Former Olympic skier Lindsey Vonn is a three-time medalist, but on the set of Amazon’s global competition series “The Pack” (now streaming), another top dog reigned supreme: co-host Lucy, her Cavalier King Charles Spaniel.
“We're a duo, but she’s definitely the star of the show,” Vonn, 36, says of her rescue pup, who learned how to play for the media while attending Vonn’s World Cup press conferences.
“Lucy literally knows when the camera is on, and she perks up and she's ready to go,” says the athlete, who walked away from skiing in 2019. “She's always been a diva, so she was perfect for the part.”
The globetrotting game is like "The Amazing Race," if one member of each team was a dog: It begins with 12 teams who travel around the world battling for a $500,000 prize, plus an additional $250,000 for the animal charity of their choice. Over 10 episodes filmed in January and February of this year, prior to the COVID-19 lockdown, the teams started in Los Angeles, ended in Utah and sought to avoid elimination by completing challenges at six locations in between, zip lining with their pets and rappelling down waterfalls in Mexico, Costa Rica, Florence and Paris. (“The Pack” is the brainchild of Amazon exec Chris Castallo, who headed reality programming for CBS, which airs “Amazing Race.”)
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At a dog orientation prior to filming, the pets perfected skills they would need for the competition, including fetching, tugging and scent work. Members of a “Dog Safety Team” made sure the canines were comfortable throughout filming.
“I think the dogs were better taken care of than the humans,” says Vonn. “Lucy had a personal assistant that had a fan. There was no stone left unturned as far as taking care of the dogs.”
Vonn is a dream host for “The Pack” executive producer Jay Bienstock, “someone that really lived and breathed dogs and their welfare and their emotional being and really understood and really got them.”
The canine component sold Vonn, who was “looking for the next challenge” after wrapping her skiing career. Though no stranger to TV – including an appearance on "Law & Order" and a gig as an Olympics correspondent for NBC's "Today" – this is her first turn as host.
“Dogs are literally the best companions you could ever hope for,” says Vonn, who adopted Leo, a Boxer, American Staffordshire Terrier and Lab mix, in 2013 before surgery for her torn ACL. “I blew it out twice, and I was going to miss the (2014) Olympics, and I was just in a really down, depressed state, and I needed someone that would always be there," says Vonn. "’Cause my life was kind of very tumultuous at the time.”
With her new pup came a sense of joy. “He's always happy to see me,” she says. “When I got surgery, he would lay there in bed with me and put his head up his head on my chest.”
Lucy came into Vonn's life in 2017 when the athlete was tiring of being alone in her hotel rooms while competing during the World Cup, unable to bring her bigger dogs Leo and Bear, a Chow Retriever adopted in 2015. “I got Lucy, and that was such a godsend because I was really struggling," she says.
"Oftentimes with time change you don't have anyone to talk to," she continues. "Lucy will listen to me at any time of the day, and she'll always like it."
“I recommend to anyone – especially now, during this time – to get a dog – rescue a dog, if you can,” Vonn adds. “'’Cause they save your life.”
“The Pack” contestant Lucy Riles says her black Labrador Retriever Duchess served as a source of comfort, following her miscarriage, in the premiere episode. “She came up to me, laid her head on my lap, and never left my side,” Lucy remembers, getting chocked up. “I didn’t leave the house for several months and she would just nudge her little snout on my face, like, ‘Hey, time to get up.’ She just has that intuition.”
“When I watched the show after it was edited, I cried several times in several different episodes,” Vonn says.
Though the challengers and their dogs might have an unspoken bond, Bienstock says one partner’s inability to talk posed unique challenges for his TV show.
“When we first started fleshing out the show, that was specifically what we would all talk about, which was how to make a show where half the team can’t talk,” he says. So the teams were split into green and blue packs, allowing for more human interaction.
“We knew that we would use a lot more sound bites in the show because, again, one of them can’t talk, but one can talk for both,” he says. “And then this idea of How do we show that bond? Whether it’s in cutaways of their facial reactions because nonverbal body language is actually a big thing between humans and dogs.”
Planes were chartered for international flights, which included special menus tailored for the dogs and areas for potty breaks. The dogs and their partners also traveled by chartered buses, trains and private vehicles during the competition.
Bienstock says the well-being of the pups was the primary focus when dreaming up challenges. “A gem of an idea would come up and we’d sit around and think it through and brought our dog people into from the very beginning," he says.
"And we would say to them, 'A) Is it safe? And then B) Will the dogs have fun doing it?' Because if the dogs won’t have fun doing it, or enjoy it, or be present in it, we didn’t want to do it. Because we wanted the dogs to have as much fun, if not more fun, than their partners in the show.”
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This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Amazon's The Pack: Lindsey Vonn, 'diva' dog Lucy host competition show