyfully watched Panda Bear, the Aussie mix that followed Peanut, take to the water like - well, a Lab. His trips to the creek highlighted his summer, so much that when the Sturgis family appeared one day in late August wearing swimsuits for the no-dogs-allowed Y, Panda Bear thought he was coming along, too.

Underwater Dogs will let any family get up close and personal with swimming dogs. Maybe even better than real life.

Seth Casteel includes a couple of pages of introduction and background, and then it's on to the dogs - the bulging-eyed, openmouthed, bubble-blowing dogs chasing tennis balls, rings, and other toys, seen and unseen. The pictures will elicit unbridled laughter from dog lovers.

Like many successful entertainment projects, Underwater Dogs happened by accident. Casteel writes that he was on a lifestyle photo shoot with a Cavalier King Charles spaniel in Orange, Calif., when the dog began playing with a tennis ball in the pool. Casteel left to buy an underwater point-and-shoot camera (a Sony TX5, he told me later), and the rest is coffee-table-book history.

"I realized I needed something slightly more serious to take it to the next level," Casteel wrote in an e-mail, his schedule too waterlogged promoting his book to chat. "After experimenting with scuba diving housings, I ended up with a surf housing designed for surf photographers." The Canon 7D with a Tokina 10-17mm fish-eye lens and a flash creates beautiful full-color pictures.

A new camera may have been a requirement for Casteel, but a new dog is not required for those who want a canine swimming buddy. Casteel writes in the book that many of his 250 canine subjects had never set paw in the water before. From his photos of those 250, Casteel culled the 80 portraits in Underwater Dogs.

He left few breeds out. The obvious choices - Labrador, Chesapeake Bay and golden retriever, Jack Russell terrier, and Newfoundland - share pages with the not-so-obvious pug, dachshund, English bulldog, even a Chihuahua.

But dog lovers haven't lived - and laughed - until they've seen the whites of these dogs' eyes, the bubbles around their mouths, lips blown out in a giant exhalation like cartoon drawings. I only wish Casteel had included photographs - and maybe even online video - of the underwater dogs back on land, with a few sneezes, coughs, and shakes to recover from immersion.

Casteel already has established himself as an underwater dog photographer, the kind of job title that ranks up there with auto reviewer and mattress tester for "Oh, what a tough job you must have" jealousy. His work has been featured in the New York Times and on Animal Planet. But he's also an established member of the animal-rescue community who has been recognized for his efforts by the Humane Society of the United States. And certainly by his own dogs, Nala, a mini-labradoodle, and Fritz, a Norwich terrier.

Casteel's background? He worked for Sony Pictures and the Walt Disney Studios for several years designing advertising campaigns for feature films such as Spider-Man and Up.

A tangential point of intrigue for auto buffs: Casteel thanks John Z. DeLorean in his book.

"I admire people who take chances to pursue their passion and who create something from nothing," Casteel writes. "John Z. DeLorean was an innovative thinker who was willing to drive down an uncertain path to chase his dream. His venture failed in the short term, but if you drive around town in one of his cars, you'll discover something magical."

As I sit here with Panda Bear and his adopted Aussie-mix brother, Pumpkin - who follows in Peanut's water-wary pawprints - I dream of warmer days to come and of finding something magical in the Brandywine Creek at ChesLen Preserve.

Inspired by Seth Casteel.

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