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Mando, the Commanders’ team dog, is training for a bigger job

The Washington Post logo The Washington Post 11/24/2022 Nicki Jhabvala
Mando, a Labrador retriever puppy and the Commanders' team dog, is part of K9s For Warriors, which pairs military veterans with trained service dogs. © Amanda Andrade-Rhoades/For The Washington Post Mando, a Labrador retriever puppy and the Commanders' team dog, is part of K9s For Warriors, which pairs military veterans with trained service dogs.

One of the Washington Commanders’ most notable free agent signings this year is a 10-month-old out of Folkston, Ga., whose stocky frame and big mitts have scouts drooling. He stands about 2 feet tall, weighs more than 80 pounds and has a demeanor coaches covet: never too high, never too low, just easy.

Unless the game plan includes treats.

Mando, the black English Labrador retriever puppy the Commanders adopted as their team dog in the summer, was an instant fan favorite when he was introduced in September. He wears his No. 00 jersey while waddling through the stadium corridors amid gawking fans. He has a full-page bio in the team’s media guide, his furry face has become appointment viewing for early-arriving fans, and when cameras zoom in on his wagging tongue, the crowd stands and cheers. Even to players, he’s somewhat of a celebrity.

“Every home game, I try to take a picture with him,” quarterback Taylor Heinicke said. “It’s been a good-luck charm so far. He’s awesome.”

Yet there’s much more to those pensive eyes and big paws.

Mando is a pup in training with K9s For Warriors, a Florida-based organization that rescues dogs mostly from high-kill shelters and pairs them with retired military members suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder, traumatic brain injuries or military sexual trauma. The organization says its mission is to “save two lives, a veteran and a shelter dog” by reducing the chances of veteran suicide and sparing pups from euthanasia. (Some of the dogs, such as Mando, are donated by breeders.)

The Commanders, led by co-owner Tanya Snyder, initiated conversations with the organization in the summer, in hopes of unofficially adopting a pup like the Jacksonville Jaguars had. (They have a K9s For Warriors puppy named “Maurice Bones-Drew,” or Mojo.) Washington was paired with Mando, who lives with a volunteer “puppy raiser” in Ponte Vedra Beach, Fla., and flies to the D.C. area for select home games at FedEx Field.

The Washington Commanders Charitable Foundation covers the cost of Mando’s training.

“I think it’s cool — I really do,” Coach Ron Rivera said. “Doing what we’re doing makes sense. We’re training a dog and going to give it to a vet at the end of his training.”

K9s For Warriors says that since it launched in 2011, it has rescued roughly 2,000 dogs and provided more than 800 service members with canine companions trained to fit their needs, free of cost. Through the program, pups begin their training with foster owners who take them in until they’re about 10 to 14 months old and ready to begin a rigorous live-in training program at one of the K9s For Warriors campuses.

That training lasts six to eight months and includes basic commands and more complicated tasks. Many retired service members experience hypervigilance, in which they’re constantly trying to assess potential threats, typically because of trauma; the dogs ease that anxiety by watching their backs. Others feel anxiety in crowds; the dogs can sense that and make space by circling them so others move away.

The dogs are also trained to “lap,” in which they place their front legs over their owners’ thighs to provide deep-compression therapy, and to “brace,” allowing their owners to use their shoulders and back legs to help them stand up.

Football isn’t Jeff Zgonina’s only passion. He’s also partial to dog shows.

“I’ve had so many warriors tell me that before they even have a panic attack, the dog will start to kind of love on them — put their paw on them, snuggle them — and they’re like, ‘Okay, I’m not sure why you’re doing this,’ ” K9s For Warriors CEO Carl Cricco said. “And then, all of a sudden, they’ll feel that panic attack coming. So the dog is really keyed in. It’s a battle buddy, really, to get these folks through the day.”

About half of the dogs make it through the program and are paired with service members who spend three weeks on a K9s For Warriors campus to bond with them. The dogs that don’t pass are put up for adoption.

For some veterans, finding a dog with an energy level and a skill set that align with their needs can be difficult. That was the case for David Crenshaw, a retired master sergeant with the Army National Guard who served 20 years, including roughly 14 months deployed in Iraq. He also taught at a military training facility in New Jersey and was previously a police officer and a firefighter.

“I have what’s called complex PTSD,” Crenshaw said. “… Oftentimes you feel like you’re an island by yourself; no one will understand you, and ultimately you can end up losing your job. It leaves you in a place of vulnerability and loss of control.”

Crenshaw tried the traditional modalities prescribed to him, including therapy and medication, but none were “wholesome enough,” he said. He had friends who had donated dogs to K9s For Warriors, and eventually he inquired about the program.

“I went into K9s For Warriors on hope and faith,” said Crenshaw, who is now an ambassador for the program. “I was hoping it was going to work, and I had to have faith … that they were going to deliver what they were advertising.”

When Crenshaw arrived at the organization’s Florida headquarters nearly three years ago, a four-legged creature eyed him from afar and immediately eased his worry about the process.

“I’m still trying to be this tough guy, still trying to put up this hard exterior,” Crenshaw recalled. “And then finally I sit down, and he just jumps in my lap, and he’s licking and kissing me and loving all over me. That was probably the first time in a long time that I had true, proper emotion to a situation. And that’s when I realized we’re going to be on a good journey.”

David Crenshaw sits with his companion, Doc, soon after they were paired through K9s For Warriors in 2019. © Courtesy of David Crenshaw/Courtesy of David Crenshaw David Crenshaw sits with his companion, Doc, soon after they were paired through K9s For Warriors in 2019.

Doc is a rescued Labrador retriever-German shorthaired pointer mix who was paired with Crenshaw in 2019 and is Crenshaw’s protector, companion and perhaps the only friend who could have saved his life.

In September, just days before the NFL season opened, Crenshaw and Doc, as well as other former service members with dogs from K9s For Warriors, attended a practice at the Commanders’ training facility.

Ron Rivera shields his team from chaos. He got that trait from his mother.

As the team wrapped up its workout and sauntered off the field, players and coaches stopped to meet the pups, offering ear scratches and affectionate stares. Such is the routine before most home games.

Mando sits with his tongue hanging out, basking in the attention before he sets off for his biggest job yet: companion to a veteran in need.

“He’s so jolly,” left tackle Charles Leno Jr. said. “He’s just a happy dog. I’ve never seen a happier dog.”


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