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Pup dives in for special-needs kids

Pam Kragen, The San Diego Union-Tribune on

Published in Parenting News

Recently, in an Escondido 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.

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