Photographs by John Rizzo.
The orange-hued set of the “Today” show at Rockefeller Center, is intimate and bustling, with lights coffering the ceiling and cables snaking across the floor. Like the on-air talent, visitors are in continual motion, trying to stay out of the way of the cameras while doing double-takes. Ooh, is that Rita Wilson?
And yet, the atmosphere is calm and genial, thanks in part, everyone says, to a little fellow who’s made himself quite at home on the set. His name is Wrangler, and he’s a 4½-month-old Yellow Labrador puppy that Matt, Savannah, Al, Natalie and the rest of the “Today’ show gang are helping to raise on behalf of Guiding Eyes for the Blind in Yorktown Heights.
“We deal with tough news,” says Matt Lauer, co-anchor of NBC News’ “Today” since 1997. “Wrangler just puts a smile on everyone’s face.”
“He ties in so well with whatever we’re doing,” says Tamron Hall, co-anchor of “Today’s Take,” the third hour of the show. Hall says she and her “Today” colleagues were talking on-air about being sleep deprived from binging on the series “House of Cards.” Cut to Wrangler, asleep in his orange kennel.
“He also has a calming effect on celebrities,” she says. Wrangler has sat on Rosie Perez’s lap and shared playtime with Oscar winner Anne Hathaway. He and Cookie Monster got on famously. (They’re both furry foodies.)
However, Wrangler’s encounter with the one celebrity you would’ve expected him to bond with instantly — Miss P, who recently took Best in Show at the Westminster Kennel Club — turned instead into a teachable moment.
“He liked Miss P, but he had to sit and stay,” says Saxon Eastman, a Guiding Eyes instructor who’s actually raising Wrangler. “It was a great opportunity for dog discipline.”
Wrangler, who was bred at Guiding Eyes’ Canine Development Center in Patterson, N.Y., lives with Saxon not far from the nonprofit’s Westchester headquarters, learning house manners and basic socialization. The pair has been on the “Today” set five days a week from 6:30 to 11 a.m. since Jan. 14. Wrangler will be there through March of next year when he’ll begin professional guide dog training, which can take anywhere from six months to two years. After that, he’ll become a service dog either for the visually impaired or for children on the autism spectrum as part of Guiding Eyes’ Heeling Autism program.
“As a guide dog he’ll be out in the world, responsible for someone’s life,” Saxon says. “He’ll have to be able to deal with a lot going on around him.”
So far, so good. Guiding Eyes uses Labs for their high trainability and equanimity.
“He’s pretty even-tempered,” Saxon says. “He’s confident but very balanced.”
“He’s such a good dog and brings such joy to us,” says “Today” co-anchor Savannah Guthrie, who’s introduced baby daughter Vale Guthrie Feldman to the pup. “He’s clever with a little sass, which Saxon is trying to breed out of him. But I’m encouraging it.”
Wrangler may be the show’s “puppy with a purpose,” then, but he has just the right hint of ’tude. Already, he’s posted a selfie and sent this tweet from outside Matt’s office: “Oh, this is where the bathroom is.”
Though it’s clear that Wrangler plays well with the entire cast, he and Matt have a special bond, with the pup bounding over, tail wagging, as Matt finishes a segment and comes to sit by his kennel.
“I just love dogs,” says Matt, who grew up in WAG country (Chappaqua, Ardsley, Hartsdale and Greenwich) and worked for Richards specialty store in Greenwich while in college.
Matt has a pet of his own, Jules, a white female German Shepherd. Other “Today” pooch parents include co-anchors Natalie Morales, who has a rescue Border Collie mix, Zara; and Al Roker, whose rescue Havanese mix is named Pepper.
Al in particular knows the importance of Guiding Eyes as he once lived down the street from the organization. But the irrepressible weatherman can’t resist a puckish observation, noting that Wrangler gets a lot of face time with pretty actresses like Olivia Wilde:
“He brings new meaning to the expression ‘It’s a dog’s life.’”
For more on Wrangler’s day job, visit today.com.
Teeing off for Guiding Eyes
Hosted by New York Giants’ quarterback Eli Manning, the 38th annual Guiding Eyes’ Golf Classic takes place June 8 and includes breakfast, lunch and a banquet dinner with silent auction. Manning, Guiding Eyes’ dogs and top U.S. blind golfers will be on the course throughout the day. The event is held at the Mount Kisco Country Club and Fairview Country Club (Greenwich). Foursomes start at $3,500.
For more about the online auction or raffle tickets to win a new Lexus ES 350 or Rolex watch, contact Tricia McTernan at 914-761-7111 or firstname.lastname@example.org or visit guidingeyes.org/golf.