Dog aThe Healing Powers of a Canine Friend
One very special dog’s unusual approach to living life with purpose.
Hello, readers! Welcome to the blog that celebrates and explores the professional and private lives of working dogs of all disciplines. Today I’m sharing with you part of a conversation I had with Judy Fridono. Judy is a dog trainer in San Diego and founder of the nonprofit Puppy Prodigies. She has two therapy dogs who do some very unique work! Surf Dog Ricochet does adaptive surfing with kids who have disabilities, and does therapy work with active duty service members and veterans. She’s also a movie star! Cori, Judy’s other dog, helps children with special needs to learn to swim.
In this portion of the conversation, Judy shares about the special empathic abilities of Surf Dog Ricochet, how dogs communicate with us, and how the presence of a therapy dog can help a person work through trauma. In the rest of the conversation, she explains how Ricochet surfs with people, talks a little bit about Richochet’s role in the film, “Superpower Dogs,” and talks about Cori’s work in the pool. You can hear the entire conversation by tuning into the Hero Beside Me Podcast on Spotify, Apple Podcasts, Stitcher, etc.
Thanks for joining us, Judy! Tell us how your career working with dogs began.
It started when I went to an event that was dog-related, and one of the vendors there was Canine Companions for Independence. They were looking for puppy raisers, so I applied to do that and I had a puppy with me I don’t remember how long after. Once I had that puppy and it was trained and turned in for advanced training, then I went to the Bergin University of Canine Studies and got an Associate’s Degree in Assistance Dog Training there. And then I started a nonprofit called Puppy Prodigies. It was originally meant to work with puppies from birth to about twelve weeks, and at that time they’d go to other service dog organizations to finish the training. I specialize in the neonatal and early learning when the puppy’s brain is still developing. So, there’s a lot of different exercises that I do with the puppies and exposure to different things, just so that they can become a pretty stable, well-rounded puppy, and then going forward they would have that great foundation.
What was it like being a puppy raiser for CCI?
It was really fun being a puppy raiser for CCI. I was really fortunate that there was a local trainer that let me take her obedience classes every week for the entire time I had the puppy, so we got a lot of training in. And of course, exposing the puppy to different things, like buses and stores and crowds and different things like that, so the puppy would be acclimated to things they might encounter as an adult dog working with a person with a disability.
And so, that inspired you to pivot your career? What had you been doing before that?
I was in healthcare prior. I was in business development and regional sales prior to going into dog training full-time.
So, you started Puppy Prodigies…and what happened next?
I started Puppy Prodigies as a nonprofit in 2006, and in 2008, Ricochet was born in my home. I had whelped a litter for a person in Oregon that was going to donate one of her puppies to me from that litter. I had the mom dog with me from the beginning, and when she delivered her puppies, there were ten of them. There had been eight puppies born already, and there were only a couple [of] girls and I knew I wanted to keep a girl, so I turned to the mother dog and said, “Hey, Josie, make the next one a girl, and let her have a piece of white fur on her chest.” And that was just a statement out of the blue, and the next puppy born was a girl and she had a white piece of fur on her chest. So, she took her first breath in my hands, and we’ve been together ever since.
Ricochet was a brilliant puppy. I do a lot of early training with puppies — I have them turning light switches on at six and a half weeks, and opening doors at four weeks. She was very brilliant and was doing all these different tasks, and then somewhere around fourteen to sixteen weeks of age she lost interest in training and she would walk away from training. And we spent probably a year in conflict with each other, because my goal for her was that she become a service dog for a person with a disability, and she was resisting it. And I knew how brilliant she was, but she just wasn’t giving it to me anymore, she just didn’t want to train. Then, somewhere around seven months of age, she discovered birds, so I now I had another challenge in front of me because we don’t want a dog with person who has a physical disability seeing a bird and running off and knocking them out of their wheelchair. So, we worked a lot on her not responding to birds, and she was really good. But then, as a little more time went on, I realized that I couldn’t in good conscience place her as a service dog because I couldn’t guarantee that she would never run off after a bird or something. So, just about the time I was ready to release her from that role, we met a boy who was 14 years old and an adaptive surfer. He was run over by a car when he was 14 months old and became a quadriplegic and has been in a wheelchair ever since. But he does do adaptive surfing.
