The Penguins welcomed a very special guest to PPG Paints Arena on Friday when Penguin, a service dog in training, met with Iceburgh.
Penguin and Iceburgh made quick friends before the team hosted the Dallas Stars, with the latter walking the puppy around the stadium, stopping by the statue of Mario Lemieux at the Highmark Gate and the oversized goalie mask on the concourse.
An adorable Golden Labrador Retriever, Penguin is being raised by a local mother-and-son tandem before he heads off for specialized training in November 2020. Jill Sabo and her son Jack received Penguin as an eight-week-old puppy in August, and have been fostering him ever since.
Penguin is originally from Santa Rosa, California, where he was bred by Canine Companions for Independence, a non-profit organization designed to "train and provide assistance dogs free of charge to adults, children and veterans with disabilities."
Penguin is the Sabo family's second assistance dog they've raised in conjunction with the Canine Companions for Independence program; their first one is currently in training. Jack said it can be tough to raise a puppy for only a short amount of time, but that he's grateful for the CCI trainers.
Video: Penguin the Puppy Visits PPG Paints Arena
"It's definitely tough to give them back to Canine Companions for professional training, but at the same time, it's also very bittersweet," Jack said. "I know that the Canine Companions trainers are some of the best people that I've ever met."
Jill seconded Jack's thoughts, speaking of how important it is to raise the puppy to the best of their abilities.
"You do know going in that they are not your forever dog and that you only have them for a short period of time," Jill said. "But in that period of time, you love them unconditionally and with your whole heart, because if you don't, I don't think you can raise a good service dog."
Jill explained some key differences between raising a dog for training purposes versus recreationally, including the need for socialization - something a Penguins game at PPG Paints Arena just might help with.
"They have to learn 30 basic commands, and they also have to be socialized," Jill said. "They have to be able to go out in public and be calm, and be prepared for any situation that they may encounter when they're actually working with their forever person."
Molly Schulz, a public relations manager for the Canine Companions for Independence's North Central Training Center, said it's been a pleasure working with the Penguins.
"One of the things with our puppies in training is we really want them to become a part of the communities and the puppy-raisers raising them," Schulz said. "It's been fantastic, and we're very appreciative to the Penguins for welcoming us in today - and to Iceburgh for the tour!"
Once Penguin's time with the Sabos is complete, he'll head to CCI's Ohio-based training facility, where he'll undergo six to nine months of intense training. If he passes, he'll be paired with someone whose needs align with his specific skills. Until then, he'll continue to grow alongside Jack and Jill.
KDKA has been documenting Penguin's progress on its morning show, Pittsburgh Today Live, ever since his arrival in the Sabo home in August. Jill said that both KDKA and the Penguins have been awesome to work alongside.
"We can't thank both KDKA and the Penguins enough for what they've done for us," Jill said.
In roughly 13 months, Penguin will head off for Ohio, ready to fulfill his calling as a human assistance dog. Until then, the Sabos will cherish their time with him as much as possible. And surely, Penguin's first Penguins game will rank atop their most treasured memories.