Four months after being inducted as Handsome Dan XVIII, Walter is adjusting to life as Yale’s official mascot under the training of Assistant Athletic Director of Facilities, Operations and Events Kevin Discepolo ’09.
Walter is currently undergoing obedience training, which includes following Discepolo to meetings and sporting events. Though he may initially be a distraction in the Yale Athletic Department’s daily operations, Walter’s constant interactions with humans help the dog practice socialization, and eventually, he just “snore[s] under the table,” Discepolo said. The 5-month-old mascot made a surprise appearance on the court after the Yale women’s basketball team defeated Harvard last Friday.
“He’s probably a little more advanced than most puppies his age,” Discepolo said. “Well-mannered and well-behaved. I’m expecting he’ll hit that terrible teenager stage soon; that’s what I’ve been warned about.”
The search for a new mascot began after Handsome Dan XVII, Sherman, passed away over the summer. In November, Walter arrived on campus after Discepolo selected an experienced breeder with a healthy lineage of Olde English Bulldogges.
Rather than encouraging good behavior through treats, Discepolo wants to train Walter by establishing a sense of respect for the alpha. With what Discepolo called the “wonder leash,” a rope that gives the trainer increased control, he is teaching Walter that the leader of the pack decides when it is time to socialize in order to keep Walter from distractions. He is also training Walter to interact with large crowds by bringing him to games and practices.
In addition to one-on-one private lessons, Walter has attended a kennel in upstate Connecticut. During a two-week puppy training session, experts worked with Walter to desensitize him to touch and normalize his interactions with people. Later this spring, the puppy will attend a monthlong obedience school.
Handsome Dan’s presence immediately brings a renewed sense of excitement to sporting events.
Student-athletes interviewed said Walter’s surprise visit can bring “a whole new level of spirit” to practice. Bebe Thompson ’20, a member of the Ivy League champion Yale women’s swimming team, met the dog at a practice.
“He has become a special mascot in that students get to see him grow up and get to know him,” Thompson said. “His handler has made him really accessible and visible to us.”
Walter can be spotted trotting around Payne Whitney Gymnasium. Joanna Wu ’20, a coxswain for the men’s lightweight crew, said that on Monday, Discepolo accidentally let the dog loose and Walter ran into a rowing tank. Luckily, the pup did not sustain any serious injuries.
Arianna Lord ’20, a runner on the track and field team, met Handsome Dan twice: once at a study break for student-athletes and the other time at practice. She called the puppy a “celebrity” around campus. Indeed, the mascot has an active fan base on social media: The dog has amassed 8,500 followers on Instagram and 1,611 followers on Twitter.
However, students’ enthusiasm can sometimes be overwhelming for the young dog, Discepolo said. For example, at the athlete study break last fall, students continued to take photos with Walter even after he fell asleep, according to Lord.
But Discepolo said Walter’s endurance in social situations will increase with time. Loud noises and large hordes of people still scare the puppy, he added.
“The only close calls I’ve had where he has freaked out are when he’s overly exhausted, when he’s at his limits as far as it’s been a long day and he can’t deal with 50 people swarming him,” Discepolo said.
Discepolo encourages students and visitors to talk to him before they approach Handsome Dan. The high-pitched squeals of eager visitors tend to excite the puppy, but Walter is in the process of learning that he can only interact with people with the approval of his trainer.