The New York Rangers were the first NHL team to get a service puppy trainee when they introduced Ranger the yellow lab in August 2018. Now he's the first to have found his forever home as a companion dog to a 16-year-old with autism named Danny Zarro.
Through his training with BluePath Service Dogs, which provides dogs to children with autism, Ranger has made a huge impact in just a few weeks on the family of five whose service dog died in April.
"Every time I think about (Ranger), I just cry," Danny's mother Tricia said. "Ranger is just beautiful. He's young, he's energetic, he's funny. There's just a lightness to my family that was missing."
Ranger, whose trainer Saxon Eastman described him in a blog on BluePath's website as a "super sweet, loving, intelligent, deliciously derpy meatball," spent time around Madison Square Garden as part of his training. He would go to the offices during business hours, and to special events, such as Rangers practices and games to gain the experience of being around different people in different environments.
Being able to go from a busy office, to an arena with thousands of screaming fans and goal horns, to the bustling streets of midtown Manhattan all provided new situations to help him be prepared for life as a focused, working service dog with full public access.
"It's interesting for a dog to meet a hockey player for the first time," said Michelle Brier, vice president of marketing and development for BluePath. "Something as simple as the mask, that's a weird looking thing and it makes a person look different than other people, so for him to get used to someone in a hockey uniform could potentially help one day if he encounters a firefighter who's working. So there's a lot of experiences that his time at MSG simulated that could be very much like what he would encounter in the real world."
Ranger's training could have continued for another 6-12 months, but he wasn't showing full confidence in some crucial situations, so the BluePath staff made the decision to make him a companion dog, rather than a service dog to a child whose safety he'd be primarily responsible for.
"We say all the time in the service dog world that the dogs choose their careers," Brier said. "It's important for us to find something the dog can excel in."
So while Ranger wasn't a good fit for a small child, he was the perfect companion for Danny, who has grown out of his tendency to take off running into dangerous situations but greatly benefits from having a highly trained dog.
As a child, Danny was non-verbal and was tethered to his service dog to prevent him from bolting. Having the dog to protect him at all times gave his family some peace of mind, allowing them to go out in public and do regular activities together. This led to him being more engaged with Tricia, his dad Ernie, sisters Maddy and Kylie, and with other people he comes across. He now attends a public high school just outside New York City with a 1-to-1 aide.
Having a service dog was such a life-changing experience for the Zarro family that Tricia joined the board at BluePath to help pay it forward and raise money for the organization so they can provide other families with service dogs free of charge. BluePath, like the other organizations that have partnered with NHL teams to train service dogs, rely on donations and volunteers to raise puppies before they are placed with families.
When the Zarro family's service dog died in April, Tricia put them on the waiting list for a companion dog. Danny is verbal now, though still tends to want to retreat to his video games or notebook. But having fun-loving Ranger around is giving him confidence, and encouraging him to interact with others. And when Tricia sees him retreating, she can send Ranger over to engage with her son with a simple command.
"Danny's walking the dog all through (sleepaway) camp and the counselors are coming up to him like, 'Oh Danny, your dog is beautiful what's his name?' and he'll say, 'This is Ranger, look at the tricks I can do,' and Danny is showing everybody that Ranger can do a high five," Tricia said. "Before Ranger, if I walked with Danny through camp, he would just be quiet and not engage with people but because I have this funny, kind, patient, beautiful, well-trained dog, his social opportunities are just limitless."
Even though Danny has developed out of some of his more harmful and dangerous behaviors, his autism is still a 24-7 concern because, Tricia says, you never know when the next overwhelming situation that conflicts with his rigidity is coming.
"I'm very positive and I'm a glass half full person but everything about autism is hard," she said. "You're always waiting for the meltdown or the breakdown because of how they perceive their life as very stressful. They need routine and they need structure, so when life is amorphous, it's very hard for my son."
And Ranger is proving that even though he didn't become a service dog, he's still a treasured addition to the Zarro family.
"These dogs have many purposes," Tricia said. "Sometimes the purpose is to save a life and sometimes, you know I feel bad, but he just makes me happier, he makes me calmer and if the mom is happy and calm, the family is happier and calmer, so when I say that I'm grateful, I really am, because I feel that I have another tool in my toolbox to help my son and to help my family."