Puppy Bowl: Always adorable, now inspiring

NEW YORK — Lucky's first gridiron game is off to a ruff start.

The wiry three-legged pooch hit the field for Animal Planet's 13th annual Puppy Bowl (Feb. 5, 2 p.m. ET/PT), taped in a cavernous Midtown studio in early October. After scampering past the 50-yard line and sniffing out the competition, Lucky huddles in the end zone away from her fellow canines, which include special-needs dogs Doobert, who's deaf, and Winston, a sight- and hearing-impaired pup.

Repeated attempts to lure her away from the goal post with toys and treats are futile, and a handler eventually removes her from the scaled-down arena. But six-time referee Dan Schachner applauds the 15-week-old mixed breed, who was found on the side of the road with her brother, Ricky, and had her right front leg amputated after it was slammed in a crate door.

"Lucky has probably a little more fear and anxiety than the other dogs, so being in that group was daunting," Schachner says. Once they put Ricky on the field with her, it "gave her a little more confidence, and she was able to run around with more pep in her step. We would've liked to have seen a little more action — maybe (for her to) score touchdowns or get involved in some plays — but just the fact that Lucky was on the field was a success."

Lucky, later adopted from an animal rescue in Christiana, Tenn., is one of 78 puppies "competing" in this year's Puppy Bowl XIII, representing 34 rescue organizations and 22 states. This year's game features the biggest representation of disabled dogs ever, brought to New York and (ideally) adopted, along with the other Puppy Bowl players, before the special's February airing.

Special-needs pups like Lucky generally have no trouble finding forever homes. "Honestly, they're just like any other dogs — they just have certain aspects of them that are special," says Tiffany Gaylon, founder of Operation Education Animal Rescue and Lucky's caretaker for the day.

Tom and Dianne Ireton of Goochland, Va.,adopted Doobert from Green Dogs Unleashed in Troy, Va., and accompanied him to this year's Bowl. Because he is completely deaf, they are in the process of training him to understand hand signals around the house and on the turf.

"He's very visually focused, always looking to us and the other dogs for cues," Dianne says. "We just want to give him the best opportunities that we can give him, because he deserves it, too. Other than not hearing, everything else is normal."

Winston, a fluffy white double-merle Australian Shepherd, hails from the Double J Dog Ranch in Hauser Lake, Idaho, a sanctuary for special-needs dogs. He requires special monitoring by handlers during the taping, due to his visual and hearing impairment, but is still expected to be a major force in his first football game.

"We think he’s going to hit the field hard, take a nap right in the middle, and perhaps get tumbled over a few times by the bigger pups," says Cristene Justus, Double J's founder. Despite his disability, "he gets around very well with his nose, so he will smell the toys. We’re hopeful that he’s going to engage and score many touchdowns."


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