Mando, an 8-month-old English black Labrador retriever, knows "first paw" about what it's like to undergo a name change. Born "Buzz," Washington's new team dog made the switch after a process involving multiple stakeholders and has adjusted well so far.
"Puppies are motivated by all sorts of things -- food, cuddles, play. For Mando, it's treats," said Lindsay Snyder, K9s For Warriors' director of development. "We show him a treat, call him his new name, and suddenly he's a fast learner."
Mando, whose final name was chosen by Commanders players, will make his debut at the team's season opener on Sept. 11 against the Jacksonville Jaguars. But there's more to this black Lab than long, floppy ears and massive front paws. Upon completion of training at K9s For Warriors, he'll be paired with a veteran suffering with post-traumatic stress disorder, traumatic brain injury and/or military sexual trauma. Roughly 20 veterans die by suicide each day, and K9s For Warriors is looking to change that.
A majority of K9s For Warriors dogs come from high-kill rescue shelters, though a portion, such as Mando, are donated as puppies via breeders. When the Commanders learned about Mando during initial conversations with the organization, there was an almost immediate sense that he would be a great MVP (Most Valuable Pup) candidate.
"He looked like a linebacker. He was just this stout little chubby puppy," Snyder said. "Mando comes from a winning bloodline. So, when we talked about that, [Commanders Charitable Foundation members] were like, 'Oh my gosh, you know, it goes along with our history and what we're trying to get back to here at the Commanders. He'll fit right in!'"
That chubby little puppy is now 70 pounds and has made significant strides in his training -- with more than a few naps along the way.
"Think of your best day, and that's Mando's. He gets to go to the gym with his handler in the morning, and he's socialized during the day. He gets to come to the K9 For Warriors campus and have playdates. And then he naps as much as possible," Lindsay said. "His breed in general is just very mild tempered, so he wants to eat and sleep."
The 8-month-old English black Labrador retriever is in the midst of training to become a service dog through veterans service organization K9s for Warriors. (Photos by Emilee Fails, Kourtney Carroll, and Joseph Noyes/Washington Commanders)
Similar to the creation of a winning football team, identifying the right relationships is key for K9s For Warriors. Getting a sense of a dog's temperament in the phase Mando is in right now comes to be very important in the veteran matching process.
"We know that Mando won't go to someone who runs marathons, because that's not his temperament or his strength, but snuggling and loving you, definitely," Lindsay said.
Finding that right match for Mando involves an intensive process. Veterans from all around the country seek service dogs from K9s For Warriors. For many, this resource is a last hope for normalcy.
"The veteran application is 37 pages long, and that's because we want to learn everything about them — from their time of service to their mental health to what they want for their future," Lindsay said.
The evaluations, training time and all the hard work put in by K9s For Warriors team eventually results in one of the most rewarding and memorable parts of the journey. The final step of the matching process begins with what K9s For Warriors has dubbed "Dog Day." Shortly after arriving for their 21-day stay as part of the organization's residential program, veterans meet the dogs they've been paired with for the very first time.
"It's a really bittersweet moment, because this trainer has worked with this dog for many months, but they know their purpose and they get to see that dog go and do what it's been trained to do," Lindsay said. "This Warrior, who's been on a waiting list dealing with all kinds of things, finally sees that this is the first day of their new life. You see grown men fall to their knees and start crying, because it's something they never thought was possible."
Right now, Mando is staying with a volunteer puppy raiser, learning basic skills. At some point between 10-14 months of age, he'll return to K9s For Warriors to complete training before being paired with a veteran. The team's partnership, spearheaded by the Washington Commanders Charitable Foundation, will ensure that Mando's training expenses are covered, and that he'll go on to become a difference-making companion.
"Dogs like Mando will put an end to veteran suicide," Lindsay said. "Service dogs change lives forever."