A puppy’s journey part 2: Puppy Bowl XX

Ira Shankman wearing a Best Friends hat and holding Sonny the puppy, who is wearing hos orange bandanna
Sonny joins the starting lineup on Team Ruff in Puppy Bowl XX.
By Kelli Harmon

This is part 2 of a three-part series about Sonny. Read part 1. Read part 3.

New Yorkers passing the Best Friends van might have heard excited yips and yowls from inside as it rolled to a gentle stop. The van’s passengers were precious but not cargo at all. These were puppies and dogs from shelters farther south arriving into Best Friends’ care from other organizations.

One of those passengers was a puppy named Sonny. And while he didn’t know it yet, in just a few days’ time he’d become a star. The speckled little pup would soon be on the road again — this time for a shorter trip only about four hours away. This drive would just be him and his personal “chauffer” (also known as a volunteer), recruited to bring him to the game of his life (so far): Puppy Bowl XX.

Arriving in New York City

Sonny came to Best Friends from a wonderful, bustling foster home in Alabama. That’s where he’d found love and safety after landing at Best Friends Network Partner Humane Society of Elmore County. Once Sonny and others arrived at Best Friends’ New York lifesaving center, the medical team examined each pet, and soon they were on their way again to their next stops. That meant going in to be spayed or neutered and then either to foster homes or, in some cases, adoptive homes. Sonny’s sister Cher was adopted right away.

Meanwhile, Sonny was set to make a special appearance after he was drafted to play on Team Ruff in Puppy Bowl XX. He’d join more than 130 other pups from 73 shelters across 36 states and territories to battle it out, puppy-style, in the big game. But first, he’d need to get there.

[Adventurous couple takes traveling with a puppy in a van to a new level]

Two weeks earlier, the Best Friends volunteer team had put out a request for someone to escort Sonny on a two-night road trip to the event. Ira Shankman answered the request.

Best Friends staff packed an overnight kit for little Sonny, including everything he’d need to comfortably travel a few hours away and play his heart out: a dog bed, food, water, toys, a leash, and a crate. Ira picked up Sonny at the center, and the two of them hit the road together.

Driving Mr. Sonny

Taking an adorable puppy to an event that will be viewed by millions might not be what most people picture when they think about volunteering with animals. But you never know what might happen when you give your time.

Ira has been a Best Friends volunteer for about seven years. He’s a retired educator and musician and has always loved animals. In fact, that part of his life is a family affair. “My son Peter has been to Best Friends in Utah, and we adopted our cat, Broadway, from Best Friends. I’m also a docent at the Central Park Zoo,” Ira says. These days, he fills his time volunteering. “New York has been good to me, and I just wanted to give back a little bit,” he says.

He dedicates his Thursdays to the animals at Best Friends, and he’s also no stranger to driving pets where they need to go. In fact, he has helped drive on the trip south to pick up animals from shelters there.

When he got the email seeking a volunteer to drive to Puppy Bowl XX, Ira says, “I didn’t even blink. I said yes immediately.”

[Meet a dog who loves (as in really loves) car rides]

On their travel day, Ira settled Sonny into the car for the drive. The little pup was already a seasoned traveler. Ira says, “He was amazing. He was in his carrier and didn’t say a word for the entire trip.”

The two of them checked into their hotel, which hosted many of the other puppies and their handlers for Puppy Bowl XX. They settled in for a good night’s sleep, so they’d be rested for the big day: Sonny’s television debut.

Sonny plays in Puppy Bowl XX

It was no surprise to anyone that Sonny was a star all day long. He’d always been known for his good nature. He sat for a photo shoot, ran through the tunnel and into the arena, played his heart out, took nap and snack breaks, and generally had a super fun day.

Ira’s job was to make sure Sonny was ready when it was time for the action and to look after him when he wasn’t playing. He and the other puppy handlers couldn’t see the field but got to watch the action on a screen from nearby.

There are no spoilers allowed, but let’s just say that Sonny represented Team Ruff well. Ira says, “I absolutely felt like a proud papa,” of his speckled little buddy.

After a long day and a game well played, the two went back to the hotel. Sonny took it all in stride, including the drive back to the city the next morning.

The first day of the rest of his life

Waiting for him to return to New York City were some people who would be key to the next part of Sonny’s life. They had recently signed up to foster their first dog, and the Best Friends foster team asked whether they would be willing and able to foster a speckled little pup who’d just come from Alabama and who would be away for a couple days because he was going to the Puppy Bowl.

Those nice people said yes, and that’s how it came to be that Sonny would go on to his second foster home in the four months since he was born. His first foster family showed him how good life can be and how loved he was.

Sonny, in turn, would show his second foster family how much joy comes along with volunteering to give a pet a home, even temporarily.

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