As you might imagine, the role of a Puppy Bowl referee, or “ruff-eree,” does not have a template. When I was applying for the job in 2011, there wasn’t really a predecessor’s resume I could review.
I was told I should make some sort of audition tape, and I had seen Puppy Bowl during the previous seven years it had aired, but the role of the referee had been pretty minimal up until that point. My thoughts were that the “ruf-eree” had to be a motivational person who gets these dogs going so they play puppy football to the best of their ability. But trying to officiate dogs playing football was not something I was used to, and at the time I didn’t have my own dog. My audition tape is out there, and in it you can see there is one dog, who I had met two seconds prior to shooting, who I wind up nose-to-nose with, saying: “You are a star. You’re a champion. You can do this!” It went about as well as it could go; you can kind of hear my wife snickering in the background.
I was used to being on TV as a host and an actor, but being on camera in front of millions, in a referee outfit, with a whistle and a penalty flag is a totally different situation. This was unique, fun and wacky and I could make it my own.
Puppy Bowl is a very unique event that occurs on Super Bowl Sunday at a different time to the human football game. It is a three hour football game played by rescue puppies. Last year, we had to keep the numbers a little lower because of COVID and social distancing, but this year we have 118 puppies. It’s a blast, though they’re not all playing at once. We would probably need a human-sized football stadium to do that, with 20 Puppy Bowls going on at once and touchdowns being scored left and right.
We try to keep between six and 10 puppies on the field at any given time, and we try to rotate them in and out as much as possible, because the idea is to showcase them and get them all adopted. For safety though, the small dogs don’t mix with the larger breeds. If you have a Great Dane puppy who weighs maybe 30lbs, he’s not going to be playing a game with a baby Chihuahua. So, we keep the first quarter for the smaller breeds and work our way up.
The puppies are in two teams, Team Ruff and Team Fluff, and we keep score. Puppies can score touchdowns, if they pick up the ball and take it into an end zone, but it doesn’t matter which end zone. Field goals are also allowed because dogs can kick and penalties are awarded if a foul is committed. In between, I’m looking at my rosters, because with every new six to 10 dogs it’s a whole new set of names and stories, and within every group we have special needs dogs, who may need extra help or care. I’m also very conscious of not repeating the same words. We say “ruffside” instead of “offside” but even that could get boring after the 20th time, so I try to mix up the way I say the different Puppy Bowl terms.
It’s actually more physically taxing than you might think. There’s a lot of up and down to the puppies’ level, and whenever a touchdown is scored you have to congratulate them and cuddle with them. That’s a requirement of the job!
We have a half time show where kittens available for adoption also perform, and we have sideline cheerleaders and coaches.
We were so excited to have Martha Stewart and Snoop Dogg join us last year as hosts. It was shot in the fall of 2020 when people were still figuring everything out and there was no vaccine yet. So we welcomed them both back with open arms this year, as team coaches as well as hosts. Martha seems super organized and Snoop seems really passionate. We’re excited for another year, but as far as their game plan? I have no idea.
It’s all behind closed doors. I’m not even allowed in the locker room. I imagine Martha will have color coded game plans in a variety of nice pastels. Dogs can see blues and yellows, but they can’t see purple, pinks or reds, so she’ll probably avoid those last three. With Snoop’s team, I think it’s just going to be a party.
I do truly remain impartial. I would be fired if I made a bet on who the winner would be! The integrity of my job is at stake. But Martha’s team, Team Ruff, won last year and the team that loses the prior year always comes back with a vengeance and America kind of wants them to win. Maybe I’d look a bit more carefully at Snoop Dogg’s team, Team Fluff, and see what they can do, because they may be the team that has a little more drive.
I don’t know who wins until everyone else does. It’s also about how America votes for the Most Valuable Pup (MVP), it’s not just about the number of touchdowns. On the very last day of shooting Puppy Bowl, we film multiple endings and the outcome will not be finalized until the show is airing, the winning team is decided in real time.
Dr. Jill Biden has recorded a message for Puppy Bowl for the second year in a row. That’s incredible. We’ve had high profile people involved before, like Michelle Obama, but the Biden’s dogs have been the first rescue dogs ever in the White House. That’s huge, especially when you look at the history of presidential pets.
What I’m hoping this year is that all 67 shelters involved will report that the spike in adoptions they see after Puppy Bowl continues through the year. The puppies in Puppy Bowl will be adopted, but we want the siblings and parents of the puppies, who probably still need a home, to also get adopted.
Personally, I think I’m now making up for lost time. Our family dog growing up was named Foca, which I promise is not a curse. It’s the Spanish word for seal. Foca was a short haired dark Daschund, so she did look like a seal. But after she passed away, we didn’t have another dog. So for the past few years, I have been fostering dogs. It connects you with your local shelter and your community and you get to see dogs get adopted, which is really heart warming. And, it actually makes me better at Puppy Bowl, because I get to know a variety of dogs and their backstories
I always say this: If you want to get involved with helping dogs, there is always something you can do. Even if you’re really busy. You can adopt, foster, volunteer, donate or advocate. I hope people watching or supporting us will do one of those five things.
Next, I think we should have the Puppy World Cup and Puppy Olympics. The message behind Puppy Bowl should continue all year. I would just love to see more adoption inspired shows and more puppies playing sports. Let’s do it!
Dan Schachner is the Puppy Bowl “Ruff-eree” and lives in New York. You can watch the 2022 Puppy Bowl XVIII on Sunday, February 13 at 2pm ET/11am PT on Animal Planet and streaming on discovery+. Follow Dan on Twitter @Danschachner.
All views expressed in this article are the author’s own.
As told to Jenny Haward.