Alexandria dog takes the field for Puppy Bowl XV

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Pirate, right, was so photogenic he was chosen to be featured in Animal Planet’s Puppy Bowl XV poster. (Photo Credit: Animal Planet)
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By Missy Schrott | mschrott@alextimes.com

Arrrr you ready for some football?

Local pup Pirate, an alumnus of the Animal Welfare League of Alexandria, is taking the field with Team Ruff this weekend in Puppy Bowl XV.

Pirate was chosen to be a member of Team Ruff in Puppy Bowl XV. (Photo Credit: Animal Planet)

Just hours before the Rams and the Patriots go head-to-head in the biggest football game of the year, Team Ruff and Team Fluff will go nose-to-nose in the cutest football game of the year.

Now celebrating its 15th anniversary, the Puppy Bowl has aired on Animal Planet the same day as the Super Bowl since 2005. During the show, puppies are divided into teams and unleashed on GEICO stadium, a playpen-turned-football-field. From there, cameras capture the puppies playing while announcers provide commentary on everything from touchdowns (when a puppy happens to drag a toy into an end zone) to penalties (including “pass inter-fur-ence” and “unnecessary ruffness.”)

Each year, the Puppy Bowl features adoptable puppies from shelters and rescues across the country, and since its inception, 100 percent of the animals who have participated in the event have been adopted, according to Animal Planet’s website. Because Animal Planet films the Puppy Bowl footage months in advance, many of the show’s stars have already been adopted by the time it airs on Super Bowl Sunday.

Such was the case for Pirate, the AWLA representative who was adopted just days after filming the Puppy Bowl in October.

Pirate at the Animal Welfare League of Alexandria. (Photo Credit: Shelley Castle Photography)

Before Pirate was Pirate, he was Nougat, a mixed-breed puppy who came to Alexandria from one of AWLA’s partner shelters at only one month old. Because AWLA has such a quick turnaround – they care for more than 2,000 animals per year – the shelter takes in dogs and cats from other rescues whose animals aren’t adopted as quickly.

When he came to AWLA, Pirate couldn’t go up for adoption since he was too young to be neutered. It was while he was living with a foster family that he was recruited by Animal Planet for the Puppy Bowl.

The casting coordinator for the Puppy Bowl had heard about Canine Cruises, Potomac Riverboat Company’s dog-friendly sightseeing tours, and was interested in featuring the cruises and an Alexandria dog in Puppy Bowl XV, according to an Animal Planet spokesperson. The casting coordinator contacted Potomac Riverboat Company, which contacted the shelter.

“The Puppy Bowl people were very interested in learning a little bit more about some of the animal-friendly activities that there are here in Alexandria, and canine cruises is of course a very big one and something that you don’t see everywhere,” Gina Hardter, senior manager of public relations for AWLA, said.

Pirate had a photo shoot with the Animal Welfare League of Alexandria in the weeks leading up to the Puppy Bowl. (Photo Credit: Shelley Castle Photography)

When Hardter learned Animal Planet was looking for puppies around Pirate’s age for the Puppy Bowl, she said AWLA decided to submit him as a competitor.

“We just thought that Pirate was very adorable,” Hardter said. “We didn’t know what breed he was, so we thought he was a little bit mysterious, and we just thought he had the winning personality and energy to do really well in the Puppy Bowl, so we worked with Animal Planet and Canine Cruises, and he was our canine competitor.”

The 93 puppies that will be featured in Puppy Bowl XV were cast based on age, breed, size, cuteness, activeness and playfulness, according to the Animal Planet spokesperson. Of the 93 puppies, 36 made the starting lineup, including Pirate.

Pirate’s celebrity treatment began with a video shoot aboard one of Potomac Riverboat Company’s September Canine Cruises. The footage will most likely make an appearance during Puppy Bowl programming, Hardter said.

Pirate at a Puppy Bowl photo shoot. (Photo Credit: Animal Planet)

A month later, Hardter accompanied Pirate to filming for the show itself in New York City on Oct. 15 and 16.

