Davina Gruenstein has three kids, and only one of them is a dog.
Not just any dog, either. It’s Dubs II, a 2-year-old Alaskan malamute and the University of Washington’s 14th live mascot. It’s a good boy who gives out woo woos — or husky hellos — like they’re high fives at a football game. It’s a verified Seattle celebrity and social media sensation. It’s a puppy with black-and-white fur, perky ears and a penchant for post-nap cuddles.
It’s a family member with a part-time job as the tongue-wagging face of Washington.
“I tell our friends, he’s our pet, but he is definitely like our third child,” Gruenstein said in a phone interview last month. “His schedule is as busy as our children with their sports, and we have to get them where they need to go. He’s the same way. He fully falls in line as a third child for us.”
Or at least, he did. Then the COVID-19 quarantine came, and Dubs’ public events — he did roughly 90 of them in 2019 — were either postponed or canceled. The woo woos became harder to hear.
But at Gruenstein’s house in Sammamish, Dubs is a happy, healthy stay-at-home sidekick. He’s got both family and furry friends. Besides Gruenstein, her husband Brent Knudson and their 13- and 11-year-old kids, Jack and Maggie, there’s also a 7-year-old lab-pit bull mix named Lucy and a fluffy 4-year-old cat named Dasher.
And when Lucy chases birds, Dubs chases Lucy.
“Malamutes aren’t super active breeds, but if Lucy sees a crow in the yard she will get all amped up and then Dubs will be like, ‘Oh my gosh, I better be part of that,’” Gruenstein joked. “So they will just go racing to the backyard, running sprints. He’s chasing her but she’s chasing the bird. It’s comedy.”
The comedy officially commenced on March 24, 2018, when Gruenstein and her husband finally brought Dubs home. Their family was selected from a pool of more than 90 applicants, following a two-month process that included interviews and home visits and meetings and phone calls. It helped, of course, that Gruenstein and Knudson are Husky alums who also met on campus; that they’re UW football season ticket holders and former malamute owners.
And mascot maniacs, too.
“We’re kind of crazy as far as mascots go,” Gruenstein said. “We raised our kids going to see Dubs I at various events, and we have all kinds of pictures of our kids with Dubs I. So we’re huge mascot fans. But when (Dubs II) came home with us, yeah, it was definitely surreal.”
And, even for mascot maniacs, the reception was surprising.
As Gruenstein’s family grew, Sammamish was suddenly stricken with malamute madness.
“When the news hit and the video (of the family being selected) was going around and people knew that he was coming to our neighborhood,” Gruenstein said, “we’d be walking around with him and we would literally have cars just pull over and stop as we’re going out for a walk and say, ‘Can we meet him?’
“It was so funny. The craziness, how people would act, it’s very endearing but it’s funny too.”
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A model mascot
Dubs eats duck.
You read that right. When UW’s live mascot requires motivation, he’s fed bite-sized bits of the program’s primary rival. Likewise, his favorite toy is a once-deafening duck that has since been dismembered so completely that it now sputters and struggles to squeak.
When asked if it’s a coincidence, Gruenstein laughed and confirmed that, yes, “it is definitely related to Oregon.” Dubs’ trainer, Anne-Lise Nilsen, added that “he looooves those (duck jerky treats), which of course is appropriate for whenever we play Oregon or basically any other day.”
It’s true, Dubs is the ideal UW mascot in many ways — but not by accident.
Both Dubs and Nilsen have done the work.
While working toward a UW degree in animal behavior, Nilsen also served as a student handler for Dubs I — who retired at the end of the 2018 season after a decade of mascot duty. Growing up, Nilsen showed dogs in 4-H and American Kennel Club events. And after graduating, she was tasked with identifying Dubs I’s successor.
“Knowing the time when Dubs I was going to retire, you kind of have a window of when you need to have the next one born in order to jump in seamlessly,” Nilsen said. “Back in ’08, it was the only year where we have not had a live mascot. It was the only year where we went 0-12. We weren’t looking to do that again.”
And so, a litter of four malamutes — three female and one male — were born on Jan. 4, 2018. Dubs was selected, Nilsen said, because “if something new happened, he’d kind of look at it, and sit, and then go up and investigate. That boldness is what you want in this kind of public position.”
During Dubs’ subsequent training, there was a lot of new … and a lot of duck to get him through.
“The type of training that I’m a big advocate for and have used with Dubs is all positive reinforcement-based,” said Nilsen, who also works as the manager of a dog day care facility in Mukilteo. “So it’s really my job to predict, what are the different situations that Dubs may be put in, and how can we prepare him? Because we never want him, for the first time he experiences things, to be in front of a crowd of 70,000. We want to do it in smaller chunks and dosages, so it’s kind of breaking down aspects.
“So if you take a look at football as a whole, it’s getting used to crowds, getting used to noises, getting used to being on the turf. So we went to a lot of football practices.”
And cheerleading practices, and marching band practices.
“We’re starting really far away (from the band), and as he is choosing to get closer he gets more treats,” Nilsen explained. If he wants to walk away, he is totally, absolutely free and able to walk away, but the treats stop. So he learned pretty quickly.”
