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Exclusive: Puppy Bowl Referee Dan Schachner on why the special needs pups have his heart and more

Dan Schachner and puppy
Ref Dan Schachner’s life’s work revolved around making sure the canines get their shot at nine lives too. Pic credit: D. Schachner Facebook.

Animal Planet’s Puppy Bowl time is upon us, and its human MVP is “rufferee” Dan Schachner, a New Yorker whose natural charisma has made him a fan favorite and returning hero for anyone who cares about canines. 

Schachner spoke with Monsters & Critics once again ahead of the big game—the Super Bowl between the Los Angeles Rams and the Cincinnati Bengals—and the actual main event for many of us, the Puppy Bowl. 

Schachner is in year eleven now as the official referee of the Puppy Bowl, managing the two teams, Ruff and Fluff. 

What started as a fun diversion in programming has mushroomed into a focused and well-oiled rescue and awareness machine mitigating the suffering of unwanted dogs, as it educates owners and promotes the value of finding an older dog or a special needs dog to adopt.

Schachner tells us in our interview below that this is where his heart dwells. His tireless work on behalf of dog rescues, education, and humane and ethical breeding is a year-long job for him.

His sponsors and network partner also roll up their sleeves this time of year as all eyes are on the television, the work of shelters and rescues, and Schachner’s life’s work of animal advocacy gets a vast viewership and platform on Animal Planet. Each Puppy Bowl pup hails from a rescue organization, and the program currently has a 100% adoption rate. 

A dog foster-dad, Schachner champions the underdogs and gamely moderates the four-legged competition for the prized “Lombarky Trophy.” 

About Puppy Bowl XVIII in 2022

Tune in to the Puppy Bowl draft pre-game show at 1:00 p.m. ET, with sportscasters Rodt Weiler, Sheena Inu, and James Hound with field reporters Mini Pinscher and Greta Dane. 

The game features ESPN personalities Steve Levy and Sage Steele, who will call the 2022 Puppy Bowl along with “rufferee” Schachner, while the hosts and coaches of the Puppy Bowl are epicurean and style expert Martha Stewart and rapper Snoop Dogg, who will oversee Team Ruff and Team Fluff, wearing the Super Bowl 56 colors of blue and orange.

For the feline lovers, the Kitty Half-Time Show with adoptable kittens is a bonus, plus the show will have a focus on special needs dogs.

For the techies and lovers of NFTs (non-fungible tokens), which Discovery described in a press statement as “unique units of data,” like “one-of-a-kind trading cards” can be purchased through direct sale or auction. A portion of the proceeds will go to the animal rescue organization Orange Twins Rescue, created by Scott and Brian Nicholson and pop star Ariana Grande.

This year’s Puppy Bowl will have 118 adoptable puppies from 67 shelters and rescues from 33 states. The pups will compete for the Bissell Most Valuable Puppy Award and the Subaru Underdog Award.

Exclusive interview with Dan Schachner

Monsters & Critics: Congratulations on making season 11. Are you still fostering some of these puppies and dogs that we might be seeing on Team Ruff and Team Fluff?

Dan Schachner: Yes. Except my latest foster is an adult dog. So you won’t see him on Puppy Bowl. Sometimes I foster dogs just to foster them. And my latest one happens to be an adult, so they won’t be on this Puppy Bowl. But in prior times, players like Bluey, for example, from last year’s Puppy Bowl, was a foster mine that did appear. 

M&C: When you’re not doing all of this puppy bowl work and the promotions, what do you do?

Dan Schachner: I’m a Puppy Bowl ref year-round. So even if we’re not working on the game itself, there’s always something to do when it comes to the mission of pet adoption. 

So if I’m not working on the Puppy Bowl, there’s probably another show online or on the YouTube channel, or something that I’m working on that will still promote pet adoption. 

I’ve been happy and lucky enough to participate in many of them. And as far as the companies I work with, I will only partner with companies that promote adoption awareness and have some part in it. 

And then when any sponsored content or anything that you’re seeing the proceeds of it, a portion of those proceeds always go back to benefit a partnered rescue.

It’s something that I’ve done for the last, well, as long as I’ve been with Puppy Bowl, because being with animals and adopting animals is probably the central role and the reason why I got involved in this first place.

M&C: A lot of fans feel like you should have your series year-round, maybe a bit more behind the scenes?

Dan Schachner: Yes, I’ve done several shows for the network, and I continue to do shows. If anyone’s saying, I should have a show, that is happening. I have the show, Where Are They Now? that revisits old Puppy Bowl players. I have From Puppy Bowl, With Love, which is a great show that looks back on all the years of relationships formed due to Puppy Bowl. 

We also have stuff for the YouTube channel called Freedom Flight. You’ll see a new episode on February 13th, when Puppy Bowl airs. The YouTube channel will also show the journey of one dog being rescued in Puerto Rico and flown to the states to be rehabilitated and finally adopted. 

And in the past, I’ve also hosted live televised events. For example, Give A Dog A Home Live! is a series I worked on for most of 2019 and 2020. 

So absolutely, there’s a lot out there for people to enjoy if they want to see more adoption and more of what we’re doing. And Puppy Bowl has 118 dogs, all of whom are from across the country and all of whom are up for adoption. 

