A star from New England is playing on national television Sunday, but she’s not the quarterback for the Patriots. Juniper is a 6-month-old American Staffordshire terrier and American bulldog mix from Portland, and she will compete in Animal Planet’s 14th annual Puppy Bowl, to air before the primetime Super Bowl.

Juniper is believed to be the first dog from Maine to be featured in the event. She was drafted to the starting lineup of Team Ruff, which will go paw to paw with Team Fluff. The team that scores the greatest number of touchdowns – earned by carrying a toy into the end zone – wins the CHEWY.COM Lombarky Trophy.

The 90 competitors came from 48 animal shelters across the country.

“Dogs in shelters and rescue groups are looking for a new beginning,” said Jeana Roth, director of community engagement at the Animal Refuge League of Greater Portland. “Any time we can talk about adoption and highlight adoption is a good thing. That’s really what the Puppy Bowl is all about.”

Juniper was born on July 4 in Portland. Her mom arrived at the Animal Refuge League in June while she was pregnant, and Janna Merritt of Portland agreed to foster her. The family expected four or five puppies. They ended up with 10.

“They just kept coming and kept coming,” said Merritt, 50. “The neighbor kids would come over and watch a couple being born. It was truly a community experience.”


Merritt’s family got into fostering two years ago because of their 14-year-old daughter, Elyana Smith. They had an older dog, and Elyana wanted to bring a younger dog into their home, too. But her parents said they didn’t want to permanently adopt another pet, so they began to work with the Animal Refuge League to foster dogs on their way to forever homes.

In two years, they have hosted 55 dogs at their house. Elyana still keeps a photo of each one on the wall in her bedroom. Their stay with the family usually ranges from two days to three weeks, although Juniper’s litter needed at least eight weeks before they were ready for adoption.

Elyana takes a big role in caring for the foster dogs. Still, raising 10 puppies was more work than she expected – especially when the litter learned how to knock over the baby gate that was keeping them penned in their room.

“With the little puppies, after a week, you’re really tired,” she said.

Tammy Locke and her partner Eric Lindbom live near Juniper’s foster family in the Deering Highlands neighborhood of Portland.

“When the litter of pups came along, we didn’t think we wanted a dog,” said Locke, 50. “But we really appreciated what this family was doing. They really brought a lot of awareness to us about the effort behind all these foster programs. It warmed our heart.”


They didn’t think a dog would fit into their busy lifestyle. But they learned about doggy day care, and Merritt said her family would dog sit when necessary. So they decided to bring Juniper home.

“I’ve never adopted a dog from a shelter before,” Locke said. “I was always a pedigree owner, and that was my preference. It totally changed my mind when I saw what these folks are doing for these dogs.”

Just before they signed the adoption paperwork, the Animal Refuge League let them in on a secret. Juniper was fresh from New York City, where she had spent three days filming the Puppy Bowl.

Animal Planet had contacted shelters across the country months before, looking for puppies that would be between 12 and 24 weeks old in October. They reached out to the Animal Refuge League because they heard about the partnership between the Inn by the Sea in Cape Elizabeth and the Westbrook shelter. For nearly three years, adoptable dogs have lived at the resort while waiting for adoption. Since May 2015, more than 100 dogs have found new homes through the program.

“We loved the partnership between Animal Refuge League and the Inn by the Sea and wanted to highlight the unique way they work together to find dogs loving homes,” Executive Producer Simon Morris said in an email statement.

Merritt had submitted photos of four puppies from the litter. Animal Planet eventually chose 90 puppies from 48 shelters, and Juniper made the cut. Roth said an Animal Planet crew came to Maine over the summer to film a spotlight segment about Juniper at the Inn by the Sea.


The Puppy Bowl itself was filmed in New York in October. Juniper’s foster family did not attend, because Elyana had to be 18 to be allowed on set. Board members from the Animal Refuge League brought the dog to the studio. Still, Elyana dogsits Juniper on occasion, and she handled the puppy’s pregame media appearances at the Animal Refuge League on Wednesday.

Once Juniper returned from filming in New York, she went home with her new family. Locke described her as smart and well behaved. Her favorite game in the house is to drop her ball down the stairs, run to fetch it and carry it back to the top. Her entire litter was named after trees, and her nickname is “Junebug.”

“She can be a little Jekyll and Hyde,” Locke said. “She is so gentle and loving and calm in one moment. In the next, she literally a linebacker, charging into you, wrestling like crazy.”

She seemed well suited for the gridiron, although Juniper’s people won’t say whether she was on the winning team.

Still, Merritt did have one scoop.

“I think she’s the only dog who pooped on set,” Merritt said. “That’s the rumor.”

Megan Doyle can be contacted at 791-6327 or at:


Twitter: megan_e_doyle

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