Secrets of the Puppy Bowl: Inside the Most Adorable Sporting Event of the Year
We go behind the scenes at the filming of Puppy Bowl XV, where spirits are high, fluff is flying, poops are wanton, and hope for humanity just may be found.
The production assistant takes the corner like a hot rod peeling through a hairpin turn. If her New Balances had tracks there’d be skidmarks scuffing the linoleum covering the hallways of the Penn Station-adjacent studio. She has the power-drunk look familiar to anyone who’s been near a TV set. She’s walking. She’s talking. She’s got tasks, and each one is a five-alarm emergency. This one is of utmost importance. Bumble is expected on set. WHERE IS BUMBLE?!
Summoned by the frantic cry, Bumble appears, the ghost-white, floppy-eared fluffball wide-eyed and excited, cradled in a handler’s arms and peering out with a goofy grin as she is walk-jogged to the holding area. All the cliches are present on this morning-to-night shooting day. Stressed producers with clipboards! Publicists! NDAs! Coverage embargoes! The stars are being shuttled around production, the phrase “and we’re walking...” actually uttered.
The chaotic set is routine. It’s the stars that are unusual: 93 puppy dogs, a phalanx of Very Good Boys descending upon Manhattan to perform the greatest sporting event of the year. It is time to film Puppy Bowl XV.
For the past 15 years, the milkbone showdown has aired on Animal Planet the same afternoon as the Super Bowl, offering a pure alternative to the bombast, athletic violence, and, lately, politics of the biggest night in football.
The above description is no hyperbole. Staging the annual event is a mammoth undertaking, a feat of wrangling, charity, and, of course, extreme adorableness. This year, 93 puppies from 51 shelters and representing 20 states will gnaw on chew toys and gallivant around the brightly lit astroturf set, to delight those of us primed to coo and gawk as well as raise awareness.
All of the competing puppies, as well as their elders taking part in the Dog Bowl earlier in the week, as well as their feline counterparts staging the Kitty Halftime Show (Maroon 5, who?), can be adopted through their representative shelters and rescue groups. The message behind Flora’s touchdown and Remington’s adorable meandering offsides, and offstage: adopting a pet saves a life.
According to CNN, quoting the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, 6.5 million companion animals enter US shelters each year. Those that aren’t adopted could be euthanized. It’s estimated that in 2011, 2.6 million shelter animals were euthanized, though that rate has been drastically dropping. Awareness is a major part of that decline, and the Puppy Bowl, with its unabashed activist mission being met with record ratings for Animal Planet, could certainly be attributed with playing a part in that.
Plus, these puppers! I can’t!
It should go without saying that this ranks among the best sets we’ve visited as an entertainment reporter. Sure, it’s a little different to see the show’s stars poop at will, wherever they happen to be standing. But it’s remarkable that, aside from the professional hazard of feces on set, how alike a normal production day it is here.
There’s a Kraft services table. There are star-gawkers on set. One publicist explains how in-demand an on-set pass to taping the show is: A colleague from a rival network managed to finagle his way to a bleacher seat.
There are cameras on cranes and a bank of monitors and a Very Serious Director demanding quiet on set, only for talent to blatantly ignore the orders as they bite down on a squeak toy. At one point we find our way to the green room, opening up the door to a veritable Wonderland in which the expansive space is essentially carpeted in wee pads and teeming with dogs of all sizes waiting to be brought in for their turn on the field.
(The dogs are swapped in and out throughout filming, monitored by representatives from the American Humane Society who gauge fatigue, health, and general annoyance. As we watched, Malibu was being swapped out with Aster. Malibu was getting a little “cranky-wanky.”)
As with all sports television programs, there are some very special athletes with heartwarming stories meant to leave you misty-eyed. Pippi, a Jack Russell mix, is blind. A Doodle mix named Will has only three legs. And the aforementioned Bumble, an Australian Shepherd mix, is hearing impaired.
But nothing will squash the unbridled glee of the four-legged champions, unfazed by cameras and the crowd of attention, just roughing around and soaking in the love. Bumble scores a field goal, kicking a stuffed toy over the goal line. In a stark break from NFL protocol, he is rewarded with a cuddle and a noogie. “No fumbles for Bumble!” quips the referee, Dan Schachner, officiating his eighth Puppy Bowl.
During a break between quarters—these cutie pies need a rest!—Schachner chats with us about the ins and outs of staging the most adorable sports showdown you’ll see this year. He’s a seasoned pro at the puppy puns, be fairly warned, but also an articulate activist for the cause. He’s got some great gossip about the naughtiest stars’ rogue bathroom habits, and an utterly wholesome origin story.
Behold, the Secrets of the Puppy Bowl.
How does one become the referee of the Puppy Bowl? I mean…Dream Job?
I’ve been doing this for eight years. I like to say that I was a NFL ref but I got fired for being too soft on the players. So they sent me down to Puppy Bowl where you get to kiss and cuddle the players after a touchdown. But the reality is Animal Planet knew me. I was an on-camera personality for them for a lot of years, hosting a variety of shows. Then the Puppy Bowl job opened because the guy who did it before me moved onto like the Food Network or something else.
Food before puppies. How rude.
