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Meet the Puppy Bowl’s Cuteness Coach

Just like in the Super Bowl, there’s an expert behind all those strategic (and in this case, adorable) plays

spinner image puppies in football jerseys with footballs for the puppy bowl
Photo Collage: Sarah Rodgers; (Getty Images, Sacramento SPCA)

Kickoff for the most anticipated sporting event of the year is February 11, 2 p.m. ET, on Animal Planet (there’s a 1 p.m. pregame for hardcore fans), when Patrick Mabones and Bark Purdy will go paw-to-paw in Puppy Bowl XX.

Coaxing the televised on-field action along for the 17th year is Victoria Schade of Doylestown, Pennsylvania, who has served as the Puppy Bowl’s official animal wrangler since the third season in 2007. She makes sure the action happens and the pups are happy and safe.

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Schade, a bestselling author and private dog trainer, is responsible for cajoling any players who might experience an acute case of performance anxiety. She says it’s not unusual for the pups to take two steps out of the stadium tunnel and then freeze in front of the cameras. “When the puppies are first introduced in the starting lineup and emerge from the tunnel, they’re greeted by bright lights and dry ice, which can be a bit overwhelming,” Schade, who is in her early 50s, says. “What viewers don’t see is me kneeling off-camera in the opposite corner, calling each puppy’s name and offering encouragement.”

This year, Mabones, a hound mix representing Team Fluff, and Purdy, a Chihuahua mix playing for Team Ruff, will lead their teams in a competition for the prestigious Lombarky Trophy. Team Fluff, the reigning Puppy Bowl champs, took home the coveted award last year in an 87-83 victory over Team Ruff — secured when Vivianne, a husky mix, scored the final touchdown of 2023 by dragging a stuffed turtle into the end zone.

And there are sideline naps!  “If I see a player who doesn’t seem to be having fun anymore, I’ll run out, grab them and give them a little break for a nap.” 

The plays are sometimes staged

Schade says much of what happens is organic, but she does keep a healthy supply of treats on hand to help choreograph a few key moments.  At the beginning of the game, for example, there are superimposed images of the puppies looking up at the flag while the national anthem plays.  

“Spoiler alert, the puppies are actually looking up at me,” Schade says. “I’m standing next to the camera, offering them a big smile while holding a crinkly treat bag. They figure out that if they sit for a minute, they’ll be rewarded with a treat.”  

Schade says she uses vocal changes, body positioning and squeaky toys to engage the pups.

Another spoiler alert: The show is actually filmed each October in New York over the course of a week. So like most reality shows, there are a lot of edits.  

Who makes it off the bench?

Schade says all shelter puppies are potential candidates, but there are some considerations.

“We do consider size [of the puppy], because the field is much smaller than it looks,” Schade says. “As far as temperament, we never know how the puppy will perform until they’re on the field, because it’s such a unique scenario they’ve never been exposed to before.”

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Schade admits there have been times in the past when the Puppy Bowl crew thought a certain pup was going to be a ringer, only for them to take on the role of spectator and sploot comfortably on the field. On the other hand, there’s also the puppy everyone assumes will be a bench warmer, until he receives the right encouragement and becomes the star of the game.

The curious kittens at halftime

In addition to the puppy performances, Schade is in charge of the fabulous felines who appear in the Kitty Halftime Show. The program features adoptable kittens playing with balls of yarn, laser pointers and an assortment of toys. 

But they’re wily, says Schade. They give her different challenges than their puppy counterparts.   

“The kittens are literal escape artists and we have volunteers placed all around the venue,” Schade says, noting the cats’ curious nature often leads to them wanting to explore the entire building, beyond the stadium. 

The biggest winners: Those who find a home

The best part of the Puppy Bowl? Knowing the cuteness benefits a good cause by shining the light on shelter dogs and cats. 

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Victoria’s Puppy Training Tips

1. Keep it light. Training should always be fun for both ends of the leash.

2. Potty training your new puppy? It helps to hand over a treat the minute they finish their business outside. Don’t wait until you get inside, because your pup won’t connect the reward with their elimination.

3. There’s no need to “be the alpha” when it comes to training, especially with puppies. Our best friends need us to be an advocate and guide, not a scary dictator!

4. Keep a supply of treat-stuffable rubber busy toys ready to go, and swap them out frequently to keep your pup busy and happy.

All of the players in the Puppy Bowl are adoptable. Just visit the Discovery website to find the shelter location of the puppy you’re interested in. Keep in mind that since the show is prerecorded in October, many of the fur babies have already been adopted, but that shouldn’t deter you. Their respective shelters will have information on the many other dogs and cats seeking their forever homes. According to the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (ASPCA), 3.1 million dogs and 3.2 million cats enter U.S. animal shelters each year.

“One of the beautiful things the Puppy Bowl does is help erase the stigma surrounding rescue dogs,” Schade says, noting Puppy Bowl has a 100 percent adoption rate.

This year, the Puppy Bowl features the largest cast to date with 131 puppy players from 73 shelters and rescues across 36 states and territories. Two of those shelters are Baltimore Ravens’ Ronnie Stanley’s rescue foundation, based in Maryland, which trains dogs to assist people with special needs, and Best Friends Animal Society, headquartered in Utah.

A lifelong love of dogs

Cajoling dogs is nothing new for Schade, who grew up with pets. In the early 2000s, while working in a corporate sales job, she decided it was time to look for a more fulfilling career. “I wanted a job I felt passionate about and had this lightning bolt moment where I decided to be a dog trainer,” Schade says. She attended training seminars and took part in an apprenticeship. 

After establishing herself as a private dog trainer, Schade went on to create a puppy training DVD, publish a nonfiction book, Bonding With Your Dog, and opened a pet supply store. In 2018, she published her first work of fiction, Life on the Leash, and found her passion.

Most recently, she’s authored six works of fiction, all featuring dogs, and two nonfiction dog training books.

“I’ve gotten the ideas for many of my stories through my work as a dog trainer,” Schade says. “In all of my novels, I always try to do a tiny little bit of gentle dog education in between the fun and romance.” 

After completing this year’s Puppy Bowl, Schade is hard at work on her next novel, but the memories of her week spent with puppies remains with her throughout the year. 

“I always say the Puppy Bowl is the highlight of my year,” Schade says. “I get to snuggle with every single puppy you see on screen; it’s the best job ever.

Video: Getting the Best, Most Affordable Care for Your Pet

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