Ricochet — when she was eight weeks old I had her in a kiddie pool and invited her onto a boogie board and she had really good balance. So, we kind of played around with surfing. At that time, dog surfing had just become a novelty in San Diego. Organizations that were trying to raise money had these little contests where dogs would surf against each other. So, she got involved in that and she was a good surfer, she won different contests. So, when we met with this boy, Patrick, and I knew he surfed, I thought, “Well, maybe she can do some fundraising for him, since she can’t be a service dog. Maybe she can do something else.” My idea was that we would do a fundraiser for his rehab and go to the beach, and each of them could be on their own separate boards and we’d push them in a wave and they could ride to shore and they could show what they have in common. So, we did that — we went out, and they caught a few waves like that. And then at one point, Ricochet jumped off her board and jumped onto Patrick’s. When she did that, she was so excited, and she wanted to keep running back in the water, over and over and over again, to do it more. And that was after this whole year of conflict with her not wanting to do anything. So, it was that day that she pretty much showed me what she wanted to do. It was her choice and her decision to surf with people who have disabilities.
That was almost 13 years ago now. From there, she started surfing with all different kinds of people, all different kinds disabilities. She would change the way that she surfed based on the person’s disability. So, if someone was laying down on the board because they were quadriplegic, she would stand in the back between their legs. If it was, let’s say, a child with autism that was physically able, she would be on the front of the board and the child would hold on to her back end to help them stand up. She could focus on keeping the balance and the child could focus on standing up. She also surfed with their siblings, because we very much believe in all-inclusive — we don’t want to keep anyone away. So, we would have the kids and their siblings, parents — she’s surfed with surf pros before. She surfed with a goat. So, surfing was what she was mainly known for. But, in the background, what most people didn’t know is that she is a certified therapy dog and she has been working with active duty service members and veterans with PTSD. And through that, she’s become an exceptional healer. She’s able to alert to their anxiety, their stress, their triggers, and she redirects them if she feels they are in a situation that is going to increase their anxiety. She will redirect them and take them [in] a different direction, [to] where it’s not going to be stressful. So, that is really what her gift is. Surfing, to me — looking back at these 13 years, surfing was the novelty that allowed us to reach people that needed her and to get the story out there and the causes that she supports. But really, the magic happens on the beach.
What do you mean by that?
I mean, the healing part of that. When she surfs with someone, what they typically get out of that is more of an empowerment, especially kids with autism because most of the time, they’re always supervised. When they’re on the board alone with Ricochet, that might be the first time they’ve ever been alone. And when they’re finished [with] surfing I will always say to them, “Thank you for teaching my dog how to surf.” So now, they feel even more empowered. But when it’s the healing on the beach — that’s when the deep connections are made. Ricochet can make immediate connections with people, and she goes very deep within their soul. It’s almost like she’s an empath. She knows what they’re feeling and she’ll go to the person that she thinks needs her most, and then there’s an exchange of energy. Sometimes I can actually see it. Sometimes the person isn’t even aware it’s happening. She’s alerted to things and the person wasn’t even consciously aware that there was something in the environment that was a trigger for them. Through my time working with her, I’ve gotten really good at reading her. So, what Ricochet does is what I call “metaphorical behavior.” She’s actually showing me in her behavior what someone’s feeling, and then, when we’re working with the person I’ll see her behavior and I’ll ask the person, “Ricochet is telling me this.” and then I’ll say, “Are you feeling that way?” And then they’ll usually validate it.
And she can do this immediately with people. There was one time that we were with somebody that we had just met. We were outdoors, and it was a service member with PTSD. We were in a very quiet neighborhood, just going across a very small street, and Ricochet — the way she communicates the most is she’ll stop and plant and not move. And that’s when I survey the environment — what is it that she could be alerting to right now? When I did that, I saw [that] up the block a little way was a garbage truck. It was making its noise getting the garbage. So, I asked the girl, “Are trucks one of your triggers?” And she said, “No, I don’t have any.” However, most people with PTSD do have triggers…but I didn’t press her. But as we continued chatting, she tells me this story about how one day she was going to cross a crosswalk and she just stepped out into it and was almost hit by a motorcycle that didn’t see her, and then right after the motorcycle was a truck who also didn’t see her and the mirror of the truck hit her head and flew off. So, she actually did have trauma in a crosswalk. That’s what Ricochet was telling me. When she does stuff like that, I’ll say, “Okay, show me which way. If you don’t want to go across the street, which way should we go?” And she took us up a driveway, away from the crosswalk. The person was not even aware that she was feeling anything, but Ricochet knew somehow. And I honestly don’t know how she does it. I’ve talked to scientists and they can’t answer me, so I don’t know. All I can say is [that] it’s intuition, it’s a connection, she’s empathic — I don’t really have an answer. I don’t necessarily need an answer. I just know that it works.
Do you think that maybe other dogs have that same ability, and it’s your connection with Ricochet that allows you recognize it?
