Recently, in an Escondid, Calif., backyard, Erika Shawver witnessed something she never thought she’d see: Her 3-year-old son Caiden went for a swim.
Caiden has a sensory-processing disorder. Over the past year or so, every time Erika took her son to a pool for paid lessons, he’d end up in hysterics, fearful of the water, of being touched or being approached by an instructor.
Then Caiden met Cori.
Cori is a 1-year-old golden/Labrador retriever mix in training to become a certified water rescue dog. Cori offers “canine assistance” to swimming instructors, which means she can make pool time fun, educational and less scary for children with special needs.
As soon as Cori leapt into the swimming pool with Caiden that day, the boy’s anxieties over strangers, being touched, noise and other sensory issues washed away.
“He can get overwhelmed so easily, so I was shocked when I saw how quickly he responded to Cori,” Shawver said. “He had confidence in the dog, which made him confident in himself and it made him want to swim with Cori. Then he began to trust the teacher because she was helping him be with Cori.”
At his third swim lesson this week, Caiden plunged into the water without Cori, clung happily to the instructor and held his breath underwater for the first time.
Cori is the latest canine prodigy owned by Judy Fridono. The Escondido dog trainer is better known for her other pet, “Surf Dog” Ricochet, who has more than 230,000 followers on Facebook. Ricochet is a gentle-natured, 9-year-old golden retriever and certified therapy dog who has won national acclaim riding waves with children and veterans with special needs.
Fridono, 59, became a full-time certified dog trainer in 2003 when rheumatoid arthritis forced her to give up her career in health care. Ricochet hadn’t made the grade as a regular therapy dog, but she excelled in surfing. So Fridono started the nonprofit foundation Waves of Empowerment, which provides free surf training with Ricochet for children and adults with special needs.
Because Fridono’s mobility is limited, she has relied over the years on volunteer Deb Parker to serve as the water handler for Ricochet, and now Cori. Parker, who is a chef by training, said Cori has come a long way. As a puppy, she was afraid of the water and showed zero talent for surfing.
Then, on a beach trip in May, Parker said she noticed that Cori would pull to shore any children who grabbed her leash or collar. And in Fridono’s backyard, above-ground swimming pool, Cori would leap into the water after children and push them with her fast-paddling front legs toward the stairs.
“Cori just has a natural instinct,” Parker said. “Judy doesn’t push dogs into doing anything. She believes every dog has their purpose. If we listen to them, they will tell us what that is.”
The final piece of the puzzle clicked into place in June, when Fridono and Parker met Jodi Powell at a Waves of Empowerment autism paddleboard camp in Carlsbad.
Powell was there because her 6-year-old son, Logan, has sensory processing issues. She also runs Special Fishies Swim & Play, a 20-year-old swim school for children with special needs, including autism, cerebral palsy and Down syndrome.
Powell said that many children on the autism spectrum don’t feel connected to their bodies, but when they’re in the water that connection occurs, so it can be a very freeing experience if they can learn to swim.
However, Powell said she has spent up to three years with some students because every special-needs child learns in different ways, some slower than others. After she saw how her son Logan interacted with Ricochet at the camp, and later with Cori in the pool, she wondered if dogs might be the missing ingredient in making a breakthrough with the hardest-to-reach children.
Over the past few months, the trio of women have worked intensively with Cori and Powell’s two sons, Logan, and 4-year-old Sawyer, Caiden and others to practice different swim-training techniques.
Fridono has reached out to the Scuola Italiana Cani Salvataggio — a school in Italy where dogs are trained as working lifeguards — about getting Cori certified for water rescue. She has also outfitted Cori with an Italian-made, life-saving vest. The buoyant vest has handles on the back that children can grip to be pulled around the pool, something Caiden Shawver especially enjoys.
The trio plans to apply for grants to create a nonprofit program for canine-assisted swimming. For now, they’re offering lessons on a sliding scale to special needs students through Powell’s company (specialfishies.org). Eventually, they hope to build a permanent pool and sensory education center where both Powell and Parker can work full time.
Until then, they’re all volunteering their time, watching what Parker calls “breathtaking” work between Cori and the swim students.
“Cori is the bridge between the instructor and special-needs children,” Parker said. “What she does is create a bridge of trust between them and then the magic can happen.”