Dan Schachner is the referee for Sunday’s Puppy Bowl XI, and he knows exactly what you’re thinking.
Yes, they check the balls beforehand.
“We’re all about quality control here at Puppy Bowl. We pride ourselves in it,” said Schachner, in his fourth year as the Puppy Bowl ref. “I do personally check each and every set of balls. Unless, of course, they’re neutered. Then, I don’t bother.”
Premiering on Animal Planet on Sunday at 3 p.m. ET, the Puppy Bowl once again showcases 55 adoptable puppies playing on a football field with a hamster-piloted blimp overhead and a full-on kitty halftime show.
But it’s all about the action on the field. And this 11th edition of the Puppy Bowl features teams – Ruff vs. Fluff – and a scoreboard for the first time.
All the more requirement for a referee beyond reproach. And Schachner is once again up to the task. Unlike with the New England Patriots in the other big game on Sunday, ball deflation is highly encouraged in this game. Touchdowns are scored when a puppy carries a toy – including plush balls with protruding foamy spikes — across the goal line.
“Ball deflation is no big deal for us at Puppy Bowl, because unlike Tom Brady, we’re not gripping our balls with our opposable thumbs,” Schachner said. “We’re gripping them with our razor-sharp teeth. So deflation is a normal part of our game. In fact, if toys are not deflated, the puppies aren’t working hard enough.
“It sounds like a joke, but there’s so much pulling on these chew toys, so much back-and-forth and growling over one or two toys, they do get destroyed by the time the game is over.”
Destroyed toys are just one aspect of the Puppy Bowl that Schachner, adorned in a referee uniform (and carrying a dust-buster), must take into account. Penalties are also part of the game, from excessive howling to pancaking. And as a veteran of four Bowls, Schachner is not afraid to throw his flag.
“In the beginning [in 2012], I’m not going to lie, I was a little bit smitten with these guys,” Schachner said. “It was hard and I’d miss an infraction, and luckily we have producers who would say, ‘Dan, look behind you, there was some pancacking or excessive use of the water bowl going on, you might want to throw a flag,’ But it was hard to be tough, because they were so adorable.
But by year four, you don’t even see how adorable they are. I just see them all is little mini-athletes and everyone is on the same level and I have no problem throwing the flag down. In fact, sometimes they have to calm me down with the flags.”
When it comes to helping dogs find their forever homes, Schachner has no restraints. Not only does the Puppy Bowl raise awareness of the need for adoption, Schachner, who is also an actor and narrator for various Animal Planet shows, fosters dogs in the East Village of New York in his private time.
“I have foster dogs at home, one at a time, and one of the reasons I love doing it is that I can really learn about a breed, about their temperament and their nature,” Schachner said. “I grew up around dogs, but once I got married and had kids, I felt like I was dealing with my own small pack in the house. And then a few years ago I started thinking about ways to introduce dogs into the house in a way that’s responsible, because my kids were pretty young, and this was the best middle ground I could find.
“I teamed up with a local rescue center that’s about 10 minutes from my house [Social Tees Animal Rescue] and if they have a dog that’s suitable for my house, we take him or her on for 6-8 weeks and then when they find a Forever Home, off they go. I just think it’s a nice alternative for people who might not be ready to commit their entire lives and to the life of the pet. They may just want to test the waters. It allows you to do that. And when my kids are older and more responsible, I feel like I’ll really know the lay of the land when it comes to picking the right breed, because I’ll have had that experience.”
While the Puppy Bowl highlights, obviously, the joy and fun of puppies, Schachner is equally committed to finding Forever Homes for older dogs.
“It’s very easy for puppies to get adopted, but it’s so much harder for these older dogs,” Schachner said. “I mean like 2-year-old, 3-year-old dogs, they can sometimes wait a long time before finding a home. I try to say this as much as I can: Puppy Bowl pups, yeah, they’re going to get adopted right away. That’s not difficult. The real challenge is, go to that shelter and maybe the puppy you fell in love with at Puppy Bowl isn’t there anymore but you might find a 2-year-old who is incredible and doesn’t need to be house-trained, has a calm temperament and would be a nice addition to your house.”
Schachner said four years of reffing the big game has given him a unique insight into the temperament of dogs. While GEICO Field might look big on TV, the space where upwards of 55 puppies play and compete is in reality just 20 feet by 10 feet, so Schachner gets up close and personal.
“It smaller than you think,” Schachner said. “Theoretically, it shouldn’t be that hard to score a touchdown, but you’d be surprised how long it can take one of these puppy running backs into the endzone.
“You gain insight, not just into dog behavior, but how behavior changes from breed to breed, when you put them into play situations. It’s like a doggy daycare, and I’m in charge. What’s really remarkable is how different breeds will react, and that’s what I’ve learned over the years – how the nature of dogs really comes out in those situations. Of course, a Terrier is going to be a little more aggressive and the really small breeds are going to be skittish. That comes out a lot.”
About the author: Jeff Goldberg is a freelance writer in Quincy, Mass. A former editor for MLB.com and sportswriter for the Hartford Courant who covered the University of Connecticut’s women’s basketball team (Huskies!) and the Boston Red Sox, Jeff has authored two books on the UConn women: Bird at the Buzzer (2011) and Unrivaled (2015). He lives with his wife, Susan, and their rescue pup, Rocky, an Italian Greyhuahua/Jack Russell mix from a foster home in Tennessee, hence the name Rocky (as in Rocky Top).