There’s no better way to walk downtown than with Sporty.
The harried office denizens commuting from work, the slow-moving clusters of tourists, the Mag Mile shoppers loaded with bags but no sense of direction—they all melt into a heap of happy when they see Sporty, an 8-year-old golden retriever.
The smiles spread “like a virus," says David Duncan, who's grown used to it. Each evening the two take their daily walk around River North and the Loop, and they are very recognizable—namely because Sporty carries his own leash.
The day we meet up, it's damp, overcast, and a little after 5 p.m. Yet everyone wants to stop and say hi. It's like that scene from 500 Days of Summer, but with less dancing.
“It’s crazy how smart he is, anywhere he goes in the city,” Duncan, a 33-year-old options trader, tells me as Sporty deftly navigates past a parking garage exit, a dangerous area for even seasoned urbanites. Sporty struts confidently up and down the sidewalks, staying close to Duncan and stopping on a dime every time his owner makes a sound—either “wait,” a cautionary “Sporty,” or just a simple “hey!”
We stop at Montauk Sofa, a River North furniture store where Sporty is a known celebrity. Manager Jeffrey Miller keeps treats and a water bowl for him, and Sporty knows it—he hops onto a couch and gets ready to do tricks for them. We’ll make three or four more stops just like this at businesses around the Loop where employees are Sporty fans. “Sometimes people even come to the store to wait for Sporty,” Miller says. Later, a man near the Wrigley Building literally says, “Hey, it’s that dog! Everybody knows that dog!”
Like many extraordinary (and ordinary) dogs nowadays, Sporty has an Instagram. He has about 1,000 followers, but Duncan isn’t interested in monetizing them: “I just want him to get more fans because he’s a great dog, and he deserves the love,” he says simply. Sporty’s no doge, certainly, but he is making himself known among the downtown crowd. “Long Shot: Does anyone know the golden retriever who walks itself down Michigan Avenue?” one Redditor asked recently. An answer was posted almost immediately: “Is it Sporty?”
But the fame and attention hasn’t gotten to Sporty’s fluffy head, Duncan says. He’ll stop for any fan—to get an ear rub, have his picture taken, or let his butt get sniffed by another dog. Three women carrying shopping bags audibly gasp when they see Sporty escorting himself down the Riverwalk. “He’s friendly,” Duncan says, as if it needs to be said—Sporty is already wagging his tail and getting some vigorous head pats from the women, who for a full five minutes gush about his soft coat. (In fact, Sporty comes from a line of award-winning golden retrievers. He was a show dog and a champion himself, before he retired to Chicago.)
Duncan knows he has his detractors. “I read the Reddit comments,” he says. Letting a dog off-leash in Chicago can mean a $300 fine; up to $10,000 if the dog attacks anyone. In more than a year of walking with Sporty (as opposed to walking Sporty), Duncan says there’s been no incidents. He adopted Sporty at age 6, and the leash-carrying started about a year later. “We take an extra step to be aware of our surroundings at all times,” says Duncan, whose family had a few golden retrievers when he was growing up in Bloomfield Hills, Michigan. “I’m not out here just letting him run around. People are afraid he’s going to jump into the street—he won’t.”
When Duncan sees a child ahead, or another dog that looks antsy, or anyone looking nervous or unhappy about the prospect of the approaching golden retriever, he’ll grab Sporty’s leash. He never lets Sporty off-leash in unfamiliar territory “You get a feel for who’s uncomfortable,” Duncan says, “and I gotta respect that.”
As we walk, Duncan apologizes profusely to the few people who seem upset by the sight—but the unhappiness doesn’t last long. Sporty makes friends fast: a group of tourists, a pair of office workers, several other dog owners who allow a friendly butt-sniff exchange. He even stealthily avoids a teenager who is texting from a hoverboard. The boy, surprised, takes his eyes off the screen for a moment and smiles at us.
As for how Sporty got the idea to take the leash himself? It’s not a trick. “It just started one day,” says Duncan, who notes that golden retrievers tend to like to carry things in their mouths. Sporty seems to derive a sense of pride from it; he responds better to commands, Duncan says. Since Sporty had become so familiar with their downtown jaunt, it seemed natural that, as long as he could hold the leash himself, there was no reason for Duncan to intervene.
“He really became a better dog once we put the leash in his mouth,” he says.