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‘Today’ puppy Charlie spreads Long Island-based service dog foundation’s mission

Charlie, a 5-month-old black Labrador retriever, is being trained at America's VetDogs in Smithtown to be a service dog for a disabled veteran. He's also featured daily on NBC's "Today" show, where the hosts love to pet him. We talk to his trainer on Tuesday, Nov. 29, 2016 at the VetDogs facility. (Credit: Newsday / Chuck Fadely)

Matt Lauer isn’t the only “Today” personality who calls Long Island home.

The NBC morning program has another, younger, star from LI. He’s been commuting to 30 Rock each weekday morning since late August, when he first captured America’s hearts. He may not be tall, but he is dark and handsome. More importantly, he’s a man on a mission. He’s Charlie, “Today’s Puppy With a Purpose.”

Charlie, a 5-month-old black Labrador retriever, was bred by America’s VetDogs and the Guide Dog Foundation for the Blind. The Smithtown-based nonprofit raises and trains service dogs like Charlie, who assist disabled veterans and others with disabilities, and guide dogs, who assist people who are blind or have impaired vision.

Through its partnership with “Today,” currently the most-watched network morning show, America’s VetDogs aims to inspire people to learn more about the foundation and its mission, says Charlie’s puppy raiser, Olivia Poff. Charlie lives with Poff and her golden retriever, Cowboy, within walking distance of America’s VetDogs’ Smithtown headquarters.

“Charlie goes everywhere I do -- the grocery store, the mall, restaurants,” Poff says. “Going out to all of these places helps him feel confident, comfortable and ready to perform tasks to help a veteran one day.”

That’s also what makes a setting like the “Today” studio and plaza a good one for a service dog in training, Poff says. Charlie is learning manners, obedience (including basic commands like sit, down, stay, come), and soon, at 6 months old, he’ll start learning how to retrieve, which is one of the three foundational service dog tasks that, once mastered, will enable him to do essentially everything he will need to for his veteran. The other two are to push with his nose, and tug.

Practicing these manners and commands on the set of a live TV show is teaching Charlie how to stay calm and comfortable despite whatever action may be happening around him, Poff says. Not to mention, it’s a very social environment, to say the least.

“We’ve met so many wonderful people both on camera and behind the camera,” Poff says. In his few short months on the show, Charlie has received treats, belly rubs and cuddles from celebrity guests including Miley Cyrus, Ashton Kutcher, Kelly Clarkson, One Direction member Niall Horan, Hillary Duff, Dolly Parton – even Santa Claus. But does Charlie have a BFF at Rockefeller Plaza?

“He doesn’t know a stranger,” Poff says. “Charlie really does love everyone. He’s not a dog who has qualms; he’s a very happy-go-lucky-kid.”

There’s enough Charlie to go around, so when you ask his puppy raiser if he has a favorite, her short (and diplomatic) answer is: Whoever he’s met most recently.

“I will say, Matt Lauer has invested a lot of time with Charlie,” Poff says. “He always greets him in the morning, and the two of them have their little morning routine. He’s gone above and beyond.”

That won’t come as a surprise to “Today” viewers familiar with the show’s first “Puppy With a Purpose,” Wrangler, a yellow Labrador and guide dog in training who appeared on the show from January 2015 to March 2016. During his on-air going away party, Lauer said Wrangler’s departure was “very bittersweet.”

“What I’m going to miss most is finding all the pieces of kibble in all my suit pockets,” Lauer joked at the time. (Wrangler was raised through a different organization, Westchester County’s Guiding Eyes for the Blind. Now, at 2 years old, he has been matched with a person with vision loss.)

Poff, who raised six other service and guide puppies before Charlie, will eventually hand him off to his veteran after he goes through formal training (affectionately referred to as “college”), which will begin in December 2017 when his “Today” stint ends. Lucky for him, college at America’s VetDogs lasts four months -- not four years.

Graduation, where Charlie will be matched with his forever-human, “is like opening a door,” Poff says. “It’s an incredible thing to be a part of.”

CHARLIE: A ‘TODAY’ IN THE LIFE

This puppy certainly does have a purpose -- and a pretty tight schedule. Here’s what a typical weekday looks like for the lab.

3:30 a.m. Time to wake up. Charlie eats breakfast and gets some playtime while his puppy raiser, Olivia, gets ready for the day.

4:45 a.m. He’s out the door and in the car for the Manhattan-bound commute like the born-and-bred Long Islander he is.

6:30 a.m. After arriving at Rockefeller Center, it’s time to film some live shots that will air during the “Today” broadcast.

7 a.m. Downtime. Charlie practices being quiet and polite during the hard-news hour.

8 a.m. Cue his closeup! Charlie appears on the Plaza during this training hour, where he practices working around distractions (read: tourists).

9 a.m. Time for a well-deserved nap -- though sometimes celebrity guests will keep him up to say hi.

10 a.m. Orange Room hour! “Today’s” bright and busy social-media room is Charlie’s home away from home, Olivia says. And at this time of day, he has the place to himself. They toss around some toys (one of their favorite things to do together) to burn off any energy he might have left before they head home to Smithtown. Once there, it’s time for lunch and another nap.

4 p.m. Back to work, this time at America’s VetDogs. Charlie will train for 30 minutes to an hour either with Olivia or another trainer, Katie.

After that, he’s beat! It’s home to rest before another busy day.

TO LEARN MORE

Instagram: Follow @todaypuppy and @americasvetdogs

Facebook and Twitter: Like and follow @AmericasVetDogs

Website: Visit vetdogs.org

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