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There are thousands of puns you could use in describing Puppy Bowl, fur sure. And there are at least 84 reasons to tune into this year’s contest. That would be the number of preposterously adorable canines in Puppy Bowl XII — Animal Planet’s cuddly counterprogramming initiative to CBS’ Super Bowl Sunday — that will be romping around the field in all sorts of errant directions and occasionally even dragging a chew toy across the goal line.

Will Team Fluff avenge last year’s 87-49 loss to Team Ruff? Will the chicken cheerleaders out-spirit the porcine ones of the past? What kind of penalty flags will be tossed? And did we hear something about a tortoise streaker? EW sought answers from the long arm of the paw, the man with the best view of the field, the guy who’s in charge of keeping the game clean (well, as much as you can with dogs that relieve themselves on the field at will): Five-time Puppy Bowl referee Dan Schachner. Given that Puppy Bowl XII was filmed back in October, Schachner was able to give us a ruff sketch of the action — and so much more.

ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: Team Fluff was roughed up pretty bad by Team Ruff in Puppy Bowl XI. Do they come out, paws swinging, ready to redeem themselves?

DAN SCHACHNER: Look, Team Fluff’s gotten a lot of flak since we divided into teams a couple years back for being the pretty boys of the game. They’re all style and no substance. Year 1, year 2, that may have been true, but what happened in the off-season is a lot of them took it personally and hired puppy personal trainers. I can tell you there are a couple of Chihuahuas that are deceptively strong, and they sneak around the more traditional puppy linebackers. It’s a closer game this year than it’s ever been.

I know you don’t want to reveal who wins MVP, but who are the puppies to watch this year?

We have these two Chihuahuas that were incredible. They were insane. We had a lab retriever that scored three touchdowns. There was a springer-spaniel that was incredible. The Chihuahuas were superfast. And the shar-pei was an incredible defenseman.

You’ll have some help from an assistant ref, Stanley the Skunk. What does he lend to the proceedings?

What hasn’t he lent? He’s been at my side the entire game and let me tell you, if you thought the field smelled bad before, it’s now double. And then try sharing a locker room with this guy, which they forced me to do, because of course you have to dress together. He refuses to wear pants, which is ridiculous, because it’s part of the uniform. He claims he is the uniform, so that’s been a point of debate between me and him since the beginning. And all he does is try to “ref block” me, if you know what I’m saying. I’ll make a call and he’ll want to see the video. He’ll talk to the press afterward and say, “That’s not the way I would have gone.” … It’s nice to have another set of eyes on the field because it was getting crazy. The fact that they gave me an assistant who wasn’t a human is reassuring for my job security.

This year’s cheerleaders are silkie chickens. What different dynamic do they bring than, say, the bunny or pig cheerleaders of the past?

Because they’re silky, you still want to pet them the same way that you would a bunny or even a pig. But silkie chickens are a little more refined, if you will, than your typical chicken. While they’ve still got that strut that you’d see in a chicken and still command the sideline space, when they decide to cheer, you sit up and pay attention. They’ve got sort of an elegance. And silkie chickens are originally from China and they bring with them an international appeal.

What was the craziest penalty flag you’ve thrown in a Puppy Bowl?

There’s a lot of the old faves — paws interference, illegal lounging, excessive, bathing, excessive napping. One of the thing you’d see a lot in human football is illegal formation, so we have a new one called illegal furmation. That one in particular gets called a lot. I don’t know if it would be the most egregious. This year we had a lot of puppy pileups and we’ll throw down a flag for that, where there are too many puppies on top of one another. We used to call it pancaking, now we call it puppy pile-ups. So between illegal furmations and puppy pileups, I’d say we’ve got our hands full this year.

So you call illegal furmations when you don’t like the way they’re arranged on the field?

Let’s be honest: We tie bandanas on these dogs and call them a team but they really don’t adhere to the “we’re on the same team” rules. There are very loose guidelines for when we’re saying formation. We don’t care if they’re on one or ther other side of the line of scrimmage, we just want them on the field. So illegal furrmation is when some puppies are already headed down to the locker room, some puppies have jumped off the stage and onto a cameraman’s head, and some are licking the lens of one of the cameras in the stands.

What was the most ridiculously cute scene you’ve seen on the field?

This is a personal highlight for me; I would call it ridiculously cute but also heartwarming. I’ve been asking for years and Animal Planet agrees as well — we don’t highlight older dogs enough and we should have a Hall of Fame. So this year we have this human football Hall of Famer named Bruce Smith — he used to play for the Bills — and we introduce, mid-game, a lineup of the greatest former Puppy Bowl MVPs like Rudy from Puppy Bowl X and Falcor from Puppy Bowl XI. Of course, they’re much larger than these puppies you [saw] on the field, but we’ve spent a lot of time with these dogs in the past and we’ve elevated them to MVP status. To see them back on the field with the purpose of highlighting senior pet adoption — because so many pets do languish in shelters year after year; it’s easy to adopt a puppy, it’s much harder to adopt a senior dog — for me that was one of the greatest and cutest moments.

