It’s frowned upon when N.F.L. players complain to the referees. But at least they don’t urinate on them.
The same cannot be said for the competitors in the Puppy Bowl, Animal Planet’s canine football game that takes place in October but does not air until the afternoon of Super Bowl Sunday.
The event’s referee, Dan Schachner, stays ready for all eventualities by keeping five identical uniforms in his dressing room so he can change when accidents occur. Mr. Schachner, 49, admitted he had gotten lax about handing out penalties for “premature watering of the lawn” since he began calling the game in 2011.
“I don’t automatically reach for the flag,” he said. “We have a game to play.”
This year’s Puppy Bowl, which will be televised at 2 p.m. Eastern time on Sunday, is the 20th edition of the event, a milestone for a program that began as a tongue-in-cheek feed of puppy playtime before evolving into a counterprogramming juggernaut.
The three-hour skirmish over a football-shaped chew toy has been on the air for longer than “Grey’s Anatomy.” Animal Planet said last year’s Puppy Bowl “reached” more than 13 million viewers.
Its success comes with unique production challenges. The players cannot throw because they lack opposable thumbs. They fall asleep at the 20-yard line, and sometimes they try to bathe in the water bowl. They are especially bad at determining when to go for a 2-point conversion.
It takes more than 100 crew members and 200 poop bags to coax the puppies into some semblance of a football game. “The Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade requires just as much coordination,” said Howard Lee, the president of Discovery Networks, which owns Animal Planet.
In an interview, Mr. Lee described the program as a call for pet adoption sneakily disguised as a football game. According to Animal Planet, all of the 1,298 dogs that have played in past Puppy Bowls have been adopted. The event results in a surge of interest in shelters whose puppies take the field, although those that play in the game have usually been adopted by the time it airs.
The 131 members of this year’s lineup were selected through an online casting call this summer, and came from more than 70 shelters and rescue centers across the United States. All were between three and six months old.
As in the N.F.L., there were much-hyped prospects: Levi, a 72-pound Great Dane, was the largest puppy ever to compete in the event. Bark Purdy, a Chihuahua mix, shares a name (and perhaps his agility) with the quarterback for the San Francisco 49ers.
In October, the draft picks were transported to a hockey arena in Glens Falls, N.Y., that had been outfitted with a 28-foot-long AstroTurf field. The game was filmed over the course of a week to allow the puppies to take ample hydration and nap breaks. The producers subsequently edited down any slow periods in game play.
To avoid injuries, smaller breeds like Dachshunds and pugs faced off in the first half, while the huskies and bloodhounds came on for a brawnier second half. (In Mr. Schachner’s experience, smaller breeds are more likely to “elude defenders” and “break tackles.”) Puppies on two teams — Team Ruff and Team Fluff — scored touchdowns by carrying chew toys into either end zone.
Victoria Schade, the on-set trainer, benches dogs when they are looking overwhelmed. In her 18 years working on the Puppy Bowl, she has perfected her technique for getting the dogs to gaze up patriotically during the national anthem: dangling treats above their heads.
“Freeze-dried chicken, freeze-dried liver, freeze-dried cheese: That’s going to get your Puppy Bowl-worthy performance,” Ms. Schade said.
‘Why Are We Working This Hard?’
The first Puppy Bowl, which aired in 2005, was more like a pickup game. Animal Planet’s producers had been asked by the network’s general manger to devise some kind of counterprogramming for the Super Bowl, said Margo Kent, who was then an executive producer for the network.
The task seemed impossible. “We would joke, ‘Why are we working this hard?’” Ms. Kent said. “Let’s just put puppies in a box and point a camera at it.”
They tried it out at a Discovery soundstage in Silver Spring, Md., with a couple of dozen dogs from local shelters. Camera operators filmed from behind a layer of clear plexiglass, which had to be wiped down frequently because the puppies kept pressing their wet noses against it.
“We could not believe how well it did,” said David Doyle, who was at the time the vice president of production and development at Animal Planet. The event became the “darling of ad sales and senior management,” he added. “All of a sudden it became all about, how can we make money off this cool thing?”
By Puppy Bowl II, ads for Subaru lined the stadium. A kitten halftime show was added, but that went awry when the explosion of confetti cannons caused all of the cats to leap out of the filming enclosure, Ms. Kent said. (It was retaped, with crew sprinkling the confetti by hand.)
Scorekeeping and uniforms were added in Puppy Bowl XI, and a sloth was introduced as assistant referee three years later. With each flashy addition, the Puppy Bowl also dedicated a larger share of airtime to encouraging viewers to adopt pets, including senior dogs and puppies with special needs.
If the event is good for puppy adoption, it may be even better for Warner Bros. Discovery, one of the entertainment industry’s biggest, and newest, behemoths. Last year, Puppy Bowl viewership added more than four million additional viewers, according to the network, thanks in part to Discovery’s acquisition of WarnerMedia in 2022.
For the first time, Puppy Bowl XIX was broadcast simultaneously on Animal Planet, Discovery Channel, HBO Max, TBS and Discovery+. “The viewership has jumped especially because we’ve had more eyeballs from all these different platforms,” Mr. Lee said.
Animal Planet said it would not share the cost to produce the Puppy Bowl or the advertising revenue it brings in. But the program tends to have a high return on investment, said Mr. Doyle, who is now an executive vice president at Hearst Media Production Group. The first Puppy Bowl cost less than $100,000 to produce, he said. “I’m sure it costs five times what we spent on it or more,” he speculated. “But it’s probably bringing in 50 times the amount of money.”
‘Most Valuable Puppy’
Puppy Bowl crew members past and present offered various theories for the program’s continued dominance: It appeals widely across age groups; it’s easy to watch while making chili. Your preferred team can get eliminated during the N.F.L. playoffs, but it cannot fall short of making the Puppy Bowl.
Then almost all of them circled back to the obvious: People really like puppies.
Many viewers are motivated by the Puppy Bowl to seek out one of their own. Erika Proctor, 42, the executive director of Green Dogs Unleashed, a special needs animal rescue center in Troy, Va., estimated she gets close to 100 emails the day of the Puppy Bowl asking about adoptions and training. An uptick in applications follows, she said.
Green Dogs Unleashed, which has been sending dogs to the Puppy Bowl for the past 10 years, is responsible for the expense of transporting the puppies to Glens Falls and lodging them there. That was a challenge at first, Ms. Proctor said, but it “comes back to us tenfold in the awareness that it brings to the country of our special-needs animals.”
Those who are on set for the filming of the Puppy Bowl do not necessarily know its winner. Producers film endings in which each team triumphs, and the victor is determined in postproduction.
That means Mr. Schachner cannot help the people who direct message him on social media every year asking for tips that might help them bet on the game’s outcome. Other common prop bets concern the point spread of the final score and the age of the M.V.P. (Most Valuable Puppy).
Despite appearances, the producers insist that Puppy Bowl glory is earned on the field, not scripted by its human supervisors.
“You have to condense it down to make it a story that’s understandable and fun,” said Joe Boyle, a senior vice president for production and development at Discovery, “but we follow what really happened.”