In early March of my freshman year, my suitemate (down on her luck after suffering a self-induced concussion) joked that she wanted a dog for her birthday. For some reason, we decided to take her up on this request—there would be a dog at this birthday party. We had several options: the Berkeley fellows’ two black labs (too shy), the dean’s Pekingese (too entitled), my suitemate’s dog (too far away). Eventually, the choice became clear: Sasha Pup. It’s near impossible for a Yalie to open Facebook without being inundated with images of the beloved Samoyed—even if you’re not friends with her, she constantly gets more likes on Overheard than you ever will. Never having met her in person, we reached out via Facebook message, “Hey Sasha! It’s our suitemate’s birthday next Wednesday, March 2nd. Would you be willing to come play with her that day for a little while? She loves dogs and misses playing with her puppy back home.” Within minutes, we received a response: “Woof! What about a visit after dinner?” I was in love.
Our fascination with these dog celebrities begs an interesting question: why do we love them so much? Laurie Santos, director of Yale’s Canine Cognition Center—better known as the “dog lab” —offers her expert scientific opinion: “Over the course of dogs’ domestication, humans have developed an incredible bond with dogs, one that research has shown taps into the very neural mechanisms we have for parenting and bonding with our own offspring. So it’s no wonder we come to love the Yale dogs so much. I think it comes down to the fact that we’re just really wired to fall for dogs.”
The legacy of puppy love at Yale dates back to 1889 when Yale tackle Andrew Graves bought a bulldog from a local blacksmith. The dog took to following Graves everywhere around campus, including sporting events, and students quickly adopted him as the Yale mascot. Dan was peculiar in that he would associate with no one but students, working his way “more firmly into the hearts of Yalies than any mascot had ever done before,” according to the Yale archives. When he died, Graves had him stuffed and returned for display in the Yale gymnasium; to this day, he rests in a sealed glass case in one of the Payne Whitney trophy rooms. The next Handsome Dan would not surface until thirty-five years later, in 1933. From there, a tradition was born, and a new Handsome Dan has been selected each time the previous one passes away or retires. (Interestingly, in the mascot’s nearly 130-year history, there has only been one female Handsome Dan. Bingo, owned by Yale history professor Rollin Osterweis, served from 1975-1984). Maurice, Bingo’s successor, marked the beginning of New Haven resident Chris Getman’s ’64 reign as Handsome Dan’s most prolific handler. Getman has owned four out of the five past Handsome Dans, including Sherman, the most recent, who passed away last August.
After the loss of Sherman, it was time for something new. Last November, Kevin Discepolo ’09, a former Yale lacrosse player who is now the Assistant Athletic Director of Facilities, Operations, and Events, took on the job. Two days before the Harvard-Yale game, students opened their inboxes to a wonderful surprise: the new Handsome Dan’s first official press release, which showed a picture of a bulldog puppy resting solemnly in front of a football helmet. This was the first time in recent memory that Yale had gone with a puppy, and Discepolo was involved in the search process from the outset—it was always predetermined that he would adopt the dog. He chose the puppy, whose real name is Walter, for his colors and markings, “and speaking with the breeder, it looked like his temperament was right for the role.” Walter’s namesake is Walter Camp, the Yale alum credited with the founding of the modern American game of football.
Handsome Dan’s day is split between performing official duties and relaxing in his handler’s office. “He comes to work with me daily, so a lot of his routine depends on what I’m doing that day,” says Discepolo, “He comes to a lot of meetings.” Walter can also expect three to five new appearance requests per day—he’s gone to study breaks, Christmas parties, meetings with deans, sports practices… “Whatever fits [his] schedule.” In his official capacity as the mascot, Walter also attends most varsity athletic contests and events like Commencement and Bulldog Days. Discepolo’s own routines have changed with Walter’s role—“It’s been more administrative work as far as wrapping in appearances and his schedule around my current responsibilities.” Though for now, it’s a “volunteer thing,” he has hopes to make it part of his official position. Still, Discepolo has no regrets about accepting the role. “It’s a lot of fun having him, he’s really my sidekick. He’s just a great dog.”
Discepolo thinks that Handsome Dan’s social media presence has helped him gain more recognition and popularity on campus, and sees Instagram as a great resource to update Walter’s fans on his progress. “It’s part of cashing in while he’s a puppy, building that brand equity.” Indeed, many Yalies (as well as fans outside of the university) expressed delight with the account, helping it grow to nearly 8,000 followers in just a few months. Students I spoke to echoed Discepolo’s sentiment about capitalizing on Dan’s puppyhood—“That’s the thing about bulldogs. They’re really cute as puppies but then they get exponentially less cute as they get older,” recounts one fan, who requested to remain anonymous. Discepolo agrees on the cuteness front. He maintains that he’s no social media expert, but guesses that the account has gained followers because he “put up a lot of cute pictures.” He credits the official Yale Instagram post of Handsome Dan’s first photo shoot as the perfect introduction to the wider Yale community.
Handsome Dan’s presence on social media draws parallels to Timothy Dwight’s Sasha Pup, arguably Yale’s biggest social media star. Sasha came to reside at Yale four years ago with TD fellows David and Lanch McCormick. With just under 900 followers, Sasha’s Instagram following pales in comparison to Handsome Dan’s. However, where she really shines is on Facebook. Sasha has put up some of the most-liked posts in popular Facebook group Overheard at Yale and regularly accrues hundreds of likes on her photos. She posts in character, often signing off with “Woof!” David McCormick confirms that Sasha runs all of her own social media accounts: “Sasha has a large paw-friendly pad to type with.” But not to worry, she hasn’t let the fame go to her head. “Sasha doesn’t know what all the fuss is about. She just likes to walk around looking for something to eat and a squirrel or two to chase.”
