How To Discover Your Dog’s Unique Healing Talent – Interview with Judy Fridono, Surf Dog Ricochet’s Trainer

Surf Dog Ricochet catches waves in new IMAX film

Child with autism surfing with therapy dog www.surfdogricochet.com

Surf Dog Ricochet is the first-ever dog to provide canine assisted surf therapy, after jumping on a surfboard with a quadriplegic boy in 2009. In addition to her work as a therapy dog for individuals with physical, cognitive or emotional disabilities, such as children with autism and veterans with PTSD, she is a great example of how valuable innate talents, instincts, and out-of-the box ideas can be.

In a previous article about this wonderful pooch and her trainer, Judy Fridono, we highlight the latter’s ability to carefully observe Ricochet’s behavior and interpret it as well as identify her strengths and allow her to live out her purpose, her very own “Personal Legend”. Thanks to Judy’s determination to push the limits of the human mind, dive into the unknown, and embrace the divine nature of talents, today, the world benefits from new forms of canine-assisted therapy, like surfing, paddling and swimming.

We also emphasize the importance of finding that special coach who respects uniqueness, appreciates talents, and is stubborn enough to hold their trainee’s hand – or paw, in this case – every step of the way, keeping them on the right track and allowing them to grow. Those of us who have ever needed help, know and appreciate the value of having someone to rely on.

Surf Dog Ricochet catches waves in new IMAX film and lends a paw to children with special needs & veterans with PTSD

Despite all challenges and obstacles, receiving that kind of support can foster a deep and transformative strength, like a superpower, to achieve the impossible and offer something new to the world. It allows people to have unique experiences, surpass limits and gain a new outlook on life.

In light of the recent launch of the IMAX movie “Superpower Dogs”, featuring Ricochet, we had the great pleasure of speaking with Judy to learn more about her and Ricochet’s story, whose unconventional journey has made it to the big screen, as it deserves to be told in a whole new dimension to be appreciated in all its splendor.

1. How did Ricochet get involved in adaptive surfing?

Ricochet started her service dog training at an early age. Though she had the ability and capacity to be a service dog, she simply was not interested in it. She would chase birds or walk out of training sessions, and that compromised her future as a traditional service dog. Luckily, she had also received balance and coordination training on a boogie board, which came in handy when we got invited to participate at a surfing dogs competition in 2009. Ricochet won 3rd place despite competing with far more experienced surfing dogs so, at this event, her talent for surfing became evident. It also became clear to me that I needed to shift my focus from what Ricochet could not do to what she actually could do, and let her guide me on the next steps.

During one of her fist surfing therapy experiences, Ricochet was supposed to surf the same wave as a quadriplegic adaptive surfer, each on their individual boards. However, staying true to herself, she decided to jump onto the young boy’s board. They rode wave after wave after wave, with an enthusiasm and excitement that allowed her to finally break through to me and show me what her true purpose is. I call it “canine-assisted surf therapy”, because the kids can actually use Ricochet as a tool on the surf board to help with balance or assist with standing up on the board by allowing the child to hold on to her back.

Dog Surfing with Quadriplegic Boy

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2. What unique talents do you think allowed Ricochet to succeed as a therapy dog?

Ricochet has been able to be a pioneer in adaptive surfing therapy and carry out a successful career as a therapy dog, thanks to her innate talent to connect immediately with others and provide deep-level healing. Through training, dogs learn to be polite, show their handlers the way, and respond to their handler’s commands, such as “sit”, “down”, and “stay”. Also, with time, every dog instinctively learns to recognize a human being’s characteristics and nuances, like facial expressions or mood changes. Ricochet, however, is able to spot and interpret these cues in strangers in a matter of seconds, and through what could be considered a “sixth sense”, she is able to become alert to their triggers, digging deep into the person’s soul. Ricochet takes responsibility to ensure she does what is good to the service member, using what she learned in her service dog training where appropriate, which allows for really powerful healing experiences.

For instance, when working with a young military lady, we were walking around a quiet neighborhood, when Ricochet reached a crosswalk and suddenly froze. Knowing that when she stops in her tracks she is signaling something, I asked her to show me the way, so Ricochet took us up a driveway. I scanned the environment to try to identify what she was alerting to, and all I could see was a garbage truck, which was picking up garbage and making noise. I asked the girl if trucks were a trigger, but she said it was not. However, as the conversation progressed, she told me the story of how she was hit by a motorcycle when crossing the street once. She also told me that behind the motorcycle there was a truck, whose mirror hit her in the head, causing it to fly off. So, there was trauma in that intersection, and without the lady even being consciously aware of how that was a trigger, Ricochet was able to sense it.

After something like this is brought up or uncovered during a session with Ricochet, it can be shared with the person’s therapist and the subject can be talked about further.

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3. Which are Ricochet’s areas of work?

Ricochet is a certified therapy dog in San Diego, California, and works on a program called Canine Inspired Community Re-Integration, offered by the organization Pawsitive Teams in conjunction with the Naval Hospital’s Wounded, Ill and Injured six-week wellness program, available through the recreational therapy department. She also works with several other veteran organizations, and is certified as a therapy dog through the American Kennel Club, and Therapy Dogs Incorporated.

In addition to military personnel with PTSD at the early stages of their recovery or treatment, she also works with children with autism. There are many similarities between these populations, for example, they do not like to talk about things, have social anxiety and do not like crowds. Typically, society expects them to function and adapt to our world, but dogs, and certainly Ricochet, do not expect them to come into our world; they go into their world.

