The Giants are on the forefront of change when it comes to mental health, and it's starting off with Willie.
As fans lined up at the gate for a summer game, the ballpark staff went through their typical pregame routines; scanning tickets, passing out programs, and welcoming fans to another beautiful day at PK park. Players come in and out of the gates, doing their own routines to prepare them
As fans lined up at the gate for a summer game, the ballpark staff went through their typical pregame routines; scanning tickets, passing out programs, and welcoming fans to another beautiful day at PK park. Players come in and out of the gates, doing their own routines to prepare them for the game.
In the midst of all the chaos, two dogs walked through the gate with Giants staff members. Everyone stopped what they were doing to turn their heads and look as the adorable creatures walked by. But the two dogs paid no mind to the watchers — they had a job to do.
One of the dogs was Ellie, a trained service dog for the Giant’s mental health advocate, Drew Robinson. The other dog was the newest member of the San Francisco Giants; a year-old English Sheepdog named Willie. As the Giants' minor league emotional support animal, Willie works with players and coaches in the organization at the team’s training facility and their affiliated ballparks.
The inspiration for adding Willie to the Giants staff came from Robinson’s own struggles with mental health during his time in the minor leagues, including his suicide attempt in 2020 and his subsequent fight for his life. It really opened the organization’s eyes.
“We didn’t realize how much the players were struggling,” said Emily Cheatum, a minor league mental health coordinator for the team. “We only had one person to cover the entire organization.” After talking to Robinson, the Giants knew this had to change.
As the Giants expanded their mental health team, Cheatum noticed how well the players responded to Ellie. She went with Robinson everywhere, and it was always positive. No matter how an athlete performed on the field, the mood was always lighter when she was around. Once she saw this, she thought it was time for the Giants to have their own dog.
As they started the process of looking for a team dog, they found out that bullpen catchers' mom breeds and trains dogs for kids with autism. They went to go meet the different dogs, and found the perfect match with Willie. Immediately afterward, he spent three months at Puppy Step Training in Utah before making his spring training debut. He knows how to give high-fives, play pattycake, and other tricks that the players could do with him.
In addition to knowing fun tricks, Willie is trained for anxiety. He’s able to provide calmness and anticipate anxiety attacks. Studies have shown that dogs can elevate levels of serotonin and dopamine which results in a lower likelihood of depression. With the hectic schedules that minor league players have, having Willie’s presence in the clubhouse and on the field makes it easier to go through each day. It also opens players up and makes it easier for the advocates to get to know the players and build a relationship.
Since he joined the team, he has been surrounded by young players and coaches. "In the mornings he's out with the players as they warm up. They've been playing fetch with him and petting 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.” He lives with Cheatum and will travel with her during the season while she visits the different affiliate teams across the country. During the offseason, he spends his time at Papago, the Giants' training facility in Scottsdale, Arizona, being around the players while they prepare for the long season ahead of them.
During the season, Willie’s typical day starts in the clubhouse, roaming around and greeting all of the players as they arrive. Then, when players have one-on-one sessions with Cheatum, he’s there right by their side, helping them feel safe and comfortable. When the field is empty right before the first pitch, he’s running around on the field, playing fetch with the players and getting all of his energy out before it’s time to focus.
During the game, you can usually find him in the clubhouse right next to Cheatum greeting players near him. With being around the team so much, it’s natural for him to have a favorite player, which last season was Grant McCray, who joined the Emeralds in late August this past season.
When he’s not working, he’s a normal, goofy puppy. He lives and travels with Cheatum, and when they’re home, he’s hiding under beds, eating baseballs, or trying to get Cheatum’s other dogs to play with him. Even though he’s almost 90 pounds, he gets stuck in places while he’s being adventurous or chasing a ball. “He doesn’t understand how big he is,” Cheatum said. “He gets along with all dogs and adjusts his playstyle to a little dog.”
This unique and furry way to approach players’ mental health has started to attract attention from other major league teams. Last winter, the Giants’ mental health department spoke at the winter meetings about the importance of talking about and catering to mental health, as well as how Willie impacted the team. With Willie and Ellie leading the pack, Major League Baseball is working on breaking the stigma on mental health.