EXCLUSIVE : Interview With PUPPY BOWL Referee Dan Schachner

For the past 14 years Animal Planet has been airing its annual PUPPY BOWL on Super Bowl Sunday as a way of connecting with fans who want to watch puppies do their best to play football in their own hilarious puppy way. In addition to being cute and healthy, all the featured puppies are adoptable. The puppies are collected from animal shelters across the United States in hopes of getting them adopted by loving and appreciative families, and every year, all the puppies are actually adopted by the end of PUPPY BOWL. In an exclusive interview, Dan Schachner offers insights on what it takes to be a PUPPY BOWL referee, how the puppies are selected, and what kinds of cool puppy plays can be seen during the game.

How long have you been a referee for PUPPY BOWL?
DAN:    This is PUPPY BOWL #7 for me. We’re on [PUPPY BOWL XIV]. I’m really excited to be here. It’s growing every single year.

What would you say would be the most attractive qualities for somebody that wants to be a PUPPY BOWL referee?
DAN:    Stamina would be number one. When you’re working with animals or children, you’ve got to be on the top of your game. Then, I think, the second thing would be just awareness of who dogs are, what dogs are like in terms of their needs — puppies especially. The kind of dogs that we bring are not house-trained. They’re up for adoption. They’re living in shelters. Sometimes they’re skittish. Sometimes they’re super rambunctious. Sometimes they’re somewhere in between. In terms of what a referee needs, I would say: stamina, knowledge about puppies, and then I would say, being adaptable to the situation. They’re fully unpredictable. Something new every single day. Be ready for that.

What kinds of puppies are you selecting? Is there an age range or type of dog?
DAN:    Yeah. Every puppy in PUPPY BOWL is between twelve and twenty-four weeks of age. It’s kind of a requirement, a prerequisite, 12 to 24 weeks. They must be adoptable. They must be from a shelter or rescue group. They all must be adorable — that, of course, is a subjective thing —b but we don’t have any trouble finding something that can be universally agreed upon as adorable.

So you wouldn’t want the dog shivering in the corner then?
DAN:    We’re good with the shivering dog, if he’s cute or she’s cute. We can usually have techniques that can get them to be not so shy or shivery. The other thing I should’ve added to the prerequisites is just a nice mix of breeds. We want to let people know that when you go to a shelter, you’re not just getting a breed you can’t place because it’s a total mix. They’re there. But there’s also pure-bred bull dogs and dachshunds and terriers. Anything you could possibly imagine could be up for adoption. So we try to showcase as many different breeds as possible.

How much do you work with the puppies beforehand — before the PUPPY BOWL?
DAN:    None. In fact, that would go against what we’re trying to do. If we would try to train them in any way, or even socialize them — I guess the most we could do in terms of prep would be hours before the PUPPY BOWL, we do have them show up and hang out in these pens off to the side. We mix them just a little bit in individual pens for a little bit. The vets do look at them. There’s animal trainers and the Humane Society is there to make sure there’s no safety issues and make sure that no dog is going to bite and scratch and hurt somebody.  As long as we can rule that out, then we’ll just mix them in and hope for the best. It usually turns out fine.

For you, what is the funnest part? What do you love?
DAN:    My most satisfying and fun moments are seeing our impact. I mean, every year we have not just the uptick from the shelters that work with us, but we have 100% adoption rate. This year we have ninety dogs from all over the country. All of whom will be adopted by the time PUPPY BOWL airs. Then the shelters that we work with — we work with 48 different shelters this year — they’re all experiencing an up-take and will continue to experience an up-take. To me, what is the most fun is staying connected with these shelters, with some of the pet parents that do adopt these dogs and seeing these dogs grow up. They’re getting them as puppies.  I should also mention this year that we’ve got the DOG BOWL. We’re not ignoring our older dogs, as well. We’ve got older dogs ranging in age from 2 to 14 years. It’s really amazing to see them. The point is, of course, dogs that are older can be good pets for families too. Jill Rappaport is a correspondent for us. She’s been a correspondent for PUPPY BOWL for a long time and she was working with NBC for years prior to that. Her big cause was older dogs, as well. She’s kind of spearheading the older dog movement. We’re very excited to have her on board. We’re excited for DOG BOWL. We’re excited for PUPPY BOWL.

