Puppy Bowl exclusive: Interview with ‘rufferee’ Dan Schachner

Puppy Bowl XIV referee Dan Schachner
Ref Dan Schachner takes the field to officiate the Puppy Bowl XIV for Animal Planet

The biggest pet adoption event on television is back and furrier than ever as Animal Planet airs Puppy Bowl XIV this Sunday — with two hours of naughty nips, squeals of joy and a few puppy penalties.

The fun will be ruffereed once again by Dan Schachner, now into his seventh year for the broadcast as he keeps tabs on any pupsetting situations between Team Ruff and Team Fluff.

And as the “tail”gating gets under way, there’ll be in-depth aww-nalysis from correspondents inside GEICO Stadium.

What to expect: The line-up features 39 puppies who compete for the individual Bissell MVP (Most Valuable Puppy) award by scoring the most touchdowns with Petco dog-approved toys.

Schachner is joined by animal advocate and television correspondent Jill Rappaport, who presents the Subaru “Pup Close and Personal” segments that will share backstories of the puppies involved in the event.

At the recent Television Critics Association winter tour, we sat down with Dan Schachner who told us just how much he enjoys being part of Animal Planet’ ever-entertaining adoption event.

Monsters and Critics: We’re super excited for Puppy Bowl XIV. How did you get involved as a referee? 

Dan Schachner: I’d have a lot of competition if people could apply. Every day I do press things and I inevitably get asked, “How can I be a Puppy Bowl ref?”. There’s not an official application — although if there were one, I’d have been the first to fill it out eight years ago.

This is Puppy Bowl XIV and it’s my seventh year, so it was the start of Puppy Bowl VIII where they were looking for a ref. The guy who had done it prior to me, Andrew Schecter, was an employee of Animal Planet.

He’d been a producer for them for years, so they just had a producer kind of there calling the calls and they realized that it was a bigger job than just a producer could do.

You kind of needed somebody who had broadcast experience and they’d known me for many years. I had hosted a couple of shows for them, sort of one-hour specials, pet product specials on Animal Planet, but I’ve also hosted sports trivia shows and home improvement shows. They knew me as that guy.

I also always had a tremendous love for dogs, I grew up with dogs. No one thought that that job would open, they just thought that this guy Andrew would hold on to it, but then when they realized it was bigger and they needed to have a real broadcast host-type of person do it, they brought me in for an interview. They wanted a tape, an audition tape. Remember those?

We used to make tapes before we made videos and I actually did the tape and I went to New York City dog parks and officiated the strangest football games between dogs you’ve ever seen. The looks that I got. Better than the tape itself, the awkward tape, would be the looks I got from people when I explained what I was trying to do.

We edited together a really awesome, I guess, one-minute sizzle reel and then I did a confessional to camera as to why I should be the next Puppy Bowl ref. I interspersed it with video of me officiating my young, at that point, sons playing mock football games in the living room, me officiating my goldfish, my hamster, anything you can think of.

It was a pretty desperate plea, but that along with the interview and my prior experience with Animal Planet I think got me the job, so here I am seven years later. It’s been incredible and only grown every year.

M&C: When you officiate, what are some of the things that people should know, like the technical things behind the scenes that you actually have to do to keep the puppies in line?

DS: We get a lot of help because we do have vets on staff, the Humane Society, and the trainers, so a lot of eyes are watching to ensure their safety, but once their safety is ensured, hey, all bets are off. Throw the dogs in there!

We usually try to keep it no more than eight to 10 on the field at once. With the smaller breeds, that’s easy. With the large breeds, it’s really like being stuck in a crowded subway train with dogs because even a puppy Great Dane is still a Great Dane.

So eight to 10 mixed breeds. We don’t mix larger breeds with smaller breeds, so smalls all come in at once and we kind of go up at every quarter.

In terms of keeping them in line, in addition to the help that I have, it’s my job to make sure that they’re playing safely, to make sure that they’re playing a clean game, and I mean that both literally and figuratively, and then to make sure their touchdowns are properly notated and scored.

Dan Schachner
Ref Dan Schachner helps to declare a winner at the Puppy Bowl XIV

Touchdowns can actually be trickier than you think because you think, “Well, there’s really only one rule in the Puppy Bowl rulebook besides ‘play a clean game’ and be safe. You’ve got to drag a chew toy into the end zone.” There’s nothing else. There are no other complicated routes that they’re going to run.

I mean, they just have to drag the toy into the end zone. Any toy, any end zone. We’re not picky. We just want to see some action. That can be harder than you think. A couple years ago, we had for the very first time, I think it was Puppy Bowl X, a puppy kicked the ball into the end zone. Well, is that a field goal?

