In January 2020, Atlanta United fans were introduced to an adorable ball of fluff named Spike, a yellow Labrador Retriever puppy who would be raised here in Atlanta as a service dog-in-training with America’s VetDogs. Many fans were thrilled with the new partnership—just take one look at Spike in his little custom kit and try not to melt—and in March, the club set up a puppy meet-and-greet at the Atlantic Station team store and brought him on the pitch during the home opener against Cincinnati. These events benefited Spike as much as the fanbase—service puppies-in-training need lots of socialization and exposure to different environments. And the fan interaction would act as a signal boost for the mission of America’s VetDogs, which places its dogs with veterans, service members, and first responders all over the country.
Then, just after that March 7 match, a global pandemic stripped away audiences from MLS games for the rest of the year. Spike’s service dog training continued behind-the-scenes—his puppy raiser, Jana Haas, says the two worked on perfecting house manners as they spent more time at home, and Spike received much more outdoor training than a typical service puppy, helping him stay focused amid distractions like smells and squirrels. His Instagram account remained filled with well-wishes to fans and plenty of cute updates on his progress. But, like everything else in 2020, it just wasn’t quite the same.
But, hopefully, fans will be able to interact more with King, a Labrador Retriever puppy whose shiny black coat perfectly matches the team’s BLVCK kits. Officially introduced by the club on September 1 after a quick fan naming contest (the fans, like the players, voted for “King” among the other choices of Rowdy, Loco, and Vamos), King’s path is identical to Spike’s—he’ll live in metro Atlanta with his puppy raiser, Michelle Samuels, who during the next year and a half will lead him through everything from house training to walking on a leash to staying calm in chaotic environments. Then, just as Spike did in May, he’ll return to New York, where America’s VetDogs is based, for three to four months for his formal training. He’ll be matched with a veteran or first responder—hopefully someone in Atlanta—and learn the specific skills necessary to assist that person. It may be something like opening doors and fetching objects or waking a person with PTSD from night terrors. Each dog is custom trained for the person to whom they are matched.
“We wanted to do a lot more with Spike last year,” says Georgia O’Donoghue, Atlanta United’s Vice President of Business Operations. “The pandemic sort of dampened that. Because we didn’t have matchdays, we weren’t really able to get [Spike’s message] out there. We really want to support America’s VetDogs and their mission and help educate people on what that [mission] looks like, so this just gives us another opportunity to do so.”
Right now, King is a typical wiggly, cuddly, energetic 12-week-old puppy. During a Zoom interview last week with Samuels, King (then known as Cider, his “nursery name”), happily chewed on a variety of nylon bones and toys on the floor, stopping occasionally to gnaw on his leash or bed, burst into zoomies, or hide under Samuels’s desk.
“He is super, super, super sweet,” Samuels says. “He’s got such a great, fun little personality. He’s very playful, and when he plays he’s very pouncy. When he gets tired, he’s very snuggly and just wants to be right up against you. And if he gets suddenly tired or frustrated, he’s very dramatic and just flops down on the ground, like, Ugh, fine.”
He’s also, as Samuels describes, extremely smart and extremely food motivated. His first few weeks of training have included typical puppy skills—learning to go to the bathroom outside and becoming more comfortable in his crate—as well as things more unique to service dogs, such as learning to respond to his marker word, “yes,” which will serve as signal to King that he’s doing a good job. He’s not particularly into peanut butter, but he loves ice cubes. And he’s a curious pup; if a loud noise spooks him, he’ll get startled, but then investigate the source.
The road to becoming a service dog will be brand new to both King and Samuels—while she has raised three guide dog puppies in the past—including Spike’s littermate, Nancy—this will be her first time raising a service dog. This means a different puppy-raising curriculum to follow. “So an example, when we teach the guide dogs to sit, our goal is to tell them to ‘sit’ and they put their butt on the ground,” she explains. “But with the service dogs, ‘sit’ also implies a placement. You want them to come around to your right or your left [side], with their head even with your hips, and sit. It’s a much more complex cue.”
Just as with Spike, a big part of King’s training will involve learning to stay focused and comfortable in a variety of environments—including matchdays. The club hopes to have him make his debut during a September home game, where King can greet adoring fans and navigate a stadium of tens-of-thousands, and Atlanta United supporters can learn about the service dog program.
As for the original ATLUTD pup, Spike’s journey to becoming a PTSD service dog hit an unfortunate bump—in July, as he worked with his trainer in New York, the VetDogs team discovered a medical issue that, while not extremely serious, would require that Spike take daily medication. Because that type of care could be an obstacle for his future match, it meant Spike was no longer eligible to become a service dog. However, Spike’s story still ends happily—he will return to live with Haas, his puppy raiser, as a pet, and the club plans to keep him involved as “part of the family,” possibly having him make appearances at future matches.
During an interview in late June, Haas described Spike as “a very happy boy who takes his playtime as seriously as his training,” noting how he loved to run outside with her two pet dogs. Now, he’ll have plenty of time to do just that.