What would you say your success rate is for placing the dogs in good homes?
DAN:    I can’t tell you exactly. We don’t follow up with in-home visits years later. However, we have brought puppies back from past PUPPY BOWLS. Remember, we have our MVPs every year that we give out, “Most Valuable Puppy” awards for the ones that score the most touchdowns. We do bring them back for Hall of Fame moments. When they come back on the field, and of course they’re four times the size that you remember and you barely recognize them, we do get a sneak peek back into their lives. It’s really awesome. One of the other great things that we do in PUPPY BOWL is have these behind the scenes stories. We have them “Pup Close And Personal” packages. As you’re watching PUPPY BOWL, they might zoom in on one particular dog and say, “Let’s find out a little bit more about this dachshund.” Then they’ll go and find out a little bit more about his story. This year, we’re really happy about the fact that we were showcasing dogs that were affected by natural disaster. We have many in this country and internationally this year. They are also featured in a big part of these behind the scene stories too.

Is there any limit? Like if a family wants to adopt multiple puppies?
DAN:    Oh no. There never is. Any shelter is going to do any due diligence to make sure it is the right fit. I think they’re going to look at their home situation. If they’ve got a large enough place, of course.

Can you predict which puppies might be MVPs for game?
DAN:    I can’t, really. I can tell you that people do take that very seriously. They have sort of non-monetary bets going on at home. There’s a lot of rumors and people whispering like, “I think J Paw — which is “Jennifer Pawrence,” of course, is one of our star dogs — is going to be MVP because she’s got it in her. I’ve seen her running. She’s really fast. She’s really grabbing that chew toy. I think she’s got a good route to the end zone.” But I can’t say specifically. In fact, sometimes we will highlight different MVPs just to throw people off the scent, no pun intended, just to make people think another MVP got elected. Don’t forget our viewers also vote. That’s one of the reasons we do have to shoot multiple endings. We’ve got to wait for the PUPPY BOWL. As it’s airing, people can over social or online at AnimalPlanet.com vote for who they think must be the MVP. Then we will listen to the people. Whoever they vote for. We usually have an inkling. The high scorers are pretty easy to identify.

What kind of surprises do you usually have to deal with?
DAN:    Surprises? Well, from the puppies there are always surprises. Every five minutes you’ve got a surprise. You’ve got to watch where you step. We’ve got an amazing clean up crew. I’m sometimes part of the clean up crew. Sometimes, it’s all hands on deck. We also deal with the surprises of — every year there’s always sometimes new, like a puppy does something that we either don’t have a rule for or penalty for. We got to find a way to adjust to that. One year, we had two puppies score touchdowns at the same time. That had never happened. We need to be ready for these, again, unpredictable moments. We had to confer and be like, “Okay, we’ll score these two touchdowns.” It had never happened before. We had a puppy kick the ball once. Didn’t even know puppies could kick. Yeah. They’re always showcasing new skills to surprise us.

How do you keep yourself from laughing through the whole thing? Do you just laugh through it?
DAN:    Well, you’re free to laugh. It’s a happy place. It’s a very happy set. Laughing is fine. Laughing is good, as long as you can stay focused. You don’t want to get distracted or fall in love with a dog to the point where you’re either favoring them or ignoring some of the infractions that they might do. It one literally has its paws around a dog’s neck, you want to separate them, give them a time out.

What are the game infractions?
DAN:    Millions. I mean, based on the basic things. Either they’re being too rough or they’re being too lazy or they’re being too clingy, or just fell asleep right there. We have illegal napping. We call it “excessive slumbering.” We’ll give them a little warning. If it continues — the napping — we kind of send them off to the side. If it continues, you’re benched. The other ones, it boils down to really three: too lazy, too rambunctious, or too playful. Rambunctious is kind of a nice way of saying too rough. Those are the tough ones. “Paws interference” instead of “pass interference.” Roughing the passer. Illegal formation or “fur-mation.” Dog-collar tackles. Neutral bone infractions. Illegal odor downfield. Well, odor is different. I’ll come back to that one later. There’s so many different ways to kind of riff on the NFL ones. There’s also ones that are unique to PUPPY BOWL. We have one called “pancaking.” Only dogs will do this. Humans won’t. They will just jump and flatten another dog. That just doesn’t happen. Children do it. NFL real players don’t. That’s a new one. You’ll never see that one in the NFL. That’ll be new to us. Those are unique to PUPPY BOWL. We also have a water bowl in the middle of the set. Often, dogs will just jump in it and take a little bath, just hang out in it. That’s called “illegal bathing.” Again, you won’t see that one in the NFL. The ones, like “paws interference,” are riffs on real things. Neutral bone infraction is of course a riff. Instead of “intentional grounding,” which is an NFL penalty, we have “intentional growling.” Those are a part of it.  The other one — lazy, rough, or playful — playful can be any category. Sometimes you’ll have dogs that will literally just hang out by the goalpost, sniff around there for the entire time. Circle it, try to jump over it. At a certain point you’re like, “All right. I’m just going to let this go on.” You just have to pick your battles. If you called a penalty for every little infraction, you couldn’t let the game go on.