“At that point, he must have been about three, three-and-a-half months old, still definitely young for a puppy,” Hardter said. “But he was remarkably well-behaved, and he was glad to be trying something new.”

Hardter said the first day of filming was filled with photo shoots, meet and greets with the hosts and playtime with other puppies. The Puppy Bowl game was filmed on the second day.

“They had a lot of different pens where dogs could go in together and play, and he spent the entire time just running around and playing with as many different dogs as he could,” Hardter said. “Then we spent some time doing photo shoots. He was a little boisterous for those. I don’t think that he really understood that it would be better for us to take photos if he stood in place, but we got some really good photos.”

Despite his restlessness, one of the photos landed Pirate on Animal Planet’s main icon image for Puppy Bowl XV.

Cindy Han, Pirate’s new owner, renamed him MinGuk in honor of her and her sister’s Korean names, which both begin with “Min.” (Photo Credit: Missy Schrott)

Animal Planet staff also did a DNA test on Pirate and learned that he has bits of English springer spaniel, McNab, chow chow, American Staffordshire terrier and boxer.

When he came back to Alexandria after filming the Puppy Bowl, Pirate was old enough for his neuter surgery, Hardter said. Days later, Cindy Han, a student at Northern Virginia Community College, found him on an adoption website.

“I actually got to school early that day, so I was in my car waiting,” Han said. “I’ve been looking for a puppy, so I was on petfinder.com and I saw his picture and I saw where he was and it was like seven minutes from our campus, so I was like, ‘I have to go see him.’ So I went to go see him and I just had the feeling that this was it, like I really needed to get him that day.”

Han adopted Pirate on Oct. 18 and renamed him MinGuk in honor of her and her sister’s Korean names. She said, at the time, she didn’t know what the Puppy Bowl was, let alone the fact that her new puppy had just starred in it.

“I met with the owner when she had already decided that she wanted to adopt him,” Hardter said. “She didn’t know at first that he was a Puppy Bowl contestant – we didn’t want people to get him just because of his Puppy Bowl experience – but she saw him and thought that he was very cute. … He was very happy, she was very happy and we knew that he was going to a good home.”

Pirate plays in the snow outside of Cindy Han’s home in Centreville, Virginia. Han said he’s been enjoying the wintry weather. (Courtesy Photo)

Han said she had been looking to adopt a puppy as an emotional support animal. Shortly after she adopted Pirate, she was able to get him ESA-certified.

“Before I adopted him, I did have some depression and anxiety issues due to school,” Han said. “After getting him, my anxiety got really better. … Now, I think he knows when I’m upset or something. When I come home and I feel a little upset or I feel down, I think he knows, and he’ll come up to me. Those moments, I’m just glad that I have him.”

Han said Pirate has adjusted well to his new home. She said he’s begun to learn tricks and commands in both English and Korean, and that he enjoys fetch, playing in the snow and sleeping belly-up.

“It’s either he’s playing hardcore or he’s asleep. There’s no in between,” Han said.

Like the rest of America, Han won’t know how Pirate did in the Puppy Bowl until Sunday.

(Photo Credit: Missy Schrott)

“I don’t know anything yet,” Han said. “I will be finding out when it airs, too. I’ve seen some backstage pictures that other people have posted but that’s the only ones I know. It’ll be interesting that we’ll be watching it together. … Whenever I play the trailers and things like that, he seems to notice it, like he just looks over, so I’m wondering if he’ll notice himself being [on TV].”

Leading up to the big event on Sunday, Animal Planet will have a day full of pre-game coverage and a special Dog Bowl for older canines who are also up for adoption. The Puppy Bowl itself premieres at 3 p.m. Tune in to support Pirate.

“I’m not going to spoil anything about how he did, but I think he’s definitely going to be one of their all-stars,” Hardter said. “We were very proud of his performance on the field.”

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