A typical day in the life of Yale’s fluffiest dog celebrity starts early. Most days, Sasha wakes up at 6 am. After breakfast, she walks across campus. Her typical route is up Wall Street, to Cross Campus, to Old Campus, down College Street, to the Medical School and back. Her favorite spots at Yale are Old Campus and Hillhouse Avenue because “both have lots and lots of squirrels.” Sasha is crazy for squirrels, says McCormick. “Once she even had a squirrel calendar by her bed.” But her favorite thing is meeting and greeting all the friendly people on campus who take the time to say “hello” to her.
Sasha’s friends have blessed her with lots of “likes” for many of her posts, making her feel very loved and welcomed, says McCormick. Her favorite posts are the ones in which she brought a smile to someone’s face. But perhaps Sasha’s proudest moment was when she won Rumpus’ “50 Most” contest, “which is, obviously, the highest compliment Rumpus could give her,” though she was eventually disqualified because she is a dog.
In the time that Sasha has been living in TD, she has even helped change the college’s reputation on campus. “It used to be that whenever you asked a non-TD student about what they knew about TD, they just called it the ‘far away’ college,” says Greg Suralik TD ’17, “But now, whenever Professor McCormick takes Sasha for a walk, people will often go up to him and ask if they can pet her. The kindness that Professor McCormick shows when this happens, along with Sasha’s sweet and lovable personality, help show the rest of Yale that TD is a welcoming, closely-knit community that is unlike any other space here on campus.”
Sasha also enjoys paying visits to her non-human friends. Her best canine friend is Phil, who lives on Old Campus with Sharon Kugler, the University Chaplain. Pig, who lives nearby in TD, “runs like a bullet” and Sasha loves to chase her. Sasha also loves to play with Bianca, another Samoyed. On occasion, Sasha bumps into fellow dog celebrities Benjamin Westerbrook of Hopper College and Peter Salovey’s Portia and “has a good sniffing and wagging of the tail.” And every year, Sasha gets to march with Handsome Dan and TD for graduation.
As anyone who follows Sasha on social media now knows, she and the McCormicks will be leaving Yale at the end of the year for the University of Oregon. David McCormick will serve as Director of the Institute of Neuroscience, Lanch McCormick will become Director of Student Engagement, and Sasha will serve as “Director of Fluffiness,” according to an email sent out to the TD community. Sasha’s friends and followers have reacted with dismay. In a move that ended up on Overheard at Yale, placards in napkin holders in a dining hall were replaced with the quote: “One cannot think well, love well, sleep well, if Sasha Pup is not here.”
The perfect Yale dog celebrity seems to have a combination of two things: social media fame and physical accessibility. This is why Sasha is so beloved, according to students I spoke with. David McCormick cites one of these in-person encounters as his favorite Sasha moment—“a person, who appeared to be down on her luck, hugged Sasha tight, buried her face in Sasha’s fur, and said, with heartfelt emotion ‘OMG this is what I need. Where have you been all my life?’ Sasha gave her a nose kiss as if to say ‘It’s ok. I need you too.’” These interactions are what have truly cemented Sasha’s fame—without them; she’s just another white girl on Instagram.
While Handsome Dan boasts an impressive social media following, he’s much more elusive, lacking Sasha’s girl-next-door appeal. Sightings are few and far between. Most students report never having met him in person, and many expressed concern that they had not yet seen him in the flesh given that as he ages he is getting less cute by the day.
Handsome Dan and Sasha are only the most visible canines on campus. For the more adventurous dog spotter, there are plenty of other Yale pups out there. Take Sasha’s Samoyed friend Bianca. Bianca is often mistaken for her more famous friend, according to her owner, philosophy professor Daniel Greco. He describes an informal “Samoyed network” that has formed in New Haven, which counts Bianca, Sasha, and two other Yale dogs among its ranks. Like Handsome Dan, Bianca comes to work with her human most days. “Students used to come to my office to play with her. They’re certainly welcome to,” says Greco. (His office hours are Thursday mornings in Connecticut Hall 106.) He keeps a spare lint roller on his desk at all times, just in case a visitor comes in wearing black.
Greco thinks that Bianca has what it takes to be Yale’s next big dog on campus. “Bianca is maybe more personable, more likely to lick your face. Sasha is more aloof. Sasha used to be a show dog. Bianca could never be a show dog,” he gestures to Bianca lying on floor licking her legs. This sentiment is echoed by several Yalies who have interacted with Sasha—“She’s beautiful, but she’s a diva,” says Cristina Teems BK ’19. Greco recently created a new Facebook account: Bianca Greco. Her profession is listed as “Director of Fluffiness,” perhaps an homage to Sasha’s new position at the University of Oregon. She posts photos and videos and is already friends with several members of the New Haven Samoyed circle, as well as a growing number of Yale students, myself among them.
Dogs have been central to the Yale community and image since the 1800s—there’s a taxidermied pup in the Payne Whitney trophy room to prove it. From the streets of New Haven to Instagram feeds, Yalies adore and cherish campus dogs more than ever before. Not even Laurie Santos can explain the love I felt when Sasha Pup sat with us in our L-Dub common room last March. Dogs represent community and warmth, something we can never have too much of.