These past few months have been a bit of an emotional rollercoaster for Atlanta United fans. First, there were the roster changes, with the team trading, transferring, and letting go a number of fan favorites—Darlington Nagbe, Justin Meram, Tito Villalba, Leandro González Pírez, Florentin Pogba, and Julian Gressel. Despite the losses, the team had a strong showing in the first leg of the CONCACAF Champions League tournament, beating Hondouran club Motagua 3-0 at home and advancing to the next leg against Club América. Then came last week’s season opener in Nashville: While the team won 2-1, star striker Josef Martínez suffered a torn ACL in the game’s second half and is likely out for the rest of the season.
But there is one thing keeping spirits elevated through these tough times—a spunky yellow Labrador retriever puppy named Spike, who radiates cute.
Spike his own custom kits and sports an Atlanta United–branded collar with a soccer ball charm hanging near his ID tag. He donned a tiny suit for the Oscars and heart-shaped antenna for Valentine’s Day. This past week, his official Instagram and Twitter accounts were filled with photos of him cruising around the stadium in his own toy Mercedes-Benz SUV, complete with custom SPIKE plate. And he talks to his fans on social media, signing his all-lowercase messages with paw print and heart emojis.
But for all the adorable social media fodder, Spike has a higher calling. He’s training to become a service dog through America’s VetDogs, a New York–based nonprofit that places dogs with disabled veterans and first responders. Atlanta United partnered with the nonprofit to bring Spike to Atlanta for his puppy training, which will last for a little over a year. Then, Spike will return to New York to complete his training and find a home with someone in need. While America’s VetDogs has teamed up with other organizations in the past for puppy co-raising, including the Washington Capitals hockey team, Spike is the first MLS service dog-in-training.
When I met Spike and his handler, Lyndsee Hewston, before a service dog training class at Atlanta United’s Marietta training facility, Spike, then 13 weeks old, wiggled near our feet, alternating chewing on a blue rubber toy and mouthing his leash.
“Basic obedience is huge, even just staying calm while we’re sitting here,” Hewston says. “If he’s playing and keeping himself occupied, he’s at least not running around. If I were the veteran with disabilities, I’d want him right at my side, so we’re slowly training him to do that.”
She calls the basic commands “puppy push-ups” (sit, stay, lay down)—all of which Spike happily performs for a treat. Like many labs, Hewston notes, Spike is extremely food-motivated. He’s also rewarded with his marker word, “nice,” which Hewston will say to him (along with a piece of kibble) when he presents a good behavior, such as sitting calmly in public. Spike is also learning to get comfortable placing his head in and out of his vest, which signals to Spike and others around him that he is on the job as a working service dog.
During the class—led by the Guide Dog Foundation, another nonprofit that Hewston works with—Spike and the other dogs took turns walking over various surfaces, such as a metal air vent near the facility’s entrance. They also worked on climbing the stairs by their partner’s side. Spike, who lives with Hewston in Alpharetta, was used to climbing the stairs at home. His littermate Nancy, who is also being raised as a service dog in metro Atlanta, clung anxiously to the steps. Training the puppies in a wide variety of environments helps them to be comfortable in any situation.
That’s why the class was held at the training facility, where the dogs had to stay focused on their tasks as various Atlanta United 2 players filtered in and out, many stopping to get a quick hug with Spike. As a puppy, he is allowed a lot more flexibility. Hewston encourages people to pet and play with him for socialization. As he matures, he’ll be trained to ignore people while in his vest.
At one point, Spike sat still by Hewston’s side as a trainer bounced a soccer ball loudly near him, approaching closer and closer. As Hewston continuously fed him treats, Spike stayed put—a feat for him, certainly, as Hewston stressed how much the pup loves playing with soccer balls. Hewston, who has been Spike’s fulltime handler since January 6, describes him as a confident dog who isn’t afraid of anything. “He’s been super easy to train, too, because he’s very smart,” she says. He’s extremely playful (his favorite toys include Kongs, soccer balls, and Nylabones), but at home, he’s also a “little snuggler,” she says.
After Spike’s time with Hewston ends, he’ll return to New York, where he’ll be matched with a veteran or first responder and will receive more specialized training. One of the “most necessary” tasks, Hewston says, is night terror interruption, in which Spike would pull the blankets off a sleeping person to wake them from a night terror. He might also learn to pick up a phone, keys, his leash, or other items his handler would need. As Spike is a high-energy dog, Hewston says he’ll likely be matched with someone who leads a very active lifestyle, and America’s VetDogs hopes to place him with someone based in Atlanta.
But for now, Spike will continue being a ray of sunshine for Atlanta United fans. The team hosted a meet-and-greet with him on Monday at the Atlantic Station team store, letting fans pose for photos and get in plenty of hugs with the pup. Spike will also be at Saturday’s home opener game, so keep your eyes open for his wagging golden tail.