Benny is one of five 2021 AKC Awards for Canine Excellence recipients. He won the Exemplary Companion category. This category recognizes dogs without formal training or certification that have nonetheless distinguished themselves in some way and have made a meaningful contribution to their owners or communities.
Apparently, when they handed out a job description to 5-year-old Benny three years ago, he ignored it.
The template for the Labrador Retriever, America’s most popular breed for three decades reads hunter, assistance dog, show and agility competitor, search and rescue along with other canine jobs.
But not ice skating!
For the plucky 50-pounder, it all started in August 2018, when professional photographer Rick Vierkandt, who was working on a cheer video called “Go Knights Go,” for the National Hockey League’s newest team, the Las Vegas Golden Knights, reached out to Benny’s owner, Cheryl DelSangro, of Las Vegas, a former professional skater who began skating at age 5 in Cleveland, about including Benny in the production.
And since then Benny on Ice has been a whirlwind adventure that has touched the lives and hearts of many and earned the pair the American Kennel Club’s coveted 2021 AKC Humane Fund Awards for Canine Excellence Exemplary Companion Award.
Benny on Ice
DelSangro met Vierkandt shortly after she brought home Benny seven years ago. “He is a pet photographer and I took Benny to him for some Christmas photos,” she recalls. “Later, Rick contacted me to determine I was OK with Benny doing some modeling for him, which he did before the Cheer video.”
Benny had never skated before. For the cheer video, Benny skimmed across the ice on paws. After viewing that, DelSangro saw potential for taking it to a higher level. “I started to think I could teach him to skate. I taught our daughter when she was 17 months old, and I figured Benny had better balance than a toddler. I had not skated for about 15 years since moving to Las Vegas. In essence, this brought my two passions – dogs and skating – together.”
That initial outing, with DelSangro alongside Benny at all times, was destined to be full of surprises. And it didn’t disappoint. “We had no idea that he would be able to skate the first try or that he would love being on the ice, enjoy the cold, even though he thrives on swimming in the heat. What I didn’t expect was his desire to chase after me,” she smiles. “It was almost like he was copying me.”
As you might suspect, a dog can’t wear just any kind of skate. Consequently, DelSangro designed Benny’s and asked a friend to machine the blades and the bottoms to fit her specifications. The top is an altered dog boot.
The nimble Benny has “greatly improved” on his ice moves since Day 1. “He no longer goes front to back with his skates but pushes out to the sides,” she says. “Also, he has taught himself to stop, with a reverse snowplow move. He has also learned to skate in reverse a short distance. To a major degree, he is self-taught.”
With resilience and zest, Benny skates 10-15 minutes with about a 10-minute or longer break at practice. During the break, DelSangro takes him out to chill and play ball. He lets her know what he wants to do. A typical practice is two sessions with a midway intermission.
An Inspiration for Others
Since that Golden Knights cheer video, Benny has become a national celebrity of sorts, with many major media appearances along with invites to appear between periods of numerous hockey games. He has entertained sellout crowds at two Golden Knights games and this season is billed to appear at seven University Nevada at Las Vegas (UNLV) matches.
Add to that his social media accounts with Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, and TikTok. DelSangro estimates those along with national and local news accounts produced millions of views.
When it comes to fun and games, Benny’s compass points in many other fulfilling directions.
No. 1 on that front is Spectrum on Ice, a 501c3 Las Vegas nonprofit organization dedicated to promoting acceptance and providing opportunities on and off the ice for children and young adults with developmental disabilities to play hockey.
Benny skates and participates with these youths, some of whom have never touched a dog before. In the process, he plays Follow the Leader, performs tricks, and interacts with every child on the ice.
“He’s like a magnet for the kids, and creates an instant comfort zone,” says DelSangro. “As one mom told me with tears in her eyes, her son had never touched an animal but petted Benny on the ice, and with a smile on his face, followed him around. That put everything in perspective for me.”
But that’s not all. He does off-ice performances for Opportunity Village, a Las Vegas nonprofit for individuals with intellectual and developmental disabilities. These outings include more than 70 tricks, plus skateboarding and individual interaction.
“Benny has an incredible awareness of when to be hyped up and then revert to soft and gentle. He reads the situation and adapts, she emphasizes.
“He especially relates to children who may have to skate or learn differently like he does. “They know he doesn’t judge or care how they skate, just that he sees how excited and happy they are when he is with them,” she adds.
Engaging, with a puckish sense of humor, Benny loves to improvise, too. “He was out on the ice with some hockey players,” DelSangro smiles, “then glided over and stole one of their sticks. The youngster gave chase and was laughing all the time. Also, we had him skating up to a stick balanced on some cones that he was supposed to pick up. Instead he jumped over the stick. Of course, we incorporated that into his future performances.”
And just in case you’re wondering, Benny comes with credentials, too, namely American Kennel Club Canine Good Citizen and Canine Good Citizen Advanced certifications.
Team Benny is all about family. Husband Flory DelSangro attends all of the dog’s performances locally and nationwide. But make no mistake about it, Benny and Cheryl are Velcro mates. “He is totally attached to me,” she smiles. “He is my shadow and is always within an arm’s length of me. He likes everyone but is solely my dog.”
This Lab is true to that breed template, i.e. he’s a water dog – whether it’s skating on frozen water, dock diving or simply swimming, his favorite. Just to expand his horizons, this month he will give AKC Rally and agility a try, too.
And if that isn’t enough, consider this: the nimble Benny climbs trees and ladders, can push a wheelchair, do the Conga, skateboard, and is in the process of figuring out roller skates. Recently, he followed a roofer up the ladder onto the roof, but coming down was a different story.
“The sky’s the limit with him,” DelSangro smiles.