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Puppies in training to become service dogs begin substantive NHL takeover

By Paul Patane, SportsEngine, 06/05/20, 3:30PM MDT


Hub exclusive: A recent league wide trend has been the emergence of teams adopting dogs. Two special pups, Captain from the Washington Capitals and Breezer of the Minnesota Wild, started an important journey this past year that will literally change lives.

Captain makes his public debut with Alex Ovechkin at the Washington Capitals' annual Rock the Red Carpet event last October. Photo courtesy of the Washington Capitals

Captain makes his public debut with Alex Ovechkin at the Washington Capitals' annual Rock the Red Carpet event last October. Photo courtesy of the Washington Capitals

The St. Louis Blues announced in October 2018 that the team was adopting a yellow Labrador retriever puppy that would grow up to become a service dog. That decision helped kickstart what has become a popular trend across the National Hockey League which has led to increased exposure of these special canines, the organizations that support them, their forthcoming life-long missions, and now, there are 10 team-adopted dogs league wide.

Two of these unique pups, Captain of the Washington Capitals and Breezer from the Minnesota Wild, are being raised to become service dogs who will eventually help either a veteran or first responder who suffers from post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).

Erica Sandidge, marketing coordinator for the Capitals, works with Captain and she helped put together his public introduction to the team’s fans and national media, as he made his debut during the club’s annual Rock the Red Carpet event prior to the Capitals’ season home opener against the Carolina Hurricanes in Washington, D.C., on Oct. 5.

“We debuted Captain in the arms of Alex Ovechkin and that was the first time our fans got to see him,” Sandidge said. “And then we released a couple of teaser promo videos on our social media to show his full debut.”

Seeing Ovechkin, a league superstar and the Capitals’ team captain, holding the canine Captain made quite the splash on social media and with the media, though much of that success can be credited to the pup.

Deana Stone, Captain’s puppy raiser from America’s VetDogs, wasn’t sure how the dog, who is three-fourths Labrador retriever and one-fourth Golden retriever, would react to the event.

“The fact Captain handled that so well is really shocking,” Stone said of Ovechkin walking with the puppy down the red carpet. “I have to admit, I was quite panicked by handing him over and not knowing what the crowd noise was going to be like — how he was going to handle the crowd noise — because at the time I think he was 10 weeks old.”

Breezer’s introduction to the NHL and Wild fans came prior to Captain’s, as Breezer joined the Minnesota club last August after his adoption from Coco’s Heart Dog Rescue, which is based in the Twin Cities.

At the time, the yellow Labrador retriever was 12 weeks old.

“I think that by us adopting Breezer, that really shined a light — not just on Coco’s Heart but on dog rescues in general,” said Wayne Petersen, director of community relations and hockey partnerships for the Wild.

Captain meets the Capitals for the first time

Captain and America’s VetDogs’ journey

Raising and training a puppy that is meant to become a highly specialized service dog is not an affordable or easy undertaking.

According to America’s VetDogs' website, the New York-based nonprofit organization that’s responsible for Captain’s development and training, it costs more than $50,000 to breed, raise, train and take care of each of their dogs, with it being a life-long commitment.

It’s a human-labor-intensive operation, according to John Miller, president and chief executive officer of America’s VetDogs and the Guide Dog Foundation, America’s VetDogs’ sister organization.

Miller said their dogs are bred for temperament, good health, and they make sure they get all of their shots and vaccinations. All expenses are taken care of for the veterans and first responders who are paired with the animals — from travel, lodging, and food costs to training. Lifetime care is also provided for the dogs.

When Captain and other America’s VetDogs’ pups are between 16 and 18 months old, they are sent to the organization’s campus to work with certified professional trainers. 

“Our partnerships that we have with our sports teams, and in particular Captain, really help us build awareness, gain momentum, and whether it’s awareness for the mission, recruiting puppy raisers for us, financial donations — it’s really an engagement tool for us and for the teams,” Miller said. “And Captain, ultimately, will go to a veteran, and he’ll change that veteran’s life.”

Stone joined America’s VetDogs about eight years ago as a volunteer puppy raiser. She later became what's called a puppy advisor, and now works in the Washington, D.C., Maryland and Northern Virginia area, where she’s responsible for working as part of a group that trains about 65 dogs.

