The first time I met Handsome Dan, he shook excitedly, jowls flapping, saliva flying in a magnificent spray over the Yale Science Building carpet. His immaculate coat gleamed, and he wore an orange plaid bandana around his neck. It was 10 in the morning, and Kingman—better known as Handsome Dan XIX—was already on the job.
So too was Kassandra Haro, Kingman’s handler and near-constant companion. For today’s event, a post-grad coffee socializer, Haro was in all-black, her long dark hair streaming down her back. She wore a fanny pack filled with strips of dehydrated lamb lung. “It’s low calorie and single ingredient: easy for him to digest,” Haro told me.
Over the next hour, Haro and Kingman worked as a seamless, expert team. She snapped photos of Kingman next to beaming post-grads, dangling a strip of lamb lung behind the phone to make him gaze longingly at the camera. To frame the photos without distracting background, Haro wielded each phone upside-down, a trick she picked up from TikTok.
As she took photos and supervised adoring fans, Haro fielded a flood of questions. What’s your title? Handsome Dan’s handler. How long have you had this job? Around one and a half years. How old was Dan when you met him? Seven weeks old. So as his handler, what do you really do?
“It’s usually sort of like a game of twenty questions when I meet somebody,” Haro said. “And I love answering because people generally don’t know that there’s a human behind Handsome Dan.”
Haro’s job as Handsome Dan’s handler is, for all intents and purposes, a 24-hour gig. She’s responsible for taking Kingman to events, creating content for his social media, and for general “puppy mom” duties—taking him to the vet, reinforcing his training, and keeping him healthy and happy. “I like to joke that I’m his momager, but honestly, the relationship is much closer than that. He’s my baby, as dorky as that may sound,” Haro said.
Haro graduated from Yale College in 2018. During her time at Yale, Haro participated in the ROTC program and planned to join the navy, but a medical disqualification her senior year forced her to change plans. After graduation, Haro took a job at The Visitors Center, where she had previously worked as a student tour guide. When the position of Handsome Dan’s handler opened up in 2021, Haro—who grew up around lots of pets and has a knack for social media and events—was a natural fit for the job. Now, Haro and Kingman live in Silliman College, where she also serves as a Resident Fellow.
The job has a demanding schedule, with events after-hours and on weekends. Haro’s busiest times of the year are reunion and commencement season, where she and Kingman can work five or six events a day. Haro has to be deliberate about scheduling breaks and balancing what she describes as Dan’s “double life” as Kingman and Handsome Dan. “He does have two distinct realities, but they mix a lot,” Haro said. “He knows when he’s ‘on’ as Dan. And when he’s home, he’s Kingman. He runs around, plays with his friends here in the Silliman courtyard, and can sort of let loose.”
Not a lot of people know the off-duty Kingman. His on-duty persona, however, is a campus celebrity. The spirit of Handsome Dan has flowed through nineteen separate dogs, and if you dig through the archives, you uncover a multiverse of Dans.
There’s Handsome Dan I, appointed in 1889 and generally considered the first live mascot in history (“he seemed like a cross between an alligator and a horned frog, and he was called handsome by the metaphysicians under the law of compensation,” the Hartford Courant eulogized). There’s Dan VIII, who worked two games before quitting, and Dan XII, the only female Dan (“It’s very hard to call a female ‘Handsome Dan,” complained the Director of Athletics at the time). The pressure of celebrity is not for every dog—some Dans have suffered sudden deaths, others have resigned from the stress, and at least one (Handsome Dan VII) has been fired for having a bad temper.
Beyond Dan the celebrity, there’s also Dan the brand. Yale has trademarked two logos with Handsome Dan: the “Yale Leaning Bulldog” and “Bulldog Y.” Different images of Handsome Dan can also be approved within a Yale Licensing program. In South Korea, Handsome Dan merch has become something of a trend: in 2021, K-Pop idol Seungmin from the group Stray Kids wore a hoodie featuring an uncannily anthropomorphic Handsome Dan with paws tucked into jean pockets (the design is currently sold out online).
These images gesture toward something beyond any physical dog. The Dans are often dressed in Yale sweaters; they sometimes stand on two legs. In a few depictions, a pipe pokes out from a fanged underbite. Here, Dan is hardly a dog at all—he’s a furrier-than-average imagination of the quintessential septuagenarian Yale alum.
I’ve spent some time trying to articulate what makes Handsome Dan, in all his forms, so appealing. He’s regal and grumpy, adorable and vicious, crumpled and handsome. It’s the same ineffable something about the shade of upstanding navy that falls between PMS 288 and 289 and the tasteful serif of the YaleNew Roman typeface. It’s an alluring concoction of history and prestige and money—a million-dollar brand essentialized to one personable dog.
Part of Dan’s charm is that you never see the human labor behind him. In 2020, Yale contracted the breeder Wicked Good Bulldogges in Bristol, Maine to breed the next Dan. Kingman was selected from the litter when he was around eight weeks old. In preparation for his job, Kingman underwent normal puppy training, as well as training to desensitize him to loud noises, cameras, physical touch, and crowds.
Stories of past Dans abound, but stories of past handlers are harder to dig up; invisibility is part of the job. Haro rarely appears in social media photos. She writes captions from Dan’s perspective, giving him his own voice and character (Dan’s online persona loves naps, quirky spellings, and the paws emoji). “I’m totally fine being this background character; that is absolutely my desire. But I really hope people remember the amount of time me and the Visitors Office put into making this possible,” Haro reflected.
For Haro, the moment she felt sure Kingman could be happy and successful as Handsome Dan came during the 2021 Commencement Ceremony for the School of Management. It’s a moment she remembers as “absolutely giddy” for both her and Kingman. The commencement was one of their first large events as “Handler and Dan,” and Kingman led the procession in.
In the YouTube stream of the ceremony, Kingman is just a puppy. Haro holds him on a black leash, and he cuts an adorable figure leading a long line of people in robes and caps. He pitter-patters down one of the long stone-paved walkways of Old Campus. As he approaches the audience, dozens of phone screens swivel toward him. A camera clicks and flashes. He observes them curiously, slowing down to take it all in.
“He was so excited,” Haro remembers. “I think he genuinely thought every person was there for him.”
And maybe, in some way, they were.