Willie, Giants' emotional support dog, a popular addition to camp


PHOENIX -- On the second day of minor league camp, three non-roster invitees came off the Triple-A field and craned their necks as they tried to spot the most popular addition of the Giants offseason. As they turned a corner and walked past the massive new weight room, they finally saw him.

"Oh, there he is," one of them said, pointing. 

"There he is!" his teammate yelled.

It was a scene not at all foreign to the first few days of camp, but the players were not looking for a blockbuster free-agent signing, new coach or Giants legend who had popped into town. Their focus was on a fluffy 40-pound Old English Sheepdog with a seemingly permanent smile on his face. His name, of course, is Willie. 

From the top-down, the Giants have in recent years tried to break new ground with their methods. Their advancements at the big league level are well-documented and their new facility in the shadow of Papago Park is as state of the art as it gets. But since Farhan Zaidi and Gabe Kapler took over, the organization has also put a huge emphasis on helping players with their mental health.

The wellness staff, led at the big league level by Shana Alexander, continues to grow, and this spring the Giants became the first MLB team to add an emotional support dog. The reasoning was simple.

"You just can't be upset when a dog is around," said Drew Robinson, a former player who joined the front office as a mental health advocate last season

There's no arguing that, and Willie -- decked out in an orange and black "K9" jersey -- is proving it correct every day at minor league camp. (If you've reached the point of this story where you need more Willie photos, you can find them here.)

As he walks the facility with Emily Cheatum, the Giants' minor league mental health coordinator, Willie is constantly surrounded by young players and coaches. The five-month-old's "workday" includes the usual naps, sits and happy moments spent lying on sunbaked patches of cement, but it also starts early.

"In the mornings he's been out with the players as they warm up. They've been playing fetch with him and petting with him and it's just immediate smiles all around," Cheatum said. "A couple of the coaches already mentioned to me that the energy just shifts when he comes in, especially around the players."

Willie was joined on Monday by Robinson's five-year-old dog, Ellie, who was the inspiration for the experiment. As Robinson embarked on his incredible comeback last spring, Ellie joined him in Scottsdale, providing comfort as he took an unprecedented path. 

When Robinson joined Triple-A Sacramento, Ellie was brought along, this time coming into the clubhouse. She was an immediate hit.

Robinson knew Ellie would help him deal with the strain of a minor league season, as well as some challenges that come with having lost one eye, but he quickly noticed that when he wasn't by her side, another player always was. Ellie would fall into a deep sleep every night when they got back to the hotel, having spent her entire day playing with one member of the Triple-A squad after the next.

"That's how it started," Robinson said. "I'm totally one of those crazy dog owners that's obsessed with their dog, so I knew she was going to help me, but it was really cool to see how much I noticed her helping other players. They would come up after a bad loss or if a guy had a difficult game. You just can't completely be mad around dogs. Guys would come over and almost, like, sneak a visit in."

At this, Ellie, seemingly in agreement, lets out a quick bark.

"I thought that was the coolest thing, watching her interact and help out my teammates," Robinson continued, smiling. "That's kind of where the brainstorming started and now it's cool to actually see it. I got to witness how much it helped as a player and now it's going to be cool seeing the whole organization benefit from them."

Ellie's popularity in the River Cats clubhouse led to conversations about the potential benefits for players. The organization has poured resources into mental health and awareness over the last couple of years -- Cheatum is in her second year and Robinson was immediately hired after retiring during the season -- with the goal of helping players at all levels deal with the stresses of professional sports, and Robinson hopes to one day see a dog at every affiliate. The higher-ups in the organization are intrigued and open-minded to embracing anything that can help players relax.

For now, the Giants are starting with just Willie, in part because, as any dog owner knows well, there are a lot of day-to-day challenges.

"Once the idea came about that we want this emotional support dog for the team, we talked logistics -- who handles and keeps the dog, who travels with the dog," Cheatum said. "All fingers pointed to me."

With help from a member of the big league staff, the Giants found Willie and then sent him to Puppy Steps Training in Utah for three months of lessons. He knows how to give a high-five or play pattycake with players, and in training he learned to ring a bell when he has to go outside and do his business. 

Willie, clearly a good boy, has yet to have an accident in the multi-million dollar facility that will be his home this spring, although he's still working on some things. The small rocks that cover a facility built in the desert have become a regular target for the puppy who is teething.

Willie goes home with Cheatum at nights and the plan is for him to travel with her as she visits each affiliate four times during the minor league season, which will start on time in early April. For now, Willie is getting comfortable at Papago, where he's a regular on the turf field that's used for sprints and agility work, as well as in the trainer's room.

That could be where an emotional support dog ends up being the most beneficial for the organization. There are few things in professional sports lonelier than being a rehabbing minor leaguer, especially a pitcher coming off major surgery. The days are long, tedious and spent away from family members and friends, but Willie will be around Papago whenever he's not traveling.

Cheatum has already seen the smiles on faces as Willie meets rehabbing players and noticed that a lot of them gravitate toward Willie just because they miss their own dogs back home.

"He'll just hang out with the players and be there for them," she said. 

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As he walked the facility Monday, Willie was flanked by Ellie, who goes everywhere with Robinson these days. Robinson has seen plenty of dogs throughout his days in baseball. Las Vegas' Triple-A team has Finn, a popular bat dog, and Robinson used to watch star players run over to greet Reba, the yellow lab, when his Texas Rangers played at the Coliseum.

The Giants are taking that to the natural next level, and Willie could soon have a few furry friends. He might not know it but he's a test pilot for the rest of the organization, and if all goes well this season the Giants could eventually have an emotional support dog at Oracle Park.

"It's the same idea as having a psychologist in the clubhouse at all times," Robinson said. "That wasn't regular, but we did that and it showed how beneficial it was for the players. It's just another thing that we want to see if it can help bring out the best in people."

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