Captain and Deana Stone (center) mingle with Capitals' broadcasters. Stone has been Captain's puppy raiser from America's VetDogs. Photo courtesy of the Washington Capitals

Captain and Deana Stone (center) mingle with Capitals' broadcasters. Stone has been Captain's puppy raiser from America's VetDogs. Photo courtesy of the Washington Capitals

Captain is the sixth dog Stone has raised for America’s VetDogs, and he is now 10 months old and he weighs about 80 pounds. He’s learning to help mitigate the effects of PTSD for his future veteran or first responder, which will allow them to be more comfortable going into public spaces. 

Part of the appeal for Captain and other service dogs in training being embedded with NHL clubs is all the unique circumstances they're exposed to from an early age. With large crowds, lots of noise, vibrations and pucks smacking walls, there’s an abundance of sensory details to take in.

Before the league halted play as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic, Captain attended more than half of the Capitals’ home games. He watched parts of games, interacted with groups of fans, visited with the players, and attended team practices at MedStar Capitals Iceplex in Arlington, Virginia.

Stone said she believes dogs of all breeds can make good service animals, but she stated part of the appeal in working with Labrador or Golden retrievers is both are typically eager to please and motivated by food, which makes it easier to train them. America’s VetDogs utilizes positive reinforcement training, she said, along with marker training, which means when Captain does something right, Stone says a marker word and then the pup is given a piece of food.

Captain is learning to stand parallel in front of his human, so if someone approaches his veteran or first responder, he knows to position himself between his human and others to create a comforting buffer. He’s also taught to lay his head in his human’s lap for up to 3 minutes, if told to rest, which can provide relief in stressful situations.

He’s also learning to use his nose to push things, and can retrieve items, such as a phone. He can also use his nose to push doors closed, and can tap handicap buttons to trigger automated doors in public spaces.

Breezer claims his spot in the Minnesota Wild locker room. Photo courtesy of the Minnesota Wild/Bruce Kluckhohn

Breezer claims his spot in the Minnesota Wild locker room. Photo courtesy of the Minnesota Wild/Bruce Kluckhohn

Breezer preps to become a Battle Buddy with Soldier’s 6

So far, Breezer has had a very different path from his counterpart in the nation's capital. But that will start to change this summer.

The Wild puppy has been fostering with Matt Majka, the team president, and his family. Most of Breezer’s training has been for general obedience while staying with the Majkas.

The Wild adopting Breezer was a couple years in the making, going back to the dog rescue he came from, as the Wild started partnering with Coco’s Heart Dog Rescue to make an annual canine calendar a couple years ago.

The first calendar they produced together raised $50,000 for charity, which was split equally between the team’s charitable foundation and the dog rescue, Petersen said. The calendar partnership continues and the Wild later decided to look into adopting a team dog.

Petersen said seeing what other NHL clubs, such as the Blues, Capitals and New York Rangers, were doing with dogs helped impact the decision-making in Minnesota.

“I give credit to the early teams for starting something that’s pretty cool and unique,” said Petersen. “And then we saw a great idea and brought in a team dog of our own.”

This summer, the Majka family will turn Breezer over to Minnesota-based Soldier’s 6 to begin his training to become what they call a battle buddy.

Ed and Dana Abrahamson started their nonprofit, Soldier’s 6, nearly 5 years ago. The married couple paired their first dog with a veteran in 2016, and they provide pups free of charge to honorably discharged veterans, police officers, firefighters, paramedics, correctional officers and 911 dispatchers.

Ed Abrahamson is a veteran of the Gulf War and a retired police officer who suffers from PTSD, so the Abrahamson family has first-hand experience with the important role service dogs play in the life of individuals with mental or physical conditions. 

The Abrahamsons visit Breezer. Photo courtesy of Soldier's 6

The Abrahamsons visit Breezer. Photo courtesy of Soldier's 6

Dana Abrahamson said Soldier’s 6 has six dogs in training, not including Breezer, and the organization has paired 18 dogs with recipients to date. Their trainers are K-9 police officers, and each of their dogs go through an annual certification process.

Soldier’s 6 normally has its intended recipients foster the dogs. But the Wild’s arrangement for Breezer is a little different, in that his recipient doesn’t yet have him. 

Breezer will go with a Soldier’s 6 trainer this summer for a couple weeks to work on some basics once his time with the Wild has concluded, and then he’ll be handed off to his recipient, who will attend weekly classes with Breezer to work on the certification process.

