Central Virginia rescue pups head to Puppy Bowl XX

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On Sunday, puppy fans will be celebrating 20 years of the big game before the Big Game.

“Puppy Bowl XX,” a Super Bowl Sunday staple, can be seen starting at 2 p.m. Sunday on Animal Planet, Discovery Channel, TBS, TruTV, MAX and Discovery+. Central Virginia viewers can root for eight local pups from Green Dogs Unleashed in Troy and another pooch from Southside SPCA in Meherrin.

Green Dogs Unleashed sent Fox, Levi, Ollie, Moosh, Xinia, Stryker, Cosmo and Zeke; Flea Flicker, cleverly named after a football trick play, will represent Southside SPCA. Both Team Ruff, in the orange kerchiefs, and Team Fluff, in blue neckwear, will include hometown hounds.

Levi, a Great Dane puppy who weighed in at 72 pounds, is officially the biggest Puppy Bowl competitor to date. Moosh, Xinia and Stryker are deaf, and on Sunday, they’ll be upholding a tradition of Green Dogs Unleashed participants demonstrating to a national audience that special-needs dogs can make loyal, loving family pets.

“This is a big milestone for us: This is our 10th consecutive year having puppies in Puppy Bowl,” Erika Proctor of Green Dogs Unleashed said.

One reason Green Dogs Unleashed has become a mainstay is its “Puppy Bowl boot camp,” which ensures that the furry athletes know what to expect, and that the pups who go will be interested in the festivities and happy to play. Puppies who aren’t interested in toys won’t be likely to carry them into the end zone to score points for the team, and others who are reluctant to run through the entrance tunnel to reach the playing field might be happier watching from home with their families.

“I don’t want it to be a negative experience for the puppies, so I’m very careful about whom we send,” Proctor said. “I’ll do an evaluation. Do they like toys? Do they recover quickly from being startled?

“We’re like puppy scouting. Who’s going to pick up that toy and go? Who’s going to go through the tunnel? It does take a very special kind of dog.”

Time and experience have taught plenty of lessons over the past decade of competition. For one thing, puppies can cruise only so far on good looks.

“When we first started, we’d send videos of everybody,” Proctor said. “Over the years, we’ve learned that it takes a certain personality to get on the playing field. They have 130 puppies come, but not all get seen on TV.”

After all the training at home, taking the puppies to the Puppy Bowl taping is quite a production in itself. There’s plenty of driving, wrangling and snuggling involved over the course of five days in upstate New York.

“We had to rent a house. We rented an Airbnb so they’d have a yard,” Proctor said. “We had to send four volunteers.” During training breaks, the pups took rides in dog strollers.

Several puppies overcame significant challenges to reach the spotlight. Ollie, an Australian shepherd mix, originally came from a 114-dog hoarding environment with a case of rickets so severe he couldn’t walk. He grew so strong and agile that he isn’t considered a special-needs puppy.

Local fans are welcome to join Green Dogs Unleashed team members for a Puppy Bowl XX viewing party at 1 p.m. Sunday at Patch Brewing in Gordonsville. Alumni pups also will be there with their families.

“A bunch of the Puppy Bowl dogs will be there to sign pawtographs,” Proctor said.

Flea Flicker came from a litter of puppies that a farmer found in a box under a sink at a farm property with a reputation for being a dumping site for unwanted dogs and puppies, said Francee Schuma of Southside SPCA.

“We picked her purposely to be a good representative of a rural Virginia shelter dog,” Schuma said.

Flea Flicker, a miniature pinscher-Chihuahua mix, also made a good competitor because “she was just a confident, sure-of-herself girl,” Schuma said. “We knew she’d be a great representative. Was she the boldest? No, but she certainly held her own. She is a great ambassador.

“She is a true rescue, and that’s what we love to show people. You can overcome and make a great family pet.”

Southside SPCA, a no-kill shelter in Meherrin, serves 12 rural counties and places pets with families in the Charlottesville, Farmville and Lynchburg areas. It also operates Tail Waggers Thrift Store in Keysville to help raise money for the pets. Puppy Bowl XX may help the shelter get more attention.

“This is our first time, and we’re very grateful for the exposure,” Schuma said. When asked what viewers could do to help Southside SPCA care for 50 dogs and 40 to 60 cats waiting for loving homes at any given time, she sent out a call for fundraising teammates.

“Word of mouth is our greatest asset,” she said. “We would love more people involved in our fundraising efforts. That’s one way we can get our name out there. We’ve been around since 1975, and we’re one of the few [shelters] in our area.”

To learn more, go to southsidespca.org or call (434) 736-9595.

As the name implies, Puppy Bowl XX is celebrating its 20th year of cuddly competition to draw attention to the availability of appealing shelter pets across the country. There will be 131 puppies representing 73 rescues and shelters in 36 states and territories.

The U.S. Virgin Islands will be represented for the first time; keep an eye out for Maggie, a chow chow/American Staffordshire terrier mix. Large Levi is balanced by the event’s smallest-ever athlete, 1.7-pound Sweetpea. And, in keeping with tradition, all the competitors found happy homes.

Puppy Bowl referee Dan Schachner will be back for his 13th game, accompanied by Whistle, the event’s first-ever puppy assistant coach. The popular Kitty Halftime Show also returns with climbing feats, toy-tossing action and surreptitious snoozing.

Fans also will want to see if any local Puppy Bowl alumni will be selected as hall of fame honorees.…Read more by jane sathe, JANE DUNLAP SATHE The Daily Progress

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