UVA Pup, a Deaf Dalmatian, Makes His Puppy Bowl Debut Sunday

February 10, 2022 By Jane Kelly, jak4g@virginia.edu Jane Kelly, jak4g@virginia.edu

On Sunday evening, the Los Angeles Rams will face off against the Cincinnati Bengals in Super Bowl LVI. But the real action starts at 2 p.m., when an adorable, hearing impaired dog whose stage name is “Pongo” takes to the field in Puppy Bowl XVIII.

Named for the male protagonist in Disney’s 1961 classic “101 Dalmatians,” Pongo (whose real name is Finn) will compete on Team Ruff, which is being coached by lifestyle superstar Martha Stewart.

Viewers can tune in to the annual Animal Planet favorite for three hours of precious puppy play (and the occasional pup nap). The fur babies will trot and play on the mini football field in Geico Puppy Bowl Stadium, all for the glory of taking home the “Lombarky” trophy. Through the magic of videotape, famous rapper Snoop Dogg, who is coaching the opposing Team Fluff, will join Stewart as the “Puppy Bowl” co-host before he heads to Inglewood, California, to perform in the Super Bowl’s halftime show. Busy day for him.

At this point, you may be wondering why UVA Today is writing about the Puppy Bowl, and it’s a decent question. The simple answer is that Finn/Pongo was adopted by Frankie Szynskie, the event coordinator at the University of Virginia’s Morven Farm property, where he has quickly become a friendly presence.

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There is so much more to the story. Szynskie and her fiancé Ian Brummel, a Ph.D. candidate in UVA’s School of Engineering, adopted Finn in October from Green Dogs Unleashed, which specializes in dogs with special needs.

When she adopted him, she was told he’d recently gone on a “secret mission.” It turns out that mission was a surreptitious visit to New York for the filming of Puppy Bowl XVIII. Green Dogs Unleashed has a standing relationship with the show’s producers and has sent dogs to participate in previous games. So one week this fall, Finn was flown to New York for two 10-hour days of filming.

A Green Dogs Unleashed staffer who was on site for the visit told Szynskie the set was unusually quiet ­– except for some barking of course – because only the “ruff-eree” was allowed to speak.

His trip to New York wasn’t the first time Finn flew the friendly skies. He was born to a breeder in Alaska; when it was discovered that Finn could not hear, the breeder had him flown to Virginia, because Green Dogs Unleashed has such a sterling reputation for responsibly homing special needs dogs.

Finn laying down while owner is occupying her attention with her hand
Finn/Pongo is very food motivated. The trait comes in handy when you’re trying to train a deaf dog. Szynskie has sewn several UVA-themed doggie bowties for a fundraiser.

Szynskie can attest to that. When she sought to adopt Finn, the organization did a deep background check, calling all of her references and her vet to be sure her other dog, Mosi, was up-to-date on his shots. “It was like an applying-to-UVA-type process, but worth it in the end,” she said.

When you adopt from Green Dogs Unleashed, you must agree to train your dog to be a therapy animal to give back to the community. “We have to take a certain amount of classes, and we do them through Green Dogs,” Szynskie said. “He’s done a basic obedience class at this point – which he’s really amazing at already because the woman who was fostering him, she’s like the dalmatian queen. She has two deaf dalmatians of her own, so she had trained him a lot before we even got him.”

Having a deaf dog does pose some challenges. “The leash walking is a little difficult,” Szynskie said. “I feel like I have to hold a treat in front of his nose the whole time. But I think once he gets a little older, that’ll solve itself.”

Then there is the potential of a mad dash to chase a squirrel. “If he would get out and start running away, we would just have to chase after him because he wouldn’t be able to hear us,” Szynskie said.

Finn's dog tag that reads Finn (Hi, I'm Deaf)
Finn/Pongo wears a special tag letting people know about his condition.

All things told, Finn has been a wonderful addition to her family – and to Morven, too. He is making a name for himself by attending some Morven events, where students are happy to give him a scratch on the head. “He’s turned into our little Morven mascot,” Szynskie said.

Finn’s “Puppy Bowl” star turn has also lent him some cachet. As a fundraiser, Green Dogs Unleashed is selling Puppy Bowl 2022 T-shirts with Finn’s game photo, so there is a chance Szynskie could see her dog’s likeness on someone’s shirt one day when the pair is out for a walk. He was even featured in People magazine.

“Yeah, part of me feels like I’m not even worthy enough to be in his presence half the time, and then he scratches his ear for 20 seconds,” she said. “And I’m like, ‘OK, you are just a dog, right? You’re not a god.’”

Media Contact

Jane Kelly

University News Senior Associate Office of University Communications