Dana Abrahamson said a lot of what Breezer will be trained for will be based on his veteran’s unique needs, once his formal instruction begins.

“PTSD can be such a tricky subject,” she said. “Sometimes it’s kind of like the pink accent in the room that nobody wants to talk about. To be able to have that open platform and be able to put it out there, I just think it’s incredible. And it makes me feel good that we’re doing our little part to help in this.”

Petersen has been pleased with the partnership between the rescue, Soldier’s 6 and the Wild, though he and other team staffers miss being able to go to the offices and seeing Breezer, who visited several times per week before the pandemic. Breezer also attended all Wild home games at the Xcel Energy Center in St. Paul.

“To me, this is such a win-win-win situation,” Petersen said. “Obviously, the biggest winner is going to be the veteran at the end. But the fact that we can shine a light on dog rescues, such as Coco’s Heart, is going to help them.”

Breezer enjoys a cuddle with Minnesota Wild defenseman Matt Dumba. Photo courtesy of the Minnesota Wild/Bruce Kluckhohn

Breezer enjoys a cuddle with Minnesota Wild defenseman Matt Dumba. Photo courtesy of the Minnesota Wild/Bruce Kluckhohn

Adapting training for a pandemic

The COVID-19 pandemic has, in a way, robbed teams and their dogs of some socializing, but Captain and Breezer are on track to fulfill their missions as scheduled.

America’s VetDogs and Soldier’s 6 do a lot of virtual training, which is done on platforms such as Zoom.

Since a statewide shutdown began in Minnesota in mid-March, Breezer has been at home full time and going on lots of walks. He’s had a pretty typical dog life the last two months, Petersen said. The Wild have kept in touch with Breezer’s training team, making sure he’ll be ready to change hands this summer.

“The biggest thing that we were able to do for Breezer was really socialize him and get him used to large crowds,” Petersen said of how the team spent time with Breezer before the league suspended play.

Before the pandemic, Stone was already Captain’s primary puppy raiser, though he would also sometimes stay with two members of the Capitals’ organization, including Sandidge. Now, Captain is always with Stone.

“We’re still really progressing with his PTSD training,” Stone said of Captain. “We’ve been doing a lot of virtual classes with our pups in training. Most of the time, when I’m teaching these classes I’ve got Captain right here to either join along with, or I can use him as an example on how to demonstrate certain things.”

Captain plays with Scout. Photo courtesy of the Washington Capitals

Captain plays with Scout. Photo courtesy of the Washington Capitals

Captain is expected to stay with the Capitals through the rest of this season and the early part of next season, should the league start its 2020-21 campaign on time. Stone will reintegrate the dog with the public when it’s safe and begin taking him to spaces such as malls to continue developing his skills.

Earlier this week, the Capitals had a Zoom call on the team’s Twitter page featuring about 20 dogs, hosted by Captain. Other canines from America’s VetDogs, former President George H.W. Bush’s dog, Sully, and other NHL service dogs in training were included.

Captain has more than 46,000 Twitter followers, and has been looked at as a source for happy content amid the pandemic, particularly with few organized sports being played. Breezer’s also pretty active on social media and has nearly 6,500 Twitter followers.

The publicity, exposure and social media presence have been a boon for the organizations prepping these dogs for their eventual missions.

“Demand for us is at an all-time high,” Miller said. “My hope is that in the next month or two we’ll be able to take advantage of all the states reopening in a safe way and place the dogs with the veterans.”

Dogs have long been popular in the NHL, but their acclaim has exploded the last two seasons, starting with the Blues’ decision to adopt a team dog.

“Almost all of the teams in the league have some sort of dog activations, whether that be a dog calendar, or a dog fan group — like we have Caps’ Canines — so that just became something apparent within the general hockey fan base that there was a desire to see all these players with little cute puppies,” Sandidge said of the dogs’ budding popularity.

Stone thinks increased awareness of organizations like America’s VetDogs and others helping provide service dogs for those who need them is growing exponentially because of the platform NHL clubs provide.

“I believe the No. 1 benefit of teaming up with the Washington Capitals, for us as an organization, is to be able to share our mission — to reach people who maybe hadn’t ever heard of us, and heard about what our service dogs can do for our veterans and first responders,” Stone said.

To learn more about the organizations training these dogs, you can visit America's VetDogs by clicking here, and click here to visit the Soldier's 6 website.

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