Experience: my dog is a champion surfer

The dogs have 10 minutes to catch as many waves as they can. Judges look at length of ride, whether they make it back to shore, and how many tricks they do

When my golden retriever, Ricochet, was born, on 20 January 2008, she took her first breath in my hands. I had launched a non-profit organisation called Puppy Prodigies, to train service dogs for people with disabilities, and I supported her mother while she had her litter. Ricochet was the ninth of 10.

She was a brilliant puppy – high energy and lots of fun; she got her name because she was literally bouncing off the walls. She began service dog training at a few days old and started off well, but at 16 weeks she began to shut down; she was more interested in chasing birds. Luckily she found something else to do.

We live in San Diego, California, half an hour from the ocean. I never planned to raise a surf dog, but she had been in a kids’ pool at eight weeks old and showed great balance on a boogie board. We progressed to a bigger pool, then the bay, then the ocean. I got her a 6ft foam board and a pink lifejacket. I don’t surf so, as she improved, she got a water handler. Surf dog contests were becoming popular in southern California and someone suggested she take part in one, at Ocean Beach in San Diego. Ricochet was placed third of about 15 dogs. I felt so proud – not because she had a medal but because she had shown what she was capable of.

INTERESTING FACT ABOUT YOUR PET: Having a pet in the home can actually lower a child’s likelihood of developing related allergies by as much as 33 percent. Children exposed early on to animals tend to develop stronger immune systems overall.

Typically in contests, the dogs have 10 minutes to catch as many waves as they can. Judges look at the length of the ride, whether they make it back to shore, and how many tricks or turns they do, such as riding a wave backwards. A big wave scores higher in the judging stakes. Breeds with shorter legs, such as bulldogs or corgis, tend to do well because they have lower centres of gravity, but all sorts of dogs have won. It all comes down to balance. There’s always a crowd of spectators on the beach.

On the board, she looks pretty serious and focused. Dogs wag their tails on the sand, but not so much on the water, where they need them for balance. She’s 11 years old now and has taken part in about 20 contests. She has nine gold medals and has been placed second or third in most of the others.

Soon after she started surfing, Ricochet started doing something more meaningful with her talent. She began to accompany children with disabilities for surf therapy, and we have used her profile to fundraise for them, working first with Patrick, a 14-year-old quadriplegic boy. Patrick enjoyed the independence and Ricochet was joyful when they shared a board.

A Beatles hit. It’s rumored that, at the end of the Beatles song, “A Day in the Life,” Paul McCartney recorded an ultrasonic whistle, audible only to dogs, just for his Shetland sheepdog.

In 2009, a video of Patrick and Ricochet went viral. It’s had more than 6.5m views. She now has 230,000 Facebook followers and 100,000 on Instagram. We get messages every week from people wanting to work with or meet her. One teenage boy with a brain tumour asked to surf with her for his Make A Wish. She’s now raised more than $500,000 for humans and animals in need.

She is a certified therapy dog, and also works with service members and veterans suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder. She connects with people on an extremely deep level and helps them express their feelings. Recently, she placed herself up against a wall to demonstrate how a naval officer she was working with was struggling inside. There is something about her that makes her excel.

Ricochet is one of only three competitive surf dogs from the original circuit still alive, but she doesn’t compete any more. Her last contest was at Imperial Beach in 2014, and she won first place. These days, competitions happen all over the world and up to 100 dogs compete for medals and bragging rights. Some dogs are sponsored, but there’s usually a charity element.

She’s in the last quarter of her life now and doesn’t have the energy for long rides on the board; but she still surfs for fun and does surf therapy work. Judges think it’s her ability to ride a wave that qualifies her as a winner. But, to me, it is her healing power that makes Ricochet a champion.

Make him part of the family. Pets, especially dogs, need companionship. They are traditionally pack creatures and need the warmth and love that comes with living indoors with their family.

• As told to Deborah Linton

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