So I put myself on a tape... There’s no precedence for any of this. So I just went to a bunch of New York City dog parks and officiated dogs playing football, and it was totally bizarre. But I cut it all together and it was pretty convincing. The tape’s out there on YouTube somewhere. But they bought it, and here I am eight years later.
How much football knowledge is required?
Very little. I like to say the NFL rulebook is like 20 pages, and this book is half a page. Like two sentences. If you carry a chew toy into the end zone, it’s a touchdown. Doesn’t matter which end zone. You can carry, you can kick it. If you can throw it, more power to you, but we’ve yet to see a touchdown pass. You have to play a clean game. And by clean, we don’t mean totally clean. You can poop on the field. That’s acceptable. But we mean not too much paw interference. No roughing the passer. That kind of stuff. Play with some level of “dognity.”
What kind of prep goes into this? There are 93 names to remember...
Actually a lot. The hardest thing for me as a ref, no joke, is learning all their names. We have 93 dogs that participate from the beginning of the day to the end. Then there’s Dog Bowl on Thursday, which is for older dogs. It’s just a lot of names to remember when you’re congratulating these dogs on their touchdowns. That’s another thing that NFL refs don’t do, congratulate the players on a touchdown. You want to know their names, but you also want to know a little bit of their story, too. We have some special needs dogs. We have some dogs that have traveled from Costa Rica, Puerto Rico, faraway places. So it’s nice to know a little bit of their backstories so we can celebrate their accomplishments even more.
What is your background with dogs?
When I was a kid, I grew up with dogs. We had dogs, hamsters, fish, parakeets—every pet you could imagine. In terms of actual knowledge and training, it’s zero. I just have a lot of love for animals of all types. The reason I wanted to work at Animal Planet is because of that. Previous to this, I worked in sports entertainment for SNY, Sports New York network, as a host for some of their trivia shows. So when I saw a job opened up that was sports-related, sort of, and animal-related, it was my dream job.
What kind of hazards are there?
You’ll notice when you watch the Puppy Bowl filmed that we don’t show all the poops onscreen. I think we should. I’m a big advocate for showing every aspect of dog ownership. Let’s not lie to our audience. I’m all for showing it, but I think they wanted a little happier version, a more sanitized version. If you’re watching Puppy Bowl live, the thing that you don’t see is that when dogs first take the field, it is a lovely turf field that is pristine and green and ready to be pooped and peed on. At the beginning of every new quarter when new dogs come in, you’ll see poop and pee everywhere. They all kind of mark their territory. Once they get it out of their system—literally—we can play the game. So the hazard is that at the beginning of every quarter, let them acclimate, as they call it, and then we can play the game.
What is the wildest thing you’ve seen: a play, extreme bodily function…
We just saw it now. I had never seen it before. Bugsy, I think it was, at the end of the second quarter decided to poop not just at the end zone but all over the field. So right now as we speak they’re vacuuming the end zone. He didn’t just poop in one spot like most dogs do. He pooped laterally, from one side of the end zone to the other side, and then went to the 50-yard line, continued to poop. It was like a little trail he left for everybody. Some might say it was protest.
Unhappy with one of your calls?
Unfair calling. Maybe he was unhappy with the officiating. That was crazy. One time a dog pulled my sock off. Just ripped it. That was Ginger in Puppy Bowl X. The other crazy play thing I’ve seen is double touchdowns happening. This is something unique to Puppy Bowl: dogs scoring touchdowns at the same time. We have multiple chew toys, so it’s possible. So a couple of double touchdowns happened. That’s always fun. The fact that we even have field goals is something new to us. Four or five years ago, we had never even considered that a dog could kick a ball, but then that happened. So now there’s a movement to have puppies playing soccer. Stay tuned for that.
Do the dogs train for this at all?
No. In fact, we don’t want trained dogs. Because then they have an unfair advantage. And most trained dogs are not up for adoption. They’ve usually been with a trainer for a while. So we don’t want that. This is why I’m back to the poo stuff. We want them as untrained as possible. The idea is that they’re all up for adoption and we want people to see puppies being puppies. If they want to see dogs doing agility courses, there’s shows they can watch for that. But we want them as “ruff” around the edges as possible.
Do you have dogs?
For the last many years—I’ve lost count—we’ve been fostering dogs. I started doing it as a way to see if I wanted to adopt. Then a family adopted that dog and I realized, you know what, I could get another foster, and then another and another and another. People say fostering is important, and I’m realizing it now, because you’re saving two lives: it’s the one you’re saving plus the room you’re making in the shelter for the next dog. I like the idea of that. I have kids and they like the idea of that. We’ve become de facto volunteers at shelters in the area through this. And I’ve learned so much about every kind of dog. It’s served as great training to be a ref.
It’s nice to have this kind of program, especially in today’s world.
The world is a dark, scary place these days. The world is very polarized. It cannot be good for the heart. I think this is the antidote for that. For one, it’s an event that everyone can get behind. Wherever you lean on any spectrum, you can agree that this is a good thing. I value it for that.
The one bipartisan issue.
I also think that what we’re doing is not just shedding light on shelters and dogs, but also the communities around those shelters and dogs. We’ve done a lot with hurricane relief. We’ve brought misplaced dogs into Puppy Bowl. It’s wonderful. These shelters that needed help rescuing these dogs see an uptick in engagement from our audiences reaching out to them. That’s the good that I see. We’re not just helping dogs, we’re helping people.