TAMPA — Bolt takes Missy Davis and Sarah Costello on a Starbucks run. He has a little romp in the leaves and tries to eat a few things. Then Bolt takes a nap.
All normal things for a 17-week-old yellow Labrador. But Bolt isn’t a normal puppy.
Few puppies have two-hour photo shoots to generate a video for his 3,000 Twitter followers. It’s all part of a day in the life of a team dog.
It’s not all fun and photo opportunities, though.
Bolt is the Lightning’s newest ambassador, and more important, he’s in training to be a service dog with Southeastern Guide Dogs in Palmetto. His training is more thorough and regimented than your average pup’s.
Why did the Lightning get a dog?
The Lightning have worked with Southeastern Guide Dogs in the past and made donations on behalf of their Community Heroes program.
“We’re always looking for ways to deepen our relationships with nonprofits other than financially,” said Elizabeth Frazier, the Lightning’s senior vice president of philanthropy and community initiatives. “And this seemed like a natural way to do it.”
The idea of a team dog started with Costello, manager of the Lightning Foundation and community events. She wondered about the Lightning raising a service dog after working with Southeastern Guide Dogs on its Tampa walkathon in April.
Costello, who has a dog named Benjamin due to a well-timed Ben Bishop shutout, looked into other NHL organizations with team dogs.
The Blues’ Barclay was the most public. Six teams raise guide dogs , and the Predators have an office rescue dog.
Costello made the pitch to Frazier, who has three dogs. The two took the idea to Lightning CEO Steve Griggs, who has sponsored dogs at Southeastern Guide Dogs and owns a dog that was raised through the program but needed a “career change.”
“It was a very short conversation,” Frazier said.
The question was who would be the “puppy raiser,” as Southeastern Guide Dogs calls it. Davis, senior manager of the Lightning Foundation and finance, volunteered. She has had dogs in the past but hadn’t had any in awhile.
She said the application process was like going through the FBI, but in the end, Bolt moved in.
What goes into raising Bolt?
First there’s service-dog-specific training. Bolt learned to sit on command before and after going through a door, for example. Davis had never crated a dog, but Bolt must sleep in his crate until he is permanently matched with someone who needs him.
Because no one knows what Bolt’s career will bring until he matures more and the trainers at Southeastern Guide Dogs can get a sense of his strengths, he’s prepared for anything.
Being a team dog also raises challenges. Bolt spends a lot more time around people than the average dog, so much so that sometimes Davis and “office co-parent” Costello hang a “puppy sleeping” sign on their door to get work done.
Increased socialization is good for a service dog. But Bolt has more one-on-one meetings than is the norm with Carrie Barnett, Southeastern Guide Dogs’ regional manager for puppy raising services, and Loretta Holtkamp, the organization’s area coordinator.
Barnett and Holtkamp walk around Amalie Arena to get Bolt ready for opening night Oct. 3. He rides the elevator and gets used to the arena’s big bank of windows (though like many puppies, he barks at his reflection). Barnett would like to expose Bolt to the goal horn and the pregame Tesla coil lightning strike before the season starts.
Barnett consults with a friend and former co-worker from a different service dog school who has worked with Wrangler, who was featured on the Today show as a “puppy with a purpose,” and Ranger, the New York Rangers’ dog. They talk about things to expect and the value of Bolt and Davis building a relationship before the season starts.
What’s next for Bolt?
The Lightning are still figuring out exactly what Bolt’s role as ambassador will be. It will definitely include videos and photos on Twitter and Instagram. The Lightning are aiming for a post a day on one platform or the other. Costello, who takes some of the photos, jokes that she can add “Bolt brand manager” to her title.
Bolt will be at games, but he might start out in some of the suites before joining the main crowd.
Davis works sales for the 50/50 drawing at games, so Bolt might join that team. He’ll visit the community corner in Section 123. He might get on the ice at intermission at some point.
Bolt will live with Davis and the Lightning for 12 to 14 months. Davis will continue training him in basic obedience, socialization, housebreaking (he learned that one quickly) and house manners.
After that, Bolt will go back to Southeastern Guide Dogs’ 30-plus-acre property for six months of school with professional service dog trainers. Once he is matched with a person, he and his person will do another month of training together.
In all, Southeastern Guide Dogs graduates about 150 dogs a year for the visually impaired and veterans with post-traumatic stress disorder at no cost to them.
For now, Bolt is enjoying puppy life.
Soft snores come from under Davis’ desk as she talks.
He’s a good boy.