Behind the Scenes of Puppy Bowl X

American Icons, Featured Article, Sports
on January 24, 2014

Puppy Bowl’s audience pales in comparison to the Super Bowl’s 110 million viewers, but what started out as a low-budget dog show drawing 150,000 viewers has grown into a full-scale, multi-camera production attracting an audience of more than 12 million during multiple airings of Puppy Bowl IX last year.

Animal Planet executives conceived Puppy Bowl in 2005 as a way to promote pet adoption awareness while providing a cute and cuddly viewing alternative to the mighty Super Bowl football spectacle.

“We’ve built on the show,” says Melinda Toporoff, 44, Puppy Bowl’s executive producer. “It’s our 10th anniversary so this year we’re really blowing it out.”

Behind the scenes

To produce the two-hour show, a 30-person crew, aided by dozens of volunteers, devotes three days tending to and filming the puppies—and other members of the animal cast—in the cable network’s New York City studio.

“We sent in an audition tape of Pong, a Havanese, who along with her sister Ping, were the only survivors of a litter of six,” says Laurie Johnson, 36, director of Florida Little Dog Rescue in St. Cloud. “She was picked for the show so we put her in her carry bag and went to the filming. It was crazy fun—the experience of a lifetime.”

During filming under the watchful eye of representatives from the American Humane Association, Pong and the other puppies are kept comfortable, fed and watered before being rotated onto the field of play 15 at a time.

“Usually the puppies play for 20 minutes or so before they conk out,” Toporoff says. “Not that we don’t love it when they take naps on the 20-yard line.”

Viewers interested in adopting a pet can visit during the show and connect with animal shelters across the nation.

“The puppies on the show get adopted very quickly,” says referee Dan Schachner, 39, who’s officiating the Super Bowl Sunday show for the third consecutive year. “In past years, every one of them has found a home. But if your favorite puppy isn’t available, don’t worry. The shelters will find you a happy, well-adjusted puppy that will be a great addition to your home.”

Dan Schachner officiates the game, calling funny fouls such as “ruffing” the ref.

Dan Schachner officiates the game, calling funny fouls such as “ruffing” the ref.

Animal athletes

Puppy Bowl X features more than 60 dogs representing dozens of breeds and ranging in age from 12 to 21 weeks. They come from 30 animal shelters and rescue groups across the nation and Puerto Rico.

The pups at play—including August, a boxer; Benton, a Labrador retriever; Dee Dee, a terrier; Ginger, an Old English sheepdog; and Hudson, a Great Pyrenees—are the definition of controlled chaos.

“I have the best job in the world,” says the Manhattan, N.Y.-based commercial actor and TV announcer. “You have to love dogs, but you also have to be fearless. And you can’t be afraid to pick up poop!”

According to Schachner, whose job is to enforce the rules on the 19-by-10-foot field, Puppy Bowl has no teams, winners or losers, although a game MVP (Most Valuable Puppy) always is named and touchdowns are enthusiastically celebrated.

“The objective is for chew toys to be carried into either end zone,” he says, taking a knee and picking up a fleece duck and several colorful squishy footballs before tossing them into the fray during filming of Puppy Bowl X last October.

“No, no, no!” he says, waving his arms and blowing his whistle before reaching to scoop a fluffy poodle and a rambunctious pug from the turf. “Excessive cuteness, you two!”

Puppy penalties such as “paws” interference and excessive napping have been expanded to include other lighthearted infractions such as illegal “fur-mation” and ineligible “retriever.”

“Calling the fouls is the best part,” says Schachner, who grabs his whistle to make another tongue-in-cheek ruling. “Fur catch! Play on!”

Fan favorites

Among Puppy Bowl’s returning fan favorites are the slow-motion Cute Cam; the Water Bowl Cam at the Hydration Station; the hamster-driven blimp; Meep the Bird, a cockatiel who tweets live updates @MeepTheBird; and NFL Films and Philadelphia Phillies announcer Scott Graham, who provides dramatic play-by-play commentary.

Also making a command performance is the Kitty Half-Time Show, which debuted during Puppy Bowl II. This year, 30 kittens—all shelter animals available for adoption—take turns on stage swatting at sparkling, twirling teasers and frolicking beneath dazzling lights.

The cheerleading squad, which in previous years has been comprised of chickens, piglets and hedgehogs, returns with an all-penguin lineup. Other 10th-anniversary additions include a skybox for fat cats; working service dogs performing the national anthem; appearances by feline YouTube sensations Keyboard Cat and Lil Bub; and a “Where Are They Now?” segment, featuring stars of Puppy Bowls past.

“The show is so much fun, but it’s really about raising awareness for all the shelter animals that need homes,” Toporoff says. “That’s the subtext behind it.”