Like there’s always one “showman” puppy out there that wants to show off while the rest of them play.
DAN:    You just said it for me. We call it “excessive celebrating.” Of course, the NFL rules on celebrating have loosened over the years. We’ve loosened them ourselves. Sometimes, I just jump in and celebrate with them.

Do you guys come up with these terminology weeks ahead of time or is it on the spot?
DAN: It’s both. I also have producers. If there’s something I don’t see — and remember we have approximately 17 different camera angles, if you combine both the regular cameras on set, the HD cams, we also have cameras embedded in the end zones and the two toys and the water bowls. Everywhere. In the stands. They’ll catch things that we may not catch. Sometimes when we go back and look we’re like, “oh man, that dog just ran 70 yards and we didn’t even see it.”

What would you want the fans to know about PUPPY BOWL that they may not know as they’re watching?
DAN:    Every one of our dogs — this year 90 dogs participated — every one of them gets adopted. We not only have 100% adoption rate, we also get reports from all of our partner shelters that there’s an increased awareness, which is the best and most satisfying thing.  This year, not just the natural disasters — Hurricane Harvey, Florida, Puerto Rico, the Mexico earthquake — we have dogs from all of those areas. We’re also trying to highlight, showcase “special needs” dogs. Those, in addition to the older dogs for DOG BOWL, that I mentioned, “special needs” dogs sometimes get overlooked too. I’m happy to say that we have some blind dogs that really did quite well. We also have a 3-legged dog that also ran like a champ down the field and some deaf dogs. The idea being is not to exploit them in any way, but simply to let potential pet parents to know that,”Hey, if you’re a really calm household and you need a really calm dog, well this 8-year old, little deaf poodle is the perfect little snuggle buddy. It’ll cuddle with you every single night. Low energy and might be just the right fit.”   We kind of try to open people’s minds to the possibility. There’s a whole world of potential pet matches out there. Every year, we try to expand and try to showcase as many different kinds so that people get an idea of what’s out there, and beyond just puppies. Puppies don’t really have the hardest time being adopted, but older dogs do.

There’s always people who want companionship and a puppy might be a little bit energetic for them. So maybe an older dog could be peaceful, just somebody to hang out and watch TV with.
DAN:    100%. When I personally foster dogs, my favorite fosters are the older ones. They’re grateful to be in a home. They’re often house-trained or at least are aware of what they’re supposed to do, even if they don’t fully do it. Whereas, you’ve got to make it a part-time job when you have a puppy.  Most people are not aware that puppies are a lot of work. They often go in thinking it’s just going to be a party from the moment they bring them home. They don’t realize there’s work. We could probably do more work in that regard, like have puppy training videos and stuff like that.

What would be the first thing people should know if they’re going to be adopting?
DAN:    I think that you need to look at your own house situation in terms of time. How often are you out of the house at work or on vacation, wherever? In other words, is your dog going to be alone? How much room do you have? Time, room, and energy. Those are the three. I mean, if you have all three of those in abundance, then by all means get seven puppies. For me, it’s always a combination of those three things. Not that I’m screening, but people are asking me those questions. I try to make sure that they are mentally, emotionally, and physically ready.

How do you decompress after PUPPY BOWL?
DAN:    It’s a big nap, just like the dogs. I do what they’ve been doing on the sidelines. I nap. I actually do like to watch the PUPPY BOWL fresh. We shoot it ahead of time, but I don’t try to watch it. When I do watch it, I am trying to see it fresh, like it’s live for the first time, which is how most of American sees it. Once it’s over, I do immediately take notes about what we can improve for next year, what I could’ve done better and what new breeds might be out there that we haven’t thought about.

To see all the awesome, adorable and audacious antics of the puppies, one sure to tune in for PUPPY BOWL XIV on Sunday, February 4th at 12:00 pm on Animal Planet.  More behind-the-scenes coop can be seen on Animal Planet’s Twitter feed: https://twitter.com/AnimalPlanet or by visiting it’s website at: https://www.animalplanet.com/tv-shows/puppy-bowl/

Information about the PUPPY BOWL XIV adoptions can be found at:

“PUPPY BOWL XIV: Coming February 2018”:

Puppy Bowl XIV | Coming February 2018

“Top 5 PUPPY BOWL Plays”:

Puppy Bowl Spot Center: Top 5 Plays

“There’s A New Referee at PUPPY BOWL XIV”:

There's A New Referee At Puppy Bowl XIV

“PUPPY BOWL XIV: Meet The Adorable the All Stars”:

'Puppy Bowl XIV': Meet The Adorable All-Stars! | Access