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."
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