dog on a surf boardBy Jenna McCarthy
Five years ago, at 49, Judy Fridono was doing what she felt she was born to do: train service dogs to help people with disabilities live independent lives. Photo by: Diane Edmonds
But as her first class of 10 golden retriever puppies neared 16 weeks of age, one of them, Ricochet, began to lose interest. "I struggled to get her back on track," Judy recalls. "I was frustrated because, from the very start, Ricochet had shown huge potential," she says. "She was brilliant. By 8 weeks she was turning on lights, opening doors and retrieving things"-skills that many service dogs don't learn until 14 months. "I knew she wasn't a typical dog. She had a certain presence, and a knack for this kind of work." The problem was, Ricochet just couldn't focus, and Judy didn't know how to help her.
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But Judy didn't give up. She knew what it was like to feel as if you haven't yet found what you're meant to do. At 16, she developed juvenile arthritis, a chronic condition that causes severe joint degeneration along with crippling pain and fatigue. Unable to take part in many activities, Judy spent her free time working with sick children and the elderly. "I realized that even though I couldn't be a 'normal' kid, I could help other people," she says. After college, Judy continued to volunteer for various causes, including helping at animal shelters, while pursuing a career in corporate healthcare. She found satisfaction in her work, but because of her physical condition and the loss of her parents when she was a young adult, "I had become a pretty pessimistic person," Judy admits. "All I had ever known was pain and death."
But in 2003, something clicked for Judy when she watched a presentation on service dogs aiding the disabled. "I saw a perfect opportunity to combine my love of animals with the desire to help others," she says. So she threw herself into getting her dog-training certification, ultimately quitting her job in 2005 to launch her nonprofit, Puppy Prodigies. By late 2007, she had her first litter to train, including Ricochet.
But the dog just couldn't stay on task. "I tried so many different tactics to motivate her, but she'd shut down and walk away," says Judy. Ricochet had even begun to chase birds, which, Judy explains, is an impulse every service dog must be able to control for safety reasons. Then one day, Ricochet perked up at one of the exercises: balancingon a surfboard in a pool. (Service dogs practice this to improve their coordination so they are better able to guide humans over uneven surfaces.) Curious, Judy tried an experiment. In August 2009, she arranged for Ricochet to spend a day at the ocean, surfing with 14-year-old quadriplegic surfer Patrick Ivison.
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"My goal was to film Patrick and Ricochet side by side on their boards," Judy explains. Patrick would then use the video to raise money for Project Walk, a nonprofit that helps people recovering from spinal cord injuries. But Ricochet had her own plan: She hopped off her board and onto Patrick's and they rode in together. "Ricochet knew instinctively how to use her own body weight to counterbalance Patrick's. It was as if they'd been doing it forever," says Judy. "Ricochet kept running back out, eager to jump on the board again and again." By the end of the day, Ricochet looked thrilled. "I fell to my knees on the beach in amazement. I was thinking, Oh my gosh, you're good at this!"
Judy posted the video online and it went viral, raising more than $8,000 for Patrick's cause. "Afterward I said to Patrick's mom, 'How will we ever top this?'" The answer soon became clear. After helping Patrick, Judy set up a Facebook account for Ricochet and planned several more surf-date fundraisers with disabled individuals (often to ease their therapy and rehabilitation costs). She even entered Ricochet in several surfing contests for charity.
The more Ricochet surfed, the more her following grew on Facebook and the more money she raised. As word spread, foundations wanted Ricochet's help with everything from pet food drives to cancer walks. In total, the pair have raised almost $275,000 for various human and animal charities, and Puppy Prodigies has become a fundraising platform.
"Because of this experience, I look at life so differently now-I see obstacles as opportunities instead of disappointments," Judy says. "Working with Ricochet showed me that when we allow ourselves to take advantage of what life gives us, things can turn out better than we ever anticipated."