UVA Returns to the Puppy Bowl With Special Needs Dog Stryker

February 8, 2024 By Jane Kelly, jak4g@virginia.edu Jane Kelly, jak4g@virginia.edu

By now, most people know the San Francisco 49ers and the Kansas City Chiefs will face off Sunday in Super Bowl LVIII at Allegiant Stadium in Las Vegas.

Kickoff is at 6:30 p.m. ET.

A much more adorable event starts at 2 p.m. the same day. That’s when Animal Planet’s 20th annual Puppy Bowl will be broadcast.

The three-hour extravaganza will feature 131 puppies from 73 dog shelters and rescue organizations across 36 states. The adorable dogs will cycle on and off the field representing either Team Ruff or Team Fluff. 

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The stakes couldn’t be higher. The winning pack will take home the coveted “Lombarky” trophy. All the dogs are up for adoption – in fact, some have already been claimed – and if past is prologue, each will find their “furever” home.

Last year, the game went into “rovertime,” with Team Fluff winning the day 87-83. If a “compawtetor” takes a toy into the other team’s end zone, she scores a touchdown.

This year’s Puppy Bowl features six special needs dogs. One, a deaf border collie mix named Stryker, has a University of Virginia link: He was fostered by head men’s soccer coach George Gelnovatch and his family.

Stryker will take the field for Team Ruff. Two years ago, Finn, a deaf Dalmatian owned by a UVA staff member, made his Puppy Bowl debut.

Enough With the Dog Puns 🐾 

Long before Stryker was called up to the big leagues, he was a wee, 3-month-old puppy who suffered from separation anxiety.

He was bred to be a working dog in Vermont, but when his owner realized the pup could not hear, he got in touch with Green Dogs Unleashed, a rescue facility in Troy, Virginia, that has a stellar reputation for rescuing animals in need and placing them in loving homes.

That’s when Gelnovatch’s family comes in. As dog lovers, they regularly foster dogs, including Champ, whose socialization skills were bred on UVA’s soccer and lacrosse practice fields.

Getting Back to Stryker

Poster of Stryker

Tune in to Puppy Bowl XX to cheer on Stryker. (Animal Planet illustration)

“Stryker was used to living in the barn with his mom and dad and then all the other herding dogs and the sheep,” said Missi Sanders, Gelnovatch’s wife and a former UVA field hockey coach. “So, when he got here, he didn’t like to be by himself, so we had to work a lot on helping him get through his separation anxiety.”

From August to early November, Sanders taught the pup hand signals and helped socialize Stryker on the streets of Gordonsville, so he could get used to seeing people. 

“He had seen cars and trucks on a farm, but he had never been on a busy street where 20 cars went by at a higher rate of speed,” she said. “So, I spent a lot of time taking him places and just letting him watch the world go by.”

10 Years With the Puppy Bowl

Green Dogs Unleashed has had a relationship with the Puppy Bowl for 10 years.

In that time, Erika Proctor, the executive director and animal behavior specialist, estimates the organization has sent “between 30 and 40” puppies to the to the big event, which is taped in October.

“It’s been an absolutely amazing experience because they highlight our special needs animals nationally,” Proctor said. “It really brings light to the public that deaf and blind dogs can do everything that a typical dog can do. They’re no different.”



In fact, she said she’d take training a deaf dog over training a hearing dog “any day.”

“They typically are so much more attentive. They’re much more attuned to body language,” she said. “They learn hand signals and when you teach them at a very young age to check in, to make eye contact regularly, they’re way more interested in gaining that attention than focusing on the world around them.”

Once on the gridiron Sunday, Puppy Bowl veteran “rufferee” Dan Schachner will be on the lookout for penalties, including invasive sniffing, excessive drooling and illegal odor downfield. 

While some of the members of Team Ruff and Team Fluff are still up for adoption, Stryker has been placed in his “furever” home. A woman in Ohio in adopted him in November. His new mama “is really into all kinds of dog sports, especially disc dog competitions,” Sanders said. “He loves to just work and train and be busy. She’s doing all kinds of stuff with him, and it’s exactly what he needed. He’s a purpose-bred dog. He needed a job. Now he’s got one. He’s got a great life.”

Media Contact

Jane Kelly

University News Senior Associate Office of University Communications