Surf Doggie

Ricochet washed out as a service dog. But that didn't mean she couldn't find a way to serve.

- Posted on Aug 23, 2011

Richochet, the dog, with Patrick and Judy Fridono

Waves lapped the shoreline at Fiesta Island. I bent down, ignoring the ache in my knees, and set a boogie board at the water’s edge. “Ricochet, position!” I called. I was training Ricochet (Ricki, for short), a 15-month-old golden retriever, to be a service dog for the disabled. She’d been a puppy prodigy, quickly picking up tasks like opening the fridge, tugging zippers, even pulling Kleenex from the box without shredding it.

But lately? She was disinterested. Lackadaisical. I tried redirecting her attention, using a clicker, rewarding her with treats. Nothing worked. The only thing Ricochet really cared about obeying these days was her instinct to chase birds. She had amazing self-control and would never chase them while I was training her, but the way she darted after them when she played worried me. Service dogs can’t give in to instincts like that—even while playing—and if I couldn’t get Ricochet to curb hers, she’d be no help to anyone.

I’d brought her here to the beach, one of her favorite spots to learn, hoping it would motivate her. Ricki loved the water—when she was just eight weeks old I’d taught her how to navigate uneven surfaces by putting her on a boogie board in a kiddie pool. Her balance was extraordinary! Of course she’d been an eager-to-please puppy then.

“Ricochet, position!” I called again. She trotted over. I patted the board. She hopped on. She walked down to the end, turned around and walked back, nimbly adjusting to the motion of the waves. “Great work, girl,” I said stroking her fur. So far, so good. Then I took off her training leash so she could play.

Suddenly a seagull swooped down, squawking. Ricochet bolted, chasing the gull down the beach. Nooo! Here we go again, I thought, sitting down in the sand, my knees aching.

Five years earlier, at age 46, I’d  had to go on disability because of rheumatoid arthritis. My neck, shoulders, wrists, knees and ankles throbbed constantly. Maybe even worse than the pain was the fatigue. If it weren’t for my service dog, Rina, a golden/Lab mix, I wouldn’t have had the energy to get out of bed.

I longed for a way to feel useful again. One day I was petting Rina when the answer came to me. Before my RA got debilitating, I’d volunteered with canine organizations. I’d even gotten certified as a dog trainer. What if I raised a service dog in my home? I wouldn’t have to expend energy going anywhere.

Ricochet was born to parents who came from a long line of service dogs. I knew she was going to make a brilliant service dog too. Our first months together she mastered the basics and moved on to advanced cues. It made me feel good knowing one day Ricochet would help someone the way Rina helped me.

Now, watching Ricochet race after the seagull, I wasn’t so sure. I couldn’t place her with a disabled person. It was too risky. What if she was helping someone in a wheelchair cross a busy street and took off after a bird? The gull flew off and Ricochet came back to me panting. “Let’s go, Ricki,” I said.

Of course Ricochet would be a wonderful companion to me, but I had a feeling she was meant to do more. I’ve put all my energy—and hopes—into this dog. For what, Lord? I prayed, frustrated. What else can Ricki do? You’ve gotto help me figure this out!

Back home, it hit me: Dog surfing is a popular sport here on the West Coast. People have their dogs hop on small surfboards, they push the dogs out into the water and the dogs ride the waves back to shore. Ricochet was so skilled on the boogie board. What if she could surf too?

I bought Ricochet a dog surfboard with a soft foam top so she could grip it with her claws. The next day we were back at the beach. I buckled Ricochet into her life vest and made my way into the water till I was waist-deep. I pushed the surfboard out for her. “Position!” I called. She jumped right on and balanced like a pro. A wave was rolling in. I nudged her forward. Ricochet effortlessly caught the wave and rode it to shore. I pushed her out toward another wave. She caught that one too. She was in her glory! And, standing there, my aching knees braced against the current, I was too. My washout of a service dog was a star surfer!

 Over the next few months Ricki and I practiced with her surfboard. I hadn’t seen her so eager-to-learn since she was a pup.

She’d only been in the ocean a few times when folks from the Purina Incredible Dog Challenge heard about her and invited her to compete. We practiced every day for a week before the contest. She won third place! Okay, Lord, I get it. It’s time for me to let go and let Ricki be who you want her to be.

But I was still determined to have Ricochet involved with service in some way. I already had my nonprofit organization, Puppy Prodigies, so I created an initiative for Ricochet, Surfin’ for Paws-Abilities, so her surfing could raise awareness and money for different causes. The first fundraiser I put together was for 15-year-old Patrick Ivison, a local boy who was left a quadriplegic after a car accident. Patrick had taken up wheelchair basketball and rugby, but his favorite sport was surfing. His attitude was so inspiring. “I focus on my abilities, not my disability,” he said. The plan was to have people donate money toward Patrick’s therapy costs and watch Ricochet surf on her board while Patrick surfed on his. I called Patrick’s mom, Jennifer, and told her my idea. “Surfing with Ricki?” she said. “Patrick will love that! Let’s set something up.” I couldn’t wait!

We met up at Del Mar Beach a few weeks later. Patrick was in his wetsuit, accompanied by a team of volunteers. I stayed in the waist-deep water while they pushed Ricochet and Patrick farther out into the ocean, each on their own board. People fanned out across the water, ready to help if they fell. “Let’s go!” someone shouted as a crest formed. Patrick was pushed toward a wave. Ricochet followed.

“Yeah!” Patrick whooped. The two caught wave after wave. The air felt electric, alive with joy.

Patrick and Ricochet were paddling in toward the beach when Ricochet craned her neck toward him. Then she leapt from her board onto his. “She wants to ride with me!” Patrick shouted. A volunteer paddled out with a bigger board for them. Patrick lay on his stomach, Ricochet standing over him. Ricochet protectively made adjustments to keep them in balance. When Patrick fell off, Ricochet swam by his side till help arrived. I blinked back tears.

Today, Surfin’ for Paws-Abilities has raised $93,000 for human and animal causes. Ricochet is living the life she’s meant to live. I am too. Did I ever imagine I’d raise a service dog turned surfing dog? Not quite. But these days I stay focused on what I can do with RA. When you let go and let God, you discover a sea of possibilities.

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