Inside a secret location in midtown Manhattan, a pug-Pekingese mix named Bowser shakes his head and launches into a trot across a mini football field that’s outfitted with water bowls and a tsunami of squeak toys. The 14-week-old pup sniffs the air as the movie camera zooms in for a close-up. Off camera, a bag crinkles. Bowser pauses – his eyes sparkling, his nose quivering. He seems to wonder, “Hey, who has the corn chips?”
Bowser dashes to the corner where the trainer holding the bag rewards him with a salty treat. She lifts the Virginia-born pup off the field and passes him to a handler, who delivers him to a holding area where more than 80 yipping, yapping or napping puppies wait. These star athletes are on break during filming of the paw-pounding, fur-flying sporting event known as the Puppy Bowl.
For the 11th year, Animal Planet’s Puppy Bowl will showcase the athletic talents of adorable puppies, including teacup-size Chihuahuas, Labrador retriever mixes and a multi-touchdown-scoring clumber spaniel. The event, which airs Sunday to coincide with the NFL’s Super Bowl, includes football-playing rescue pups from 37 shelters in 20 states.
A New York actor named Dan Schachner serves as the referee. “My job out there is to keep order,” he says. He calls tackles, touchdowns and penalties such as illegal napping, illegal “FUR-mation” and illegal bathing. Last year he threw a flag on a puppy for “terrorizing the ref.”
In addition, on set is a director, a camera crew, lighting specialists, volunteers, dog trainers and a guy in charge of the fog machine. Another stagehand oversees the distribution of plush safari animals, plastic footballs and rope toys. And then there’s the poop lady. She runs onto the field, armed with blue plastic bags and paper towels, to take care of smelly emergencies, which seem to happen about every 15 seconds.
Bowser’s journey to the Puppy Bowl started before he was born. Not long after the Northern Virginia rescue organization Homeless Animal Rescue Team (HART) was invited to take part in the Puppy Bowl, HART took in a pregnant dog named Sparkles. Volunteer Nancy Tarr thought Sparkles’ puppies might be the right age at the time of the Puppy Bowl filming. But Sparkles’s health suffered after the birth of her six puppies. Volunteers went into action, bottle-feeding the puppies and saving their lives.
More help came from another local rescue organization in Northern Virginia, A Forever Home Rescue Foundation, and a small Labrador mix named Sally. Since Sally’s puppies had been adopted, she was able to nurse Sparkles’ pups, including little Bowser. The puppies thrived and later found adoptive homes.
Last October, longtime HART volunteer Lorelei Pate borrowed Bowser and his brother, Luigi, for a trip to New York for the filming of the Puppy Bowl.
“Bowser was always very confident and outgoing,” Pate says. “Luigi was fearless and animated. We knew they’d be stars. During the filming, you could see the enjoyment on their faces. There were big puppies, little puppies, and they are all tumbling around playing together. It was really cute.”
The day after the filming, Pate drove back to Virginia with both puppies sound asleep, nestled in a dog crate. “They were exhausted,” she says. “It was an exciting day for them both.”