Champ, ‘Elite’ Puppy-In Training at UVA Athletics, Is the Ultimate Mood Lifter

September 6, 2022 By Jane Kelly, Jane Kelly,

One recent morning, the University of Virginia’s athletics precinct was hopping. Members of the men’s lacrosse and soccer teams were arriving for practices on adjacent fields when a four-legged golden retriever mix puppy named Champ stopped several players in their tracks.

“Puppies make you happy,” said Holden Brown, a third-year soccer player from Zionsville, Indiana, who made a beeline for Champ the second he spotted him. “Even on a bad day, they make you smile,” he said … smiling.

Champ's trainer Missi Sanders walks him across the field
Missi Sanders and Champ visited a men’s soccer practice recently.

Brown and several other student-athletes stopped for a quick cuddle session with Champ, who is training to become a service dog, just like his mother and father. Champ’s handler is Missi Sanders, a former UVA field hockey coach who was named the National Field Hockey Coaches Association’s and ACC Coach of the Year in 1997.

She is also a dog lover. Champ is the 10th puppy she has trained, but the first to enjoy an official association with UVA Athletics. Sanders said she and Ellen Cook, the director of student development in the athletics department, agreed that training Champ around the athletes was a win-win.

Three soccer players lean down to pet Champ, who is sniffing their feet.
Athletes often need some doggy therapy. Champ is happy to oblige.

“She and I kind of brainstormed some ideas of having him at practices, having him over at academic support during study hall time. You know, if teams want us to come by, we were going to go,” she said. “We’re here for whatever they need.”

Sanders’ husband is George Gelnovatch, Virginia’s head men’s soccer coach.

George and I have been talking about it for a long time, that it’d be great to get a service dog here,” she said, “because not only is it great for socialization, for the puppy and for the service dogs, but it’s great for student-athletes, too. We have athletes that are in a great academic institution, but they’re also at a great athletic institution. With that comes a lot of stress and anxiety. And, you know, what a great place to have a service dog training and being here for the student-athletes as well.”

Champ will be with Missi for about a year before he goes on to advanced training.

“My job as a puppy raiser is to socialize and teach basic cues, like ‘sit,’ ‘down,’ and ‘stay,’” she said.

That socialization aspect is why people are allowed to pet and play with Champ right now, while he is a puppy. Once he is placed in a home, be it to help with someone with post-traumatic stress disorder or autism, Champ will have a full-time job and uninvited pats on the head are discouraged.

“As Missi said, each dog has their own personality, and this one seems to be pretty chill,” Gelnovatch said. “We’ve had some wild puppies in our house.”

Gelnovatch has found that training a service dog and training collegiate athletes share some commonalities.

“As a high-level coach, you can appreciate all the time that goes into the training and what is asked of these dogs,” he said. “It’s an elite level of training, and it’s a long process. The resources it takes to train these dogs to the level that they’ve got to get to is similar to training athletes over years and years and years. It’s an elite level.”

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Jane Kelly

University News Senior Associate Office of University Communications