SURFice Dog Empowers Others to “Paw” It Forward

by Kelly Burch
Contributor

Ricochet is a pretty amazing pooch. The nine-year-old Golden Retriever has been surfing with disabled individuals for seven years, helping everyone from children with physical handicaps to adults with mental illness enjoy surf and sunshine.

Now, Ricochet and her human guardian Judy Fridono are hoping to empower the people they work with by offering them the opportunity to “paw” it forward, helping others experience the healing and positive energy that a session with Ricochet brings. The Waves of Empowerment program, which launched earlier this year, brings children with autism and veterans with post-traumatic stress disorder who have previously surfed with Ricochet back into the water to help people with similar conditions during their session.

At the Waves of Empowerment sessions, “There is no us and them, we are all equal,” Fridono says.

Fridono says that although there are many programs to help people with disabilities, there are fewer where those participants can then return the gift and help others. The opportunity is especially important for veterans with post-traumatic stress disorder, a group that Ricochet works with often.

“They’re used to a life of service, and this gives them purpose and belonging and allows them to give back, which was [part of their military] lifestyle,” Fridono says.

During the Waves of Empowerment surfing sessions, which take place in Southern California where Ricochet lives, people who have previously surfed with Ricochet help in all areas of the event. They take pictures, help with registration, and support Ricochet and the surfer while they’re in the water.

At one of the events this summer, a ten-year-old boy with autism who had previously surfed with Ricochet helped another autistic child during his surfing session.

“It was really beautiful to see them bonding,” Fridono says. “So often kids with autism are socially isolated, but we give them a job and say this is your responsibility. It really empowers them to give back to the community.”

The program is just the latest adventure for Ricochet and Fridono. Fridono, who trains service dogs, has had Ricochet since she was born. Although Ricochet was released from a service dog training program because she loves chasing squirrels, Fridono has been continuously blown away by the amazing intuition the dog has.

“A lot of dogs can alert, but they’re with us 24/7 and they know everything about us. Whatever Ricochet is doing, she does with strangers.”

Ricochet is the world’s first SURFice dog. She helps people with physical, mental, and emotional disabilities surf by balancing the surf board for them, and also surfs on her own to raise money for charity. However, that is only the beginning of Ricochet’s gift. Ricochet also attends events for veterans, where she is helpful because she can read their emotions and triggers sometimes even before they can. When Ricochet senses that something that will trigger a veteran’s PTSD, she signals to the veteran and Fridono by stopping and staying still.

Once, Ricochet was walking with a marine whom she had just met. As they crossed the parking lot, Ricochet stopped a few times. Fridono scanned the environment to determine what triggers might be present, but she couldn’t figure out what the dog sensed. When the trio entered the store they were going to, the marine was amazed. “Black vehicles are one of my triggers,” he said.

“Somehow she knew and I have no idea how,” Fridono says.

Another time, Ricochet was walking in a store with another marine. Ricochet stopped, and instead of showing Fridono and the marine what direction to go in as a safe route, the dog refused to move. Despite their prompting, she stayed put. Eventually the marine sat down next to Ricochet, and moments later she had a seizure.

Fridono was amazed but not entirely surprised that Ricochet was so in tune with a stranger.

“It happens so often now that I know that she has a gift,” she says. “I can tell by her behavior how people are feeling. She mirrors their behavior. I’ve learned to read her and know that her body language is reflecting them, not herself.”

Well, most of the time.

“Of course, if a squirrel crosses her path her body language is all her own,” Fridono says with a laugh.

By paying attention to Ricochet’s cues, the people she works with often become more in tune to their own emotions.

“The healing that goes on because of that is pretty significant,” Fridono says.

Fridono hopes that people will learn from Ricochet that dogs are remarkable emotional beings and give them the respect that they deserve.

“People sometimes think dogs are misbehaving when they’re communicating,” she says. “I’m hoping that people will realize that dogs are sentient beings and we should allow them to be who they are, because they’re here to teach us lessons.”