The Super Bowl can keep its 100 million-plus viewers and $5 million ad buys. Because the Puppy Bowl has got something much better: puppies! More than 90 of them—and all of them adoptable. There are kittens, too (they provide the halftime entertainment) plus Shirley the rescue sloth, who serves as the sideline assistant to Dan Schachner, who’ll be donning the black and white stripes for his eighth go as the big game’s “Rufferee.” With the help of Schachner, we’ve uncovered 15 things you might not have known about Puppy Bowl.
1. It was inspired by The Yule Log.
Yes, that long-running holiday television special that featured nothing more than the image of a log burning in a fireplace with Christmas music playing in the background is what inspired the Puppy Bowl. The Puppy Bowl’s 2005 broadcast debut was a much less elaborate affair, comprised mainly of copious amounts of footage of puppies playing. But it did feature the game’s very first Unsportsmanlike Delay of Game penalty, issued to a pup named Riley for, in the announcer’s words, deciding to “use the field as his own personal bathroom.” (See the video above if you want visual evidence of what that means.)
2. Safety is the top priority.
Puppies will be puppies. And puppies don’t always play fair. In addition to a veterinarian, who is on the set throughout the program’s production, representatives from the Humane Society and each of the shelters whose dogs are being featured are on hand to ensure the safety of the competitors. This includes giving the puppies a break from the lights, camera and action every 30 minutes. For the 2019 event, 93 puppies from 51 shelters and rescue groups will be represented.
3. “Game day” occurs in October.
Puppy Bowl is not a live broadcast. It’s shot over the course of two days in October. “That element takes people aback,” Schachner tells Mental Floss. But the reason why is totally understandable. “It’s three months of preparation because it’s two full days of shooting,” Schachner says. “Plus it’s 21 cameras on the field. So that’s a lot of footage to edit and turn into a two-hour show.
4. Peanut butter is the production team’s best friend.
Just how does the production team manage to get all those adorable close-ups? Easy: Peanut butter. Of the dozens of cameras used to capture all the on-field action, one is mounted beneath a glass-bottom water bowl while others are hidden in the dogs’ chew toys—but not before they’re smeared with peanut butter to attract the competing canines.
5. Puppy Bowl VIII featured a double touchdown.
“We’re very open-minded as far as our rules go,” says Schachner, who notes that in Puppy Bowl VIII, “we had a simultaneous touchdown and that had never happened before. Two puppies dragged two chew toys into the end zone at the same exact time. I didn’t know what to do, so I talked to our control room. We did an instant replay and determined that it counted. Each puppy was then awarded one touchdown point.”
6. The cheerleaders are always changing.
In 2010, the Puppy Bowl added a bit of ra-ra-ra to the production when it included a team of bunny cheerleaders. In 2011, chickens were the animals cheering on the sidelines. In 2012, the chicks were replaced by a Piggy Pep Squad, followed by a team of hedgehogs in 2013, a group of peppy penguins direct from the Columbus Zoo in 2014, five Nigerian dwarf goats in 2015, “five big-haired silkie chickens” in 2016, a squad of rescue rabbits and guinea pigs in 2017, and a barnyard ground of ducklings, piglets, and baby bunnies in 2018. For 2019, a group of baby kangaroos will be pumping up the crowd.
7. Lack of energy is cause for disqualification.
“We’ve had penalties when puppies are too rambunctious, but also when they’re too lazy,” says Schachner of the behaviors that can disqualify a pup from competition. “That’s called ‘illegal napping’ or ‘excessive napping.’”
8. “Pancaking” is a no-no.
When asked about the oddest penalty he has ever had to heap on a competitor, Schachner recalls “one puppy that was literally flattening other puppies. Puppies will shove and bite and sniff and tackle. But there was one puppy that was literally jumping up and landing on the backs of the other puppies. So we made up a foul then called pancaking. We sent her back 15 yards.”
9. Puppy Bowl launched an Olympic spinoff.
In 2008, a Puppy Bowl spinoff—Puppy Games—aired opposite the opening ceremonies of the Summer Olympics. While the setup was the same as Puppy Bowl, the competitions were all new and included swimming, boxing, soccer, and gymnastics events.
10. There’s a lot of poop that you don’t see.
Cleaning up after the game’s not-always-housebroken athletes is part of the ref’s job. But Schachner says that the biggest misconception about his role is that “I’m picking up poop and pee all the time. [People] forget that there’s an amazing grounds crew here on staff. They’re like little elves who come in and magically erase all the pet poop that’s left on the field so that when the game is actually playing and those cameras are rolling, you’re not going to see too many fouls. You’ll see a couple, but you’re not going to see too much of puppies doing what comes naturally to them!”
11. Yes, the puppies are all adoptable. But good luck adopting one!
Yes, all of Puppy Bowl’s competitors are shelter dogs. (So are the cats.) But because of the show’s October production date versus February air date, “by the time the Puppy Bowl actually airs, most of these puppies have already found their forever homes,” says Schachner. “We encourage everyone to go on to AnimalPlanet.com during the airing and if you see a puppy that you fall in love with, check him out. They may be adoptable. And if not that shelter will have other puppies who are equally adorable, maybe even from the same litter.”
Since the Puppy Bowl launched, the event has helped more than 500 dogs find their forever homes.
12. It’s no longer the only animal “bowl.”
The Puppy Bowl’s popularity has not gone unnoticed by other networks. Hallmark Channel will cater to the cat crowd with the sixth edition of its Kitten Bowl.
13. A record number of viewers tuned in for the 2018 event.
Puppy Bowl XIV was a ratings hit; the 2018 event scored a 1.46 percent rating among the highly coveted 25-54 demographic, making it the highest rated Puppy Bowl ever—and the third highest-rated program in Animal Planet’s history in that demographic.
14. Several special needs pups with be competing.
In 2017, Puppy Bowl welcomed its first-ever competitor with special needs and it’s become a game tradition ever since. This year’s lineup includes Pippi, a blind Jack Russell mix; Bumble, a blind and hearing-impaired Australian Shepherd mix; and Will, a three-legged Doodle mix.
15. Shirley the rescue sloth will be back for a second go.
After eight years as the Puppy Bowl’s referee, Schachner is a pro. But that hasn’t stopped him from enlisting some help when it comes to calling penalties and celebrating touchdowns. In 2018, he invited a special guest—Shirley the rescue sloth—to assist him on the sidelines. She’ll be returning again this year to serve as Schachner’s number two.
An earlier version of this story ran in 2014.