Quick little huddle, got together with all the rule people, played the tape, and we agreed, yes, it counts, so now puppy field goals are a thing. Keeping them in line is a matter of having a lot of eyes and ears on the set, making sure they play cleanly and safely, and really, finding the right ways to score.

Someone is about to get a nip on the bum as puppies take the field for Puppy Bowl XIV

M&C: Unbelievable. Are there any breeds that are hopeless?

DS: No. They’ve all got potential. Really. It is interesting because every year, we do have new breeds, because, listen, this year we had 90! Which are the most dogs ever. Not all at once. That would be just my nightmare, 90 dogs all on the field at the same time, then I’d really need some assistance.

But I always look for the new. We had Shar-Peis before, but this year we had a beautiful Shar-Pei named Mr. Wigglesworth. Shar-Peis, they’re wrinkly and they’re a little slow and you think, “Well, they can’t possibly.”

No, Mr. Wigglesworth was wonderful and a champ and ran down to the end zone same as anybody else to get a touchdown.

Mr. Wigglesworth
Spoiler alert: Mr. Wigglesworth scores a goal!

M&C: Should have been a Jack Russell terrier.

DS: Yeah. I mean, it could have been. It could have been an Italian racing greyhound and they’re all fine.

To get serious for a moment, an uninformed audience member might look at, no joke, a three-legged dog, which we feature, or a sight-impaired dog or a deaf dog and go, “Well, they’re hopeless” or “They’re not going to do as well”, “They’re on there just to have something different”.

The fact is, these guys just have as much energy and skill as anybody else and that’s part of our mission, just to show that when you’re going out to adopt a dog, don’t overlook the dogs that have some challenges — because they may be the right fit.

Dragonfly and Boomer tussle over the chew toy

M&C: For someone watching the show, if they want to get their dog involved in this, is that even possible, or what’s the process, or is there one?

DS: No, and we do get asked that a lot because people who actually have dogs go, “I’d love to” and I’ll get pictures and I’ll go, “Yeah, but that defeats the point.”

How do we get our dogs? Submissions, but remember, let’s go over the criteria: 12 to 24 weeks of age, adoptable — so in a shelter, not in a home — they all have to be up for adoption. That might be the number one criteria and, obviously, cute, and then we want a variety of breeds.

Those are the four type of things that we’re looking for. It is not hard, after 14 years, to get people to submit. We get thousands of submissions from across the country.

M&C: Are there particular shelters that work with you almost exclusively?

DS: Not, exclusively. We have a couple, correct. We have one out here in LA called Paw Works, one down in Florida called Florida Little Dogs, a couple in New York that we really depend on.

There’s one called Shaggy Dog Rescue in Texas that we’ve partnered with and they rescued some dogs from the flood waters of Hurricane Harvey.

Tyler of team Fluff
Tyler of team Fluff is a Chihuahua and Shih Tzu mix, and hails from Shaggy Dog Rescue in Texas.

Those are shelters that we really can, like you said, rely on year after year. It’s always nice, however, to meet the new shelters, the new ones that might be a tiny little storefront somewhere outside of Chicago, one person trying to rescue dogs and make a difference.

The same way we try to showcase many breeds and sizes, we’re trying to showcase many different sizes of shelters. There are many different ways to rescue a dog. Sometimes it’s an individual, sometimes it’s an army.

M&C: Are there any secrets, teasers or tidbits that you can share ahead of the broadcast?

DS: (laughs) How much money do you have? Because we can work something out, I can tell you who’s going to win the whole thing right now!

There’s a lot of fun new elements. Every year, we do try to up our game. We’ve got a bone-shaped stadium this year. It used to be square-shaped. Now we’ve changed the shape.

You think, “Well, how can I see it?” Well, from the aerial hamster blimp cam, you can look down and see the shape of the bone, which looks really cool. My idea of a restaurant at the stadium called “Bone Appétit” was canceled, but maybe next year. That was a genius idea, “Bone Appétit.”

M&C: You could give out biscuits.

DS: Of course. Other new elements are we used to have one species of animal be our cheerleader, a chinchilla, chickens. This year, we’ve decided to combine them, make it like a barnyard animal cheerleading squad. It’s ducklings, rabbits and piglets, yes, so we’ve got three breeds.

Then our kitty half-time show, we’ve had famous cats in the past. We’ve had, of course, Kitty Gaga, Kitty Furry, and then Keyboard Cat. This year, I’m really proud to say we’ve gotten…just going back to the classics, just cats.

Twenty cats from the ASPCA, all adoptable also, on stage, performing “Meow, Meow, Meow,” which is the kitty version of N’Sync’s “Bye, Bye, Bye.”

Puppy Bowl airs Sunday, February 4, at 3P ET/12P PT on Animal Planet.

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