Dubs’ fear was predictably overpowered by the desire for tasty treats. Take fireworks, for example. While UW tested possible pyrotechnics for the coming season at Husky Stadium, Dubs attended the event and became familiar with the fireworks. He practiced at the pyrotechnics company’s own facilities as well.
For further reinforcement, Nilsen and Dubs took trips to the Everett AquaSox’s fireworks nights. They’d set up shop a few blocks outside the stadium, and every flash or pop that followed would pair with a soothing snack.
“So pretty soon he’s hearing the pop or seeing the firework,” Nilsen said, “and he turns to me like, ‘You’re going to feed me now?’ Then as he got comfortable with being stationary, it’s playing, walking around, just so he realizes that life can resume as normal. This is not something to be scared of.”
These days, Dubs II has a formidable appetite and little fear. He essentially redshirted the 2018 season, sprinting down the sideline during home games while Dubs I trotted out of the tunnel with the team. His first legitimate run-out actually occurred at a Enumclaw High School football game, to mimic the atmosphere inside Husky Stadium with significantly smaller stakes. The collar was officially passed on Nov. 17, 2018, during halftime of the Huskies’ 42-23 win over Oregon State.
Dubs II assumed the spotlight.
And he took it in stress-free stride.
“He’s really kind of happy-go-lucky,” said Nilsen, who spends roughly 20 hours per week with Dubs during the football season alone. “He loves to snuggle. I think my favorite mood of Dubs is when he’s just waking up from a nap, still all sleepy, and all he wants to do is come nestle in, get a hug, sit there for a second.
“And then he’s ready to get up and face the next job to do.”
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A social media star
During the COVID-19 quarantine, Dubs’ woo woos have melted worried hearts on social media.
Granted, there isn’t enough duck jerky on Earth to teach Dubs how to type. The 2-year-old mascot can ride a skateboard, but he’s internet illiterate.
Which is where Kaelyn Sayles comes in.
“I help manage the athletics social media properties, the main channels, and then provide support for the sports channels,” said Sayles, UW’s assistant director of digital strategy for athletics. “Then when I got here (in Aug. 2018) I found out that would include Dubs’ social channels, which was nothing that I expected and everything that I wanted.”
Of course, said channels — touting 20,900 followers on Instagram and 10,500 more on Twitter — didn’t start as daily rays of social media sunshine. They were adorable little afterthoughts.
But Dubs wouldn’t be denied.
“Honestly, a dog’s account was not on the top of our priority list, especially when you’re going straight into football season,” Sayles said. “But the longer I’ve been here, the more people we’ve had helping out to get photos and videos and see what fans like to see of him. It’s been a lot easier to post more regularly in his voice.”
Sayles laughed, then added: “You never know you’re going to start tweeting as a dog until you do it.”
And, to be honest, it’s not something just anyone can do. Sayles’ job requires a (totally imaginary) degree in canine psychology. It’s method acting on social media.
It’s malamute selfies … but so much more.
“His social channels are supposed to be like he is running them,” Sayles said. “He’s not supposed to be super tech-savvy. He’s a dog. He doesn’t use a lot of hashtags. We try not to use him too much as a sales platform. His accounts are supposed to exist to make people happy. He’s obviously very cute, but he’s just a good dog. So I think people like to see what he’s doing.”
Especially now. While the world has grinded to a halt, good dogs have made a difference. In the last few months, Dubs launched a newsletter, completed a Twitter Q&A and bombarded social media with #cutedogcontent.
Dubs — or Sayles? — provided a small service for those seeking a distraction.
“In mid-March, especially when events were being canceled and all of that, we didn’t want to post things that seemed insensitive and didn’t want to rush into a conversation while people were really processing what was happening,” Sayles said. “But as the days went we started sprinkling in content, and it just blew up. People wanted to see that stuff in their timelines. I know I personally would rather see cute dog stuff in my timeline right now to get a break from the news. So it’s definitely ramped up.”
But Dubs isn’t the only dog with an active presence on social media. On April 8, he participated in a Zoom call with 12 other live mascots from colleges across the country. The ensuing screen shot tore through Twitter like an adorable avalanche.
And, according to sources, Dubs was the best behaved.
“He is such a good poser,” Gruenstein said. “He knew how to sit when he was two weeks old, literally. There was one dog, and I’m not sure which one it was, but they couldn’t even bring that dog into the frame until right before they were going to take that screen shot. And we were cracking up, because the whole time we were on this call he just sat there. We have a treat there, so it keeps his interest.
“He just sat there and gave some woo woos and kept trying to put his paw on the keyboard. It was really, really cute.”
Dubs continues to do his part, woo wooing for a weary world.
And when everything reopens, you better believe he’ll go back to work.
“I knew him before his eyes were even open,” Nilsen said. “He was just nine days old, and I’ve really been able to see him grow through everything. I’ve been able to be with him for all of the challenging training things and really just see him get excited to go to work.
“He’s a very good boy. He gives the best hugs where he just jumps up and leans into you. You get the warm welcome — the woo woos — which are always great. It’s a lot of fun.”