So I am pretty excited about that. It’s our most amount of dogs ever in this year’s puppy bowl representing 33 states and 67 different shelters.

M&C: Last year, the MVP was the Boston Terrier—any predictions about who might be the MVP this year from what you’ve observed?

Dan Schachner: [laughs] Yes. We’ve seen a lot of good talent. One thing that I want to note is that our team captains are pretty good themselves. Moby is the team captain of Team Ruff, a French bulldog with lots of character, which is the best way I could describe. 

And Dinozzo, who is the team captain for a Team Fluff, he’s an incredible Basset Hound-Shitzu mix, and that’s a combination you don’t see too often. So you’ve got the long ears of the hound with the fur of the Shitzu, and it’s just a great combo.

In addition to being great team captains and motivators, they look outstanding in pre-game and equally good at practices, and I think they’re going to do very well. As far as who my heart wants?

M&C: You love the special needs dogs…

Dan Schachner: Yes. I have a particular soft spot for all the special needs dogs we feature every year. 

And this year, another record is being broken. We have the most amount of special needs dogs ever. I would look at Irwin, a lovely dog also rescued for Puerto Rico, who’s only got one leg. 

Manny is a dog whose back legs are paralyzed. However, he lives and uses a wheelchair to get around and does incredible onstage. 

And Forrest, unfortunately, lost an eye, but that doesn’t slow him down. 

And Ridley is maybe the one I had the softest spot for because Ridley is both sight and hearing impaired. Did Ridley need a little extra help on the field? Absolutely. 

We have staff from the humane society, the vet course, and plenty of assistance. So we made sure that he was safe on the field. But the special needs dogs are the ones that I would pull for always.

M&C Have you observed that the special needs dogs each sense the other dogs’ sensory deficit or motion or mobility deficit and help the other dog?

Dan Schachner: I think so. I’ve seen it, and I’ve heard it from both vets and doctors alike that the other senses are heightened, and it is true. 

I noticed it with the hearing and sight-impaired dogs, their sense of smell. But, of course, a dog’s sense of smell is a thousand times stronger than a human, to begin with, and they do seem to sniff out any little thing on the field, which is pretty good and helpful as well.

M&C: There was a spike in adoptions during COVID and now worrisome news articles about adopters/buyers remorse. Talk about your feelings about that and give the straight poop as they say about the checklist that you should ask yourself before adopting?

Dan Schachner: It’s always going to be hard when there’s a transition, especially in a young dog, whether that transition is from a human being home all the time due to work-at-home lockdowns pandemic or the reverse. 

So, it’s been quite a couple of years for the dogs that were already there, and I would think change must be somewhat difficult given that their owners were suddenly home all the time. And many of them now have either returned to work or come back in some hybrid format. 

And then there are the ones that had been adopted during the pandemic when we were home, and we’re able to train them and get them right now. 

As long as the owner, when they’re returning to work, has done the due diligence and does all the homework to prepare their dogs for separation issues. There should be a strong network. 

And that would be my advice for anybody you’ve adopted during the pandemic. You’re returning to work or your life is changing, or you’re moving, make sure that you have prepared your dogs for either separation anxiety or for the possibility of being home alone. 

In which case, you might need a more robust support network. For example, you might need to look out, seek out local dog walkers, find a doggie support group with other owners who maybe you can share responsibilities if you live in the city as I do.

Make sure your neighbors are there and can check on your dogs, anything, or get a second dog if that’s feasible, doable, and safe to keep them. 

But it will be a transition time. And yes, I have seen an explosion here in New York City of dogs, which is great. And luckily, a lot of the owners are still working from home. 

So it doesn’t seem to be too much of a problem. But in general, if you’ve done the work ahead of time, you should be okay. Also, remember that there are so many online resources for preparing your dogs for change.

M&C: Let’s talk about the fantastic Puppy Bowl sponsors.

Dan Schachner: I have lost count, but Cathy Bissell has helped adopt thousands of dogs over the last few years. Her Bissell Pet Foundation is one of the strongest ones, but those like the Petco Foundation are major brands putting their money where their mouth is and doing the right thing. 

And the nice thing about Cathy Bissell, in particular, is that I’ve been at rescues with her and seen her help get dogs adopted, and it’s been incredible. And she’s a fun follow too on social media because her heart is really on her sleeve when it comes to this. 

It makes you feel good when you use those products, and it makes you feel like the products are geared towards pet owners or at least somewhat helpful towards them. 

All the brands I work with have some adoption or pet overpopulation initiative, where they’re trying to curb the overpopulation problem. 

In addition to Bissell are the smaller and medium-sized brands, and they work their butts off. And I’m thinking about one that I work with now called Wisdom Panel, the doggie DNA company, that honestly, they don’t have a giant charity foundation or the deep pockets like the larger sponsors. However, they still donate a portion of their proceeds and profits towards animal rescue. 

And over the last three months, the rescues that I work with from the Sato Project, that’s the Puerto Rican dog rescue. They have been so instrumental in donating money and helping publicize our efforts.

Puppy Bowl XVIII airs Sunday, February 13th at 2 p.m. EST on Animal Planet.

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