“If a dog can do it, I can too.”
That’s the message Leia, a Labrador-Staffy crossbreed rescue, teaches young adaptive surfers in Cape Town, South Africa. Leia is a service animal at Iris House Children’s Hospice, a respite care program for severely disabled and terminally ill children. She works with the Surfing for Special Needs program—and surfing, says Leia’s human Irina Mink, is good for more than just the kids. It helped save Leia, too.
Irina and Leia found each other four years ago. The local animal shelter told Irina that Leia was taken from a homeless man who couldn’t take care of her. Her tumultuous past showed—Leia was shy, extremely anxious, and detached.
“At first, she would not connect at all,” Irina said. “She would not look us in the eye, and she kept whining.” Fostering another dog didn’t help—they got along, but they each needed more attention than one household could provide two dogs. It wasn’t until Leia was the “only dog” that she began really connecting with her new family.
It was around the same time that Irina became involved with Iris House. Founder Sue Van Der Linde opened the organization in 2011 when she realized that nothing like it existed in the area. The need for Iris House became quickly apparent, and it grew from a program of 11 kids in 2011 to 450 kids from 44 communities today. The organization provides physical therapies, cognitive exercises, and support to kids with disabilities and terminal illnesses.
“We started with a derelict building, and have by now created a haven for the children,” Irina said. “The children never want to leave.”
One of Iris House’s programs is “Surfing for Special Needs,” and this is where Leia truly found her calling. A program was inspired by another internet-famous adaptive surf dog: Surfdog Ricochet. Ricochet’s human mom was eager to offer Irina advice, and Irina was eager to train Leia. But here’s the catch—Irina doesn’t surf.
But Leia’s training started on land anyway. She learned basic commands like, turn, move back, and where to stand on a board. Then she graduated to Irina’s Stand Up Paddleboard (SUP) in her pool. She didn’t love pool water. But for some reason, the ocean was a different story.
“She freely jumped on the board, and seemed to like it,” Irina said. And when they asked a friend’s kid to hop onto the board with her, she seemed to like it even more.
“That’s when we realized Leia really enjoyed the company of kids.”
The kids liked her back. “There is a connection that’s difficult to describe,” Irina said. “She licks their faces, and the children laugh.”
And Leia’s been a full-time surfdog ever since. She provides both emotional and physical support to kids on surfboards, many of whom would never know the joys of surfing without her and the Adapting Surf program. She’s a natural surfer, Irina boasts, and she’s changing lives every day.
But surfing has changed her, too. Leia is a completely different dog around kids. She is calm, tender, and supportive. She still prefers surfing with kids to surfing alone, and she seems to intuitively understand when kids need an extra boost. “In some occasions, she chose by herself to lean against a child that seemed to need this kind of reassurance,” Irina said. “It was quite fascinating to witness that, because it was solely her choice to interact differently, and the children reacted very positively.”
Leia has gained quite the reputation in South Africa—everyone in the Adaptive Surf community knows her, and has likely surfed with her. She’s the delight of every viewer on the beach. She’s even made a television appearance on a show called “Carte Blanche.”
Irina still doesn’t surf, but she’s learning. Leia, meanwhile, surfs as often as she can. She even has a custom-made surf suit from Reef South Africa to keep her warm on colder days. Surfing, Irina said, is what Leia was born to do.
“It’s like she found a purpose,” Irina said. “And you know, I actually thinking surfing helped Leia as much as it helped the children.”