Owner Judy Fridono first put Ricochet on a board on land, but "she was a natural. There aren't a lot of dogs who surf, and only a handful are good."
SURFING TO AID THOSE WHO CAN'T WALK
Judy Fridono, owner of Puppy Prodigies, which trains therapy dogs, had nearly given up on Ricochet, a 15-month-old golden retriever, who seemed not to be cut out to work with people. On a lark, Fridono entered her in a dog surfing contest; she came in third. "I thought, 'Finally. She's good at something.'" Soon after, she paired Ricochet with Patrick Ivison, a paralyzed teen who also loved surfing. At one point "Ricochet jumped off her board and onto Patrick's," she says. In August 2009 they put on a show and raised $10,000-plus secured a sponsor for three years of Ivison's physical therapy. Since then Ricochet has raised more than $140,000 for various causes, mostly through videos on her Facebook page. Thanks to the therapy, Ivison now drives and walks with a walker. "She gave me the gift of independence," says Ivison, 17, "and that's priceless."
RESCUED HIS INJURED OWNER
Riding a mountain bike, his golden retriever Yogi by his side, Paul Horton suddenly caught a curb and flew over the handlebars. Right away, he says, "I realized I was in big trouble." Sprawled on a deserted dead-end road, Horton, 59, couldn't move; he'd fractured vertebrae. The retired engineer urged Yogi to run home for help, but the dog wouldn't leave his side-until they heard people nearby and Yogi took off, barking frantically. "He was agitated and really wanted us to follow him," says neighbor Maggie Tate. They trailed Yogi for 100 feet, where they found Horton. "There was a real possibility that I could have died," he says. He's out of danger, but for months "Yogi stuck to me like glue. He still stays within sight of me."
LENDING A TRUNK AFTER A TORNADO
A week after the May 22, 2011, tornado that leveled much of Joplin, Mo., volunteer Mark Schroeder was helping sift through the rubble when he did a double take. "Is that an elephant?" he says he wondered. "We thought we were hallucinating." They weren't. Their show canceled, Piccadilly Circus performers came to town with Oka, 40, an Asian elephant, to aid the cleanup. Accustomed to heavy lifting, Oka, guided by her trainers, removed debris and towed a car from beneath a crumbled home. She "pulled that car out like you and I might move a chair," says circus owner Dick Garden, 69. While some questioned putting an animal to work, others said Oka brought smiles to those in need. Says Schroeder: "It was nice to detach yourself from the reality."
SAVED HIS BRAND-NEW OWNER FROM A DIABETIC COMA
Sturgeon Bay, Wis.
Just hours after adopting a cat named Pudding, Amy Jung marveled at how the 8-year-old Maine coon mix settled in, cuddling next to her in bed. "He became family instantly," Jung, 36, says. And he soon showed a loyalty to match. That night, as Jung, a tea-shop owner, lay sleeping, she suffered a diabetic attack and was at risk of falling into a coma. Unable to move, she awoke to Pudding-all 21 lbs. of him-jumping on her chest, swatting her face, nipping her nose. With Jung slipping in and out of consciousness, the resourceful cat then went down the hall where Jung's son Ethan, then 7, was sleeping. (Her husband was away.) He pounced on Ethan, who came running and gave his mom an injection that revived her. "If Pudding hadn't gotten Ethan," Jung says, "I would not have survived."
A BUNNY WHO CHEERED UP AN APE
PANDA THE BUNNY
When Samantha the gorilla's longtime companion Rudy died in 2005, zookeepers tried to comfort her with a stuffed toy gorilla. "She carried it around with her everywhere," says Scott Mitchell, CEO of the Erie Zoo, where Samantha lives. Still, her caretakers knew she needed a living companion. At 47, Samantha was too old to bring in a young, rambunctious male, and on trips to other zoos she hadn't bonded with other gorillas. So instead they tried a ... bunny? Yes, a 6-month-old Dutch rabbit named Panda became a pet for the lonely ape. "The way she reacted to the stuffed animal let us know she wouldn't be aggressive," says Mitchell. After a year of supervised visits, in February Panda moved into the cage. Observes zoo director Cindy Kreider: "They've really hit it off." Samantha shares her cereal and crackers and pats the bunny. Today, Mitchell adds, "the stuffed animal is not the most important person in her world. Now it's Panda."
POISE ON PAWS MADE HER A STAR
Theron Humphrey's redtick coonhound Maddie knows the meaning of "stay." Humphrey (upper right), 28, a photographer, hoists Maddie atop an array of objects-melons, bicycles, a gas pump-and there she remains while he snaps pictures he posts at maddieonthings.com. It didn't even take much training. "She's just a mellow, patient dog," he says of the 2-year-old he adopted from a shelter. "Kind of weird too. But in a good way."