I understand there is a tortoise streaker. Will we be very slowly shocked at what we see?

Puppy Bowl takes a couple days to shoot. The tortoise streaker took about the same amount of time [to cross the field] as shooting the entire Puppy Bowl. I don’t know if you saw that trailer for the sloth movie that aired before Star Wars and it’s like a sloth trying to tell a joke and it lasts like five minutes; this was the same type of thing. Here’s a hilarious moment. We’ve got 15 cameras on it. People are on the edge of their seats and this thing did what a tortoise is supposed to do — it took its time going across the field. It was like watching paint dry. I have a feeling they may need to do a little bit of high-speed editing so our viewing audience doesn’t switch the channel. But that said, it’s a pretty awesome moment. And you know, if you’re a little demure or bashful, you might want to shield your eyes, because there’s some tortoise nudity.

Is it a female or male tortoise?

Here’s the thing with tortoises: It’s very hard to tell. Believe me, as a ref, I see all types of animals, especially on the sidelines. We’ve gone through chickens and penguins and goats and pigs as my cheerleaders and I wouldn’t be able to tell you if they’re male or female, because it’s more difficult than you could imagine. The easiest animal for me to tell, “Boy or girl?” Dog. Especially when they’re lining up behind the punter and they’re snapping you the ball.

What’s the hardest part of the job?

The hardest job is catching everything. I know we’re joking about a skunk watching, but if it weren’t for the director in the booth and all the cameras trained on the action, I would miss half the calls. Because there’s obviously so much going on. It’s not a huge field — it’s like 20 feet across and maybe 10 feet wide. It’s the size of the tiniest studio apartment in Manhattan. But you will miss stuff. You’ll be so focused on the possibility of one dog dragging one chew toy into the end zone that you’ll miss the fact that two dogs are behind you with illegal use of the paws or some sort of excessive force. So if it weren’t for the occasional time that the director says, “Hey, by the way, we had a call back here…” — and we literally do go back to the videotape — I wouldn’t be able to catch everything.

So you have the director in your ear?

I do have the director in my ear, thank goodness, otherwise they’d have to hire more officials. I’m serious. I mean, I’ve missed dogs that are literally in the water bowl taking a bath. Just in there, hanging out, like they’re in a bubble bath, enjoying their time, right behind me. That’s an illegal bathing penalty. I’ve had dogs taking giant poops and pees on the field, which is premature watering of the lawn, excessive fertilization — you can give it any cute you name you want, but those are egregious penalties that will set you back five yards, and I’ve missed them. It’s hard.

How do you deal with pooping and peeing? Do we barely even see how bad it can get for you out there?

The same way we count touchdowns, we could count how many times the puppies go to the bathroom, and we could rack up probably more points than we would on touchdowns. It’s everywhere, it’s all the time, because it’s puppies being puppies. I would say every five to 10 minutes there’s an accident. We have a wonderful crew, not just the people from the Humane Society and the vets that are on staff to make sure that we are safe, but we have a straight-up clean up crew who comes in there. This astroturf — God love it, it has been our astroturf for years — goes through quite a cleaning every season and off-season, but it goes through a cleaning throughout the day. I love the penalty “unpuppy-like conduct,” because it’s a ridiculous idea – a puppy is going to do almost anything from chewing your couch to humping your leg to drinking toilet water. So to call something unpuppy-like is hilarious because there’s nothing they won’t do. So yeah, to answer your question, it happens a lot and it could fill an entire two-hour show.

Let’s talk about the humping. There’s a lot of focus on pooping and peeing, but how much of a humping problem is there, given that these are dogs are so young?

Not as much as you would think. I think because they’re puppies they’re a little more innocent so that stuff doesn’t come into [play]. Two years ago we were on set and we had a humping between these — let me try to visualize it because it has burned in my brain — it was a baby golden retriever and I want to say a baby cocker spaniel. They went at it and they continued to go at it and I tried to call a penalty and the director was like, “Well, listen, we can’t really highlight this stuff,” and I said, “What if we called it illegal fornication?” Then we went through this whole litany of ways to call it innocently like humping or illegal loving, but none of them seemed to stick because we have quite a family-friendly audience and we realize that there are kids watching. The fact is, these are kids as well. The puppies are 12 to 24 weeks old, so the idea of them actually fornicating is not the most palatable. I would say it doesn’t happen as often as the pooping, but it would happen two to three times per game.

When the camera aren’t rolling, do you ever just lay down on the field and just say, “All right, have at me! Let the cute storm happen!”

