Ricochet initially made headlines as a beach-loving dog who could power through Southern California waves while balancing solo on a surfboard. And now this intuitive canine amazes animal behaviorists, scientists and the public with her uncanny ability to connect and bring out the best in wheelchair-bound teenagers, veterans wrestling with post-traumatic stress disorder, children with autism, students being bullied and more. She also has helped raise thousands of dollars for dozens of nonprofit animal and human organizations.
Not a bad résumé for a golden retriever who flunked out of conventional service-dog training. Seven years ago, this then-precocious pup aced nearly every skill quickly and efficiently—except for one. And it was a biggie. Ricochet wouldn’t stop chasing birds, an action that could endanger someone paired with her who used a wheelchair or had other mobility limitations.
Her owner, professional dog trainer Judy Fridono of Escondido, Calif., was initially disappointed and frustrated when Ricochet got booted out of the training program.
But once Fridono let go of that game plan, Ricochet’s true purpose and intuitive powers began to surface. “I stopped looking at what Ricochet can’t do and started looking at what she can do,” says Fridono, who chronicles the dog’s feats in the book Ricochet: Riding a Wave of Hope with the Dog Who Inspires Millions. “I realized that she would never be a service dog in the traditional sense, but she could be a ‘surf-ice’ dog quite able and willing to help others in her unique way.”
When Patrick Ivison met Ricochet in August 2009, he was 15 years old. After being hit by a car as a toddler and suffering a C4/5 spinal cord injury, Ivison was diagnosed as a quadriplegic. He had a big dream: to leave behind his wheelchair and walk across the stage to accept his diploma at his 2012 high school graduation. He had the motivation but not the money to enroll in a spinal cord injury-recovery center offering therapy that might help him walk on his own one day.
At the same time, Fridono was looking for someone to benefit from Ricochet’s first fundraising event. Ivison, like Ricochet, loved to surf. He did so with a team. To help raise money for Ivison’s therapy, Fridono staged a fundraiser during the Surf City Surf Dog event in Huntington Beach, Calif.
With cameras focused, a team placed Ivison on the surfboard on his belly, and then Ricochet gingerly balanced her four legs on his back and the board as they caught a big wave that coasted them to shore. They rode in on two more waves.
“My biggest worry was how to balance with Ricochet on my back, but she quickly took away that worry because she helped me counterbalance the board,” recalls Ivison, now 21 and a student majoring in film and television production at the University of Southern California. “That was probably one of the coolest parts, because I realized she actually understood surfing and what we needed to get the longest ride….
“The donations that she was able to bring in were crucial to my recovery. I not only walked at graduation, but I’m now independent enough to live in an apartment by myself and transfer in and out of my van.”
For several years, it was Ricochet’s surfing that garnered the most attention, but then Fridono noticed her dog’s intuitive nature, especially around people struggling with invisible conditions. “We are just learning what Ricochet is capable of when it comes to working with military veterans with PTSD and kids with autism. She is able to reach those two populations best. It is hard for me to explain it,” says Fridono, adding that behaviorists and other scientists who have studied her can’t supply a scientific rationale. “She picks up on their emotions, and then she alerts [reacts] by stopping, planting and refusing to move.”
Pages of Ricochet’s accomplishments surfing and reaching out to those in need are well-documented on SurficeDog.com. One photo depicts Ricochet giving a paw salute to former Army Sgt. Randy Dexter, who returned from two tours in Iraq with PTSD. He and other veterans interacted with Ricochet in the PTSD Battle Buddy Initiative. Dexter writes:
“When I first met Ricochet, I was lost, broken and looking for some strength so that I could have some hope to be the man, father and husband I know I was capable of being. Instantly Ricochet gave me what I was looking for, and I felt fully alive for the first time in years. After the six weeks were over, she knew exactly when I was too anxious or if I would be better off not going down a certain aisle in a store because it would be stressful for me. We were truly in sync.”
Ricochet is now helping 9-year-old West Chavez, who has been diagnosed with autism and a speech disorder known as childhood apraxia. His mother, Lauren Chavez of Irvine, Calif., credits Ricochet for bringing pure joy to her son. “West can be a hermit at times, and he suffers from anxiety and can be easily agitated and become upset,” she says. “But there was an instant connection when West first met Ricochet. Even though he doesn’t like the water, he eagerly agreed to surf with Ricochet and had fun. He even went to a book signing at a Barnes & Noble for Ricochet’s book and took questions from the audience…. Ricochet brings him a lot of comfort a human couldn’t bring him. This dog has changed my son’s life for the better.”
Ricochet has racked up many honors, including being named the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals 2011 Dog of the Year. Researchers at Duke University’s Canine Cognition Center—after studying her—are including her in documentaries that explore canine intuition. And she’s a social media sensation with more than 250,000 fans on Facebook and Twitter.
As for Fridono, she has learned a huge life lesson from her bird-chasing, service dog flunkout. “Ricochet has taught me that although we try to control our lives, in reality, we have no control. What is meant to be, happens. It is a different way to live, but a better way to live.”