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The 20th Annual Puppy Bowl Pits Team Fluff Against Team Ruff — and Everyone Wins

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A beagle puppy and a sheepdog puppy face off on a fake football field, surrounded by other curious puppies.
Some of the adorable participants in this year's Puppy Bowl. (Animal Planet via AP)

The annual Puppy Bowl turns 20 this year — well over middle age in dog years. But does the sheer cuteness of it really ever get old?

“Who doesn’t want to watch dogs play all day long?” asks Laurie Johnson, the director of Florida Little Dog Rescue in St. Cloud, Florida, who has been part of Puppy Bowl for a decade.

There are some changes this year to the canine football telecast: Four previous puppy players return to be inducted in the new Puppy Bowl Hall of Fame and the show, which has grown to include armadillos, hedgehogs and chickens, will focus on dogs.

“What we’ve done this year to flip the whole script is because it’s sort of a celebration of the fact that it’s the 20th year,” says Puppy Bowl referee Dan Schachner. “We’ve decided to go all in on puppy, making it the “most puppiest Puppy Bowl ever.”

The Puppy Bowl made its debut as counter-programming to the Super Bowl in 2005. Dogs score touchdowns on a gridiron carpet when they cross the goal line — any goal line — with a toy.

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The show is really just an excuse to spend time watching adorable, clumsy pups in colorful sweaters play with chew toys, wag their tails furiously and lick the camera. A deeper reason is to encourage animal adoption.

“We always say the same message every year: Adopt, don’t shop,” says Schachner. “There are responsible breeders out there, but it kind of defies logic that somebody who’s searching for a dog would look beyond their local shelter or rescue.”

According to the ASPCA, approximately 390,000 shelter dogs are euthanized each year and 2 million shelter dogs are adopted. Schachner says the number of animals languishing in shelters is back up after falling during the pandemic. “It’s worse than ever,” he says.

Florida Little Dog Rescue, which like all puppy groups is vetted by Animal Planet, sent seven pup players and two Hall of Fame inductees this year. Johnson, who volunteers her time, says it’s an honor that Animal Planet picks her pups year after year.

“It does bring attention to our rescue, which helps some of our other dogs get adopted. But, honestly, for us, the biggest excitement is that we’re helping dogs all over the country get into homes, because rescue is not a competition, it’s a cooperation,” says Johnson.

Most of the puppies are usually adopted by airtime, since the show is filmed in the fall. But the point is to show that animals just like the ones on the show can be found in any shelter at any time.

Schachner also has some advice for anyone who falls for a particular pup on the broadcast: “That animal is probably likely part of a litter, right? So there’s probably siblings out there that are still up for adoption or their parents — their mom, their dad — is in the shelter looking for a forever home.”

Florida Little Dog Rescue was the first to send a Shar Pei to the Puppy Bowl — the pup, Wrinkles, was quickly adopted by a crew member at the taping — and Johnson says many viewers might not know that all kinds of breeds — Corgis, Westies, Doodles and Cavapoos, included — are available at shelters and rescue groups.

A man in a referee uniform lays down on a miniature football field surrounded by tiny puppies.
Referee Dan Schachner with participants of the annual Puppy Bowl. (Animal Planet via AP)

The inaugural Puppy Bowl was watched by nearly 6 million viewers. Last year, 13.2 million viewers tuned in, the largest reach for the event in five years. In comparison, The Emmy Awards telecast on Fox this year reached just 4.3 million viewers. This year’s show will be simulcast across Animal Planet, Discovery, TBS, truTV, Max and Discovery.

The dogs are split into two teams — Team Fluff and Team Ruff — and each dog is given a nickname — like “Slick Rick” or “J-Paw” — and a specialty, like “Epic end zone dance.”

They are free to frolic, but may face penalties for things like “unsportlike dog conduct” and “trash barking.” Awards are given to Most Valuable Puppy and, new this year, an Underdog Award for the more introverted pup.

This year’s broadcast is built on the work of dozens of volunteers, as well as 600 pee pads, 200 poop bags, 10 bags of treats, 30 water bowls and 18 cameras. The cat halftime show will also return.

Schachner started refereeing 13 years ago, when there were 59 dogs invited. “I’ll never forget that because I thought that was a tremendous amount of dogs to be trying to officiate in one place.”

That number has by now more than doubled, with this year’s broadcast featuring 131 puppies. “The scope and the size of this show from the time I started 13 years ago to now is just very impressive.”

The canine entries this time come from 73 shelters and rescue groups across 36 states and territories. The entrance requirements include being healthy and sturdy enough to be on the field with playmates, between 3-6 months old and having no training.

“We don’t want dogs that are show dogs, that are sitting there with a trainer. We want to see them in all their puppy glory. Part of that is to show what puppies are in their true state,” says Schachner.

“They are playful, they are curious, they’re going to get into trouble, they’re going to do crazy things. And from time to time, they’re going to score touchdowns and really impress you.”

The Puppy Bowl airs at 11 a.m. on Feb. 11, 2024 and will be simulcast across Animal Planet, Discovery, TBS, truTV, Max and discovery+.

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