It is frowned upon for NFL players to complain to referees. But at least they don’t urinate on them.

The same can’t be said for the competitors in the Puppy Bowl, Animal Planet’s dog football game that takes place in October but didn’t air until Super Bowl Sunday afternoon.

The event’s referee, Dan Schachner, remains prepared for all eventualities by keeping five identical uniforms in his locker room so he can change into them in case of accidents. Schachner, 49, admitted that he had relaxed in imposing penalties for “watering the grass prematurely” since he began calling the game in 2011.

“I don’t automatically reach for the flag,” he said. “We have a game to play.”

This year’s Puppy Bowl, which was televised Sunday at 2 p.m. ET, was the 20th edition of the event, a milestone for a show that began as a tongue-in-cheek showcase of pup playtime before becoming a giant of counterprogramming.

The three-hour skirmish over a football-shaped chew toy has been in the air longer than “Grey’s Anatomy.” Animal Planet said last year’s Puppy Bowl “reached” more than 13 million viewers.

In this year’s edition, Team Fluff took an early two-touchdown lead thanks to the heroics of Francine, an energetic pug. But the Ruff team rallied in the fourth quarter to defeat the reigning champions, 72-69, and take home the Lombardy Trophy. Moosh, an Australian shepherd mix who forced a key loss, was awarded the MVP award

The event’s sustained success has come with unique production challenges. Players cannot throw because they lack opposable thumbs. They fall asleep at the 20-yard line and sometimes try to bathe in the water bowl. They are especially bad at determining when to make a 2-point conversion.

It takes more than 100 crew members and 200 bags of poop to convince the pups to participate in something resembling a soccer game. “The Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade requires the same coordination,” said Howard Lee, president of Discovery Networks, which owns Animal Planet.

In an interview, Lee described the program as a call for pet adoption disguised as a football game. According to Animal Planet, all 1,298 dogs that played in previous Puppy Bowls have been adopted. The event generates a lot of interest from shelters whose pups take to the field, although those who participate in the game have usually already been adopted by the time it airs.

The 131 members of this year’s lineup were selected through online casting this summer and came from more than 70 shelters and rescue centers across the United States. They were all between three and six months old.

Just like in the NFL, there were highly touted prospects: Levi, a 72-pound Great Dane, was the largest pup to ever compete in the event. Bark Purdy, a Chihuahua mix, shares a name (and perhaps his agility) with the San Francisco 49ers quarterback.

In October, the draft picks were transported to a hockey arena in Glens Falls, New York, which had been equipped with a 28-foot-long AstroTurf field. The game was filmed over the course of a week to allow the pups to get enough hydration and naps. The producers subsequently reduced slow periods in the game.

To avoid injuries, smaller breeds like Dachshunds and Pugs faced each other in the first half, while huskies and hounds entered a more muscular second half. (In Mr. Schachner’s experience, smaller breeds are more likely to “elude defenders” and “break tackles.”) Pups from two teams, Team Ruff and Team Fluff, scored touchdowns by carrying chew toys to each end zone.

Victoria Schade, the set’s trainer, benches the dogs when they seem overwhelmed. In her 18 years working at the Puppy Bowl, she has perfected her own technique for getting dogs to look patriotically up during the national anthem: dangling treats above their heads.

“Freeze-dried chicken, freeze-dried liver, freeze-dried cheese — that will give you a performance worthy of the Puppy Bowl,” Ms. Schade said.

The first Puppy Bowl, which aired in 2005, was more of a pickup game. The network’s CEO had asked Animal Planet producers to come up with some kind of counterprogramming for the Super Bowl, said Margo Kent, who was then an executive producer at the network.

The task seemed impossible. “We joked, ‘Why do we work so hard?’” Kent said. “Let’s put the puppies in a box and point a camera at it.”

They tested it at a Discovery sound studio in Silver Spring, Maryland, with a couple dozen dogs from local shelters. Camera operators filmed from behind a layer of clear plexiglass, which had to be cleaned frequently because the puppies pressed their wet noses against it.

“We couldn’t believe how well it worked,” said David Doyle, who at the time was Animal Planet’s vice president of production and development. The event became a “favorite of advertising sales and senior management,” he added. “Suddenly it became: How can we make money with this cool thing?”

At Puppy Bowl II, Subaru ads lined the stadium. A kitten halftime show was added, but it went awry when the explosion of the confetti cannons caused all the cats to jump out of the filming enclosure, Kent said. (It was re-recorded and the crew sprinkled the confetti by hand.)

Scorecards and uniforms were added in Puppy Bowl XI, and three years later a sloth was introduced as an assistant referee. With each eye-catching addition, the Puppy Bowl also devoted a greater proportion of its airtime to encouraging viewers to adopt pets, including senior dogs and puppies with special needs.

If the event is good for puppy adoption, it may be even better for Warner Bros. Discovery, one of the entertainment industry’s newest and biggest giants. Last year, Puppy Bowl viewership added more than four million additional viewers, according to the network, thanks in part to Discovery’s acquisition of WarnerMedia in 2022.

For the first time, Puppy Bowl XIX was simulcast on Animal Planet, Discovery Channel, HBO Max, TBS and Discovery+. “Viewership has increased especially because we’ve had more eyeballs from all these different platforms,” ​​Mr. Lee said.

Animal Planet said it would not share the cost of producing the Puppy Bowl or the advertising revenue it generates. But the show tends to have a high return on investment, said Doyle, who is now executive vice president of Hearst Media Production. Cluster. The first Puppy Bowl cost less than $100,000 to produce, he said. “I’m sure it costs five times what we spent on it or more,” he speculated. “But it probably makes 50 times that amount of money.”

Puppy Bowl team members, past and present, offered several theories about the show’s continued dominance: it appeals widely to all age groups; It is easy to see while preparing chili. Your favorite team may be eliminated during the NFL playoffs, but it can’t fall short of making the Puppy Bowl.

Then almost everyone came back to the obvious: people really like puppies.

Many viewers are motivated by the Puppy Bowl to find one of their own. Erika Proctor, 42, executive director of Green Dogs Unleashed, a special-needs animal rescue center in Troy, Virginia, estimated that she receives about 100 emails on Puppy Bowl day asking about adoptions and training. This is followed by an increase in applications, she said.

Green Dogs Unleashed, which has been sending dogs to the Puppy Bowl for the past 10 years, is responsible for the costs of transporting the puppies to Glens Falls and boarding there. That was a challenge at first, Ms. Proctor said, but “it comes back to us multiplied by the awareness it brings to the country of our special needs animals.”

Those on the Puppy Bowl set don’t necessarily know the winner. Producers film endings in which each team triumphs and the winner is determined in post-production.

That means Schachner can’t help the people who send him direct messages on social media every year asking for advice that could help them bet on the outcome of the game. Other common prop bets concern the point difference of the final score and the age of the MVP (most valuable puppy).

Despite appearances, producers insist that Puppy Bowl glory is earned on the field, not in the script of their human supervisors.

“You have to condense it to make it a fun, understandable story,” said Joe Boyle, Discovery’s senior vice president of production and development, “but we follow what really happened.”