Ninety dogs. Barnyard animal cheerleaders. A referee who’s a sloth?! Yep, you can expect the unexpected from Animal Planet’s Puppy Bowl on Sunday, as the competition of cuteness leaps into its 14th year.
Referee Dan Schachner, 43, has held the coveted gig of referee for seven years, calling puppies out for infractions like “turd on the third” and “pooch puddle on the 10-yard line,” as he jokes to PEOPLE. “You’ve got to find new ways to say poop and pee — after the 50th time it’s just not interesting.”
What is interesting are the backstories behind some of this year’s contenders, the largest roster ever. Of the 90 dogs making up Team Ruff and Team Fluff, two are blind, two are deaf and one is the first international player, hailing from a Mexico-based rescue.
“We’re always trying to think, ‘How do we take this very simple idea of puppies playing football and make it bigger and better?’ ” Scachner says.
To that end, here are five crazy new features to look out for during Sunday’s Puppy Bowl:
1. A Brand-New Stadium
“To me that’s the biggest and most exciting part,” Scachner says. “It’s bone-shaped, state-of-the-art, has cameras embedded in the end zone and a brand new locker room. It’s also slightly larger, so in a practical sense creates lots more room on the sidelines for the …
2. … Barnyard Animal Cheerleaders
“We had rescue rabbits as our cheerleaders last year — literally rabbits that were rescued and live on a farm in New Jersey,” Scachner says. “This year we have a barnyard animal cheerleading squad, with ducks and pigs. We thought: Let’s make it crazier. It’s rare an idea comes up in a planning meeting and it’s not entertained seriously.”
3. A Chicken Performing the National Anthem
You read that right. Jokgu of The Flockstars, who appeