BUFFALO, N.Y. — For the second year in a row, the Buffalo Sabres have teamed up with WNY Heroes’ service dog training program, Pawsitive for Heroes, to help train a rescue dog that will ultimately support a local veteran as their service animal.
“Nikki is a very, very special individual to us,” Chris Krieger, founder of WNY Heroes, said about the 8-month-old golden retriever selected as the team’s dog for the 2022-23 season.
“We are leaning more towards and have started this process maybe two years ago with naming our service dogs after local fallen soldiers, airmen, anybody who has served our country. Nikki was given to us by a family who lost their son in Syria. It was the last of the litter, they wanted to donate it to the program to really make a difference, and that’s when we talked to the family and said, ‘yes, the dog’s name is Nikki, keep Nikki,’ and that’s when Nikki was offered then to the Buffalo Sabres for the program and agreement we have with them.”
Nikki attends many Sabres home games at KeyBank Center to reinforce what lead trainer John Knoph calls distraction training. By interacting with strangers in a busy environment outside of her usual training quarters, Nikki is rewarded for listening to commands as well as being patient and calm. The Sabres’ previous team dog, Rick, would struggle entering through the doors of the arena — but not Nikki.
“I mean an 8-month-old dog doing this is pretty much unheard of because of, they’re spooked a lot,” Knoph said. “They could get spooked. But she’s a really good dog.”
At Collins Correctional Facility, Nikki lives with Dwayne Mullings. When he applied for the dog training program, he didn’t expect to be given a canine in the spotlight.
“Originally it was something to do, you know,” Mullings said. “I needed something to preoccupy my time and this was the best thing for it. So it was a win-win for me.”
Mullings describes Nikki as energetic and playful with humans and other dogs in the program.
“Nikki is one of the best dogs. She came here, it was a blessing,” Mullings said. “You know, she’s very therapeutic … Just to look at her is a sigh of relief [from] certain things. Wonderful … When the vest goes on, she’s all business. Most places, we tell her ‘place,’ that’s where she goes.”
Collins Correctional Facility is the first state prison that WNY Heroes has worked with, but Krieger said they are in the process of bringing Pawsitive for Heroes to another state location in the coming months.
Nikki and her class of service dogs will graduate from Collins in January, where they will go on to support area veterans who need their assistance.
“Great thing, I think it’s a great thing,” Mullings said. “My heart doesn’t skip a beat because it feels so natural for this to be like this so it’s definitely a good thing to at least give back. I can preoccupy my time, so it’s a win-win for all of us.”