Yes. And the time to do that is near the beginning. Every quarter we rotate a different group of puppies in so we can highlight as many different breeds and shelters as possible. We go from larger to small breeds. So the time to lay down — and we’ve done it, we filmed it, it looks great — is the beginning. Because once you step onto that field, that’s when they’re the most curious about you. So if you were to lay down, they would jump all over you, they’d lick you, they’d check your pockets for bacon bits, which I do have occasionally, spoiler. But as the quarter goes on, five minutes, 10 minutes, 15 minutes in, they could care less that you’re on the field. In fact, they’re annoyed by you being on the field because you’re in the way of their toys and their fun and whatever bonds they make. So yeah, you gotta do it right at the beginning. It doesn’t do a great job of creating a sense of authority for the ref.

I dunno, I see it in the NFL all the time.

Good point. There are those renegade refs who lie down to get licked by Tom Brady. Yeah, I’ve done it once or twice and and I will say even though it doesn’t do that much for your authority, it’s a great visual. It looks fantastic.

What does it feel like?

I will say that if it’s a small breed dog, which is what we get in the early quarters, it is a pure delight. You barely feel those little tongues and it’s like getting a 1000 tiny wet kisses, right? Totally adorable. Very cute and soothing and you can get right back up and go back to work. Once you get to the larger breeds in the fourth quarter — and I’m talking about your dalmations, you rold English sheepdogs, your German shepherds, your big huskies — it is more like being involved in a wrestling match where you’re outnumbered and didn’t sign up for, and you just kind of want to get it over with so you can get back to work. But getting back to work takes a little bit of time because you literally need a trip to the bathroom to pour some Purell all over yourself. That would be the larger breed. Nothing against them. They are awesome but you can really only cuddle with one or two at a time. A puppy pileup only works on smaller breeds.

How and why did you audition to be a referee in Puppy Bowl?

About five years ago, Animal Planet already knew me because I was a host on a couple of variety-type, product-type shows called Your Pet Wants This. It was basically a product showcase of cool, new cutting-edge products for cats, dogs, birds, et cetera. So that’s what gave me a little bit of an advantage when they were looking for a new Puppy Bowl ref. I heard through the grapevine that they were looking for one and I got in touch with the executive producer Melinda Toporoff and she said, “Why don’t you submit an audition tape?” And I went to Long Island where there are more open green spaces and I officiated a pretend scrimmage with neighborhood dogs and then I did a little testimonial to camera and showed myself officiating with my pets, which at the time were just fish. I also officiated a small scrimmage between my two kids who at that point were ages 2 and 4. So it was lot of cute little things to show why I would be good at reffing small mammals. I didn’t just limit myself to dogs in my audition video. They brought me in for an interview and they asked the most important question of all, which is: “Are you allergic to dogs and cats?” … It’s been a great five years. It’s a combination of three things that I really love, which is hosting broadcasting, which I’ve been doing for years on a variety of network and platforms. And it combines my love of sports, which I’ve had since a kid, and my love of animals. So I guess if I could have crafted the perfect job, this would have been it.

If you had to ref in the Super Bowl, how would you do?

I think I would initially look the part and then after about five minutes, I would be asked to leave because I would be too tempted to snuggle, cuddle, and celebrate with the players after every positive play. It’s ingrained in me that after every touchdown the winning players deserves at least a hug. That’s what we do at Puppy Bowl. We’re very celebratory. I mean, Cam Newton would fit in great at Puppy Bowl. We’re all about the celebration.

Can you give us a preview of the halftime show?

We’re in the Bay Area this year. I should say the other game is in the Bay Area this year. So we’ve done a Bay Area-themed kitten halftime show. There are 20 kittens here this year. They’re all available for adoption from shelters across the country. They’re all about the same age as the puppies. You’ve got your dances, you’ve got your crazy moves. They changed the set. It used to look more like a carpet, that kitty tree type set. Now it’s a little more elaborate. There’s more going on on the set. You may or may not see a Golden Gate Bridge in the background to highlight where we’re at.

Forget the Super Bowl. Why should people watch Puppy Bowl over Kitten Bowl?

In all seriousness, we’re excited about the fact that another network, another organization is promoting adoption. If someone had put out a Kitten Bowl or a Turtle Bowl or a Fish Bowl — which I think Nat Geo did — if any animal bowl had not chosen to do the adoption angle, we would be sad about that. But they’re all doing it under the guise of, “Hey, they’re all up for adoption. Contact your local shelter,” so we applaud that. We think it’s great. Let’s keep going. Let’s have somebody put out, gosh, a Gopher Bowl. Let’s have somebody put out a Goat Bowl. Let’s highlight every animal for two hours that could possibly want a home. We do think there’s room enough for everybody. But as far as I think the bigger show, the more elaborate show, the one that has the most to offer, this year we have our virtual reality element where people can go on online and get on the 50-yard line and have a 360-degree view of the action. We’ve got our Hall of Famer. There’s so much going on, we do maybe set the standard and we’re just grateful that other people like us enough to follow suit.

Well, that was a very lovely answer but I wonder if a part of you is like, “They’re ripping us off!”

Yeah, I agree. And intimation is in the sincerest form of flattery. The first joke that went around was: “It gives new meaning to the term copycat.”

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