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When the hits are too hard or the stresses of the job feel overwhelming, now the team can try a little fetch or tug-of war with a puppy. Their French bulldog pup, 1-year-old Zoë, performs a big job for such a little scamp: She is the first emotional support dog in the NFL and she helps San Francisco 49ers players face the tough emotions and strain that come with playing professional football.
“This is a very stressful job. It’s very hard for a lot of guys,” defensive end Solomon Thomas told The Athletic. “A dog could be a perfect getaway for some guys, and sometimes you don’t know what a dog could mean.”
Thomas has been open about his own struggle with depression after his sister, Ella, died by suicide in January 2018, according to NBC Sports. He and his family have become advocates for mental health and he’s been candid about how therapy helped him.
He said seeing Zoë's puppy dog eyes regularly has had a big impact on him and his teammates.
“Anytime I go in there and see her, it’s just really relaxing,” Thomas explained.
Zoë was invited to become a 49er after an employee brought her brother’s French bulldog, Vito, to work and players loved him. Austin Moss II, director of player engagement, suspected a team dog could help the players every day. So, he adopted Zoë, who he has registered as an emotional support dog, and soon the good girl will be certified as an official therapy dog.
Zoë boosts players' morale when they have bad days or just provides another reason to smile when everything is going well. She's become an important member of the squad and she might just be giving the team a little good luck: Right now the 49ers are undefeated.
“I can have a good practice or come in there really mad, or come in really sad, and Zoë races over to me," Thomas told the Athletic. "I can just play with the little puppy for 10 or 15 minutes; that just kind of resets my day and lets me put everything back into perspective."
Zoë has her own Instagram account with photos of playing and cuddling with players or snoozing in an overstuffed beanbag chair. She doles out high-fives and doggy kisses to players when they visit the office. Sometimes she bats around a balloon or a ball. Even the biggest, fiercest players find themselves speaking puppy talk to Zoë.
And, her performance has even made a good impression on the team's management.
“Football is so all-in, to have a place for them to go and kind of unplug, that was a good thing," general manager John Lynch told the Athletic. "I finally told our owner after a month. I said, ‘Hey, we kind of have this dog now and the guys really like it.'"