I think all dogs have the capacity to do what Ricochet does. Maybe not to the degree — she is a special dog — but they all have the capacity. But here’s the caveat…most of us don’t read our dogs correctly. Their behavior, which I’ll call “misbehavior” — for instance, if somebody saw Ricochet planting at that crosswalk and refusing to move, the person would say, “That dog is stubborn.” It has nothing to do with being stubborn at all. Or, there might be a dog who doesn’t want to get in the car, or maybe doesn’t want to walk past a certain area, or whatever it may be, Maybe the dog is annoying you and keeps poking you and you’re like, “Stop it!” But they’re really trying to tell you something. Dogs only have their bodies to communicate with, so it could appear as misbehavior, but what I tell people is [that] if your dog is doing something that you don’t like or you think it’s misbehaving, check in. Check in with yourself. How are you feeling? Check in with the environment. What’s going on in the environment? Could it be that the dog is trying to tell you something? Your dog may be trying to tell you [that] you have cancer. Who knows? But we brush it off, or we tell the dog to stop doing that. And then, the more we tell them to stop doing something, then they don’t do it anymore. So, I think that’s when we run into problems. It’s not that the dogs aren’t capable. It’s that we humans just aren’t listening. I’m very passionate about that because it’s something that I’ve learned.
If I don’t have that three-way communication — Ricochet doing a behavior, me interpreting it and then asking the service member or veteran if that’s what they’re feeling — I would not be able to know that that’s what she was trying to tell me. But they validate. She does the behavior, I interpret, they validate. With PTSD, for the most part, it’s not a physical disability. You can’t really see it, and a lot of people don’t understand it. There’s a lot of issues with it. When Ricochet is now showing them how they feel, they actually have something tangible to see what they feel. And also, she validates them. So, maybe their spouse or friends or whoever it may be will kind of brush off their PTSD or say, “Oh, you need to get out and come with us.” Ricochet is saying, “No, what you feel is real and I feel it, too.” I’ve had many service members tell me [that] Ricochet is the only one who believes them. We work with military sexual trauma as well — anything that has to do with anxiety and stress, unease, depression, any kind of mental health issue. So, with that, someone who has been sexually abused or had some trauma typically lose[s] trust. However, it’s easy to trust a dog. [It’s] especially easy to trust a dog who understands you and knows where you’re coming from. So, what happens is that trust with the dog then transfers to trusting me. And then they will talk to me and tell me different things, and then they can then go to their therapist and discuss whatever came out during the session with Ricochet.
When you and Ricochet are doing your work with the service members and veterans, how does it work?
We as a team are certified through a local organization called Pawsitive Teams, and they train and place service dogs for people with mobility impairment and some for PTSD, and they also have a therapy dog program. They have an agreement with the Naval Medical Center in San Diego, and their recreational therapy department and their wellness center. They have different clinics, so they have hiking, and surfing, and canine therapy. The way the canine therapy works is Pawsitive Teams has the volunteers and the dogs, the teams — and then, the hospital has the patients. It’s a six week program. Once a week we meet for two hours somewhere in the community. It was initiated for reintegration into the community, because once you’re on the battlefield 24/7 and you come back, it’s really hard to reintegrate into the civilian world. But having the dogs with them somewhere — they might go to a Lowe’s, where it’s crowded where there’s aisles and there’s places people can he hiding, or whatever it may be — when they’re with the dog, then it’s easier for them. That’s the way it was started. There’s usually six different teams — six service members, six dogs, six volunteers, —and they stick with the same dog for all six weeks. They handle the dog, they’re actually the one handling the dog. One of the biggest things with PTSD is hyper-vigilance, because, again, when you’re out on the battlefield you have to be aware 24/7, you can’t let your guard down. When you come back to the real world, it’s hard to shut that off. So, they’re extremely hyper-vigilant and very uncomfortable being around a lot of activity and people and noise. With the dogs, what we teach is [that] dogs are hyper-vigilant by nature. They see and hear and smell everything way before us, and better than us. They always respond. It could be just [that] maybe somebody walks by and they turn their head and look. Or maybe they hear a pen drop over there and their ear flicks a little. Something in their behavior will change if the environment changes. So if the person is aware of their dog and watching their dog’s behavior, it takes a lot of that pressure off of them. So we’ll do things where the dog looks in the opposite direction — so if I’m facing one way, Ricochet would be facing behind me so if there was someone that was coming up behind me, she would tell me.
All of that makes it sound like Ricochet is a PTSD service dog.
Yeah, it does. I always say that Ricochet would make a terrible service dog, because you don’t want a dog that’s going to not allow you to do something. What you want a service dog for is to help you get out and do things that you couldn’t do on your own. Ricochet is perfect for what she does, but she would not be a good service dog. She’s almost like a protector. She knows that if they go into that situation, their anxiety is going to increase. It’s like she takes responsibility for them, and she’ll be like, “Not on my watch — we’re not doing this.”
A service dog would have to be trained in two specific tasks to mitigate the disability…therapy dogs don’t have to be trained. Therapy dogs are more for comfort. That’s the easiest way to describe a therapy dog.