Ricochet can easily communicate with a child that is nonverbal, as well as an individual with severe PTSD. Service dogs usually assist individuals as they push through situations; they are trained specifically to mitigate behaviors. Ricochet, however, does not want them to push themselves and potentially suffer a panic attack; so, her approach is to mirror their feelings and emotions. For example, while working with a gentleman recently, we entered a store and Ricochet looked like she wanted to hide under a table. So, I asked him if he felt like hiding, and he confirmed he did, as he felt uncomfortable in a crowd.

Many times we think that a dog is anxious, but the dog is indeed calm and is simply mirroring the feelings, behavior or emotions of someone else. When Ricochet feels anxious, she does not make eye contact and shrugs her body to be as tiny as it can be, which is not what she does when showing somebody else’s anxiety.

As another example, we were recently at an awards show where there were people coming and going, getting up to speak, and Ricochet stayed always at the same spot, she did not move. I was getting ready to give an award to a particular veteran, when she got up and came over. When he reached the stage, it was clear that he was extremely anxious, so Ricochet started to try to get his attention, poking him and trying to make eye contact. Finally she looked at me and I realized I could hold the microphone for him, so he could pet Ricochet with his free hand. As soon as he started doing that, his whole demeanor changed; he was not looking at the notes on his phone as much and his voice was not as shaky. She even went between his legs for more points of contact. When I asked the audience what they though Ricochet was doing, they responded she was being goofy, when in fact she was trying to get his attention and to interact because she knew she could help him reduce the anxiety.

So, what I do is see Ricochet’s behavior, interpret it, ask the questions to the service member, and then they validate them. I play more of a role of a facilitator, but it is really a team effort. I have been able to learn so much on the different ways that Ricochet and other dogs are trying to communicate things to us by doing this. For example, my other dog, Cori, is the first dog to do canine-assisted swimming with children with autism and other special needs. She is able to break down barriers immediately and communicate effectively with these children, including those who are nonverbal. Cori used to be terrified of water, but once a teenage neighbor came over to swim, and as soon as she went in the water, Cori started to try to “save her”; that is how she showed me what her purpose is. Since then we created a program for Cori specifically, where she works with a swim instructor. During a session with a young girl, Cori kept trying to get the swim instructor to hold the girl. At the outset, it seemed like Cori was acting weird, but later the young girl had a seizure in the pool, and luckily the instructor was holding her at the time. Cori also has chosen her own life purpose, and while with Ricochet it took me 15 months to figure it out, with Cori it only took 7, so I am getting better at it!

4. What has Ricochet taught you and how can her story inspire other dog therapy teams? How would you describe her legacy?

I believe dogs are magical beings, and every one of them has innovative ways to heal and assist. Sometimes we think that dogs are misbehaving, but they are trying to communicate something to us. Going back to the example of the lady with the truck, she told me that another dog in the past had tried to have her run across the street, so I explained that this dog was trying to get her out of harm’s way. While Ricochet froze, the other dog was trying to quickly get her to the other side, but they were both essentially doing the same thing. Many of service dogs’ behaviors stem from their training, but there are things dogs do on their own that we often miss. I have no trained Ricochet to do anything that she does with the military.

I am a service dog trainer so I know what behaviors we can teach dogs and I know how to interpret much of their body language. However, Ricochet has taught me to actually listen to dogs and interpret their behavior differently. I believe every behavior a dog does is purposeful, and I feel this is the legacy that she wants to pass on once she is no longer here.

After the event when she jumped on the board with the boy, I made a video of it, just for all the volunteers to show what happened and when I was at the keyboard, I felt like I was being channeled; this video came to be without much thought being put into it. However, the video went viral and from there on, we were contacted by several media outlets interested in her story. I honestly believe that because Ricochet is here for a specific purpose, the universe is making things happen for us to raise awareness and get the word out there.

It used to somewhat annoy me that people focused on surfing, when there was so much therapy work going on in Ricochet’s life. However, I feel that it was all part of her plan, or the universe’s plan, to have her do something that was so novel, that it would gain attention and give me the platform that I have now to raise awareness and promote all the wonderful things that dogs can do. Even after she is gone, I will have the knowledge to continue teaching this to people. Without the surfing, I do not think we would have been able to reach all the people we have, so now I appreciate it.

5. How did Ricochet get involved in the movie “Superpower Dogs”? Can you tell us a bit more about the movie?

Along that same line of thought, the opportunity for Ricochet to star in a movie was offered to me. I had to put very little effort for things to fall into place, and I feel it stems from changing my outlook and behavior from trying to control life, to allowing life. Once I let go and trusted the universe, even in those instances where I felt things were not going the way I wanted them to, I was able to accept that the universe knows best and move on more easily. When dogs are doing what they are meant to do, there is not a lot that you have to do. For instance, I do not surf, I’m from Chicago! So, surfing was not something at the top of my list for me or for Ricochet to do.

I was contacted by the director with the opportunity to have Ricochet participate in a new movie, so we decided to meet for coffee to discuss. During the meeting, Ricochet began to interact with a man who admitted he really need it that day, and then had another special exchange with a lady later that day at the beach. After witnessing this, the director decided he absolutely wanted to have Ricochet in the film.

At the beginning, I did not feel Ricochet would fit in with the other four dogs in the movie, as one is a search and rescue dog, another is a water rescue dog, another is an avalanche rescue dog, and there are two dogs who work to protect endangered species in Kenya from poachers and other criminals. Ricochet’s story is a lot more emotional, so after a while it dawned on me that she does emotional rescue. She is the dog that people go to after they have been rescued from an avalanche or any other situation and experience PTSD or other traumas.

So, Ricochet is now starring in the new IMAX movie “Superpower Dogs”, which celebrates the unique and amazing abilities of six real-life canine heroes, and showcases Ricochet’s superpower: emotional support. It available at museums and IMAX theaters.

Check out the trailer below and find it in a theatre near you!

Read more about Ricochet and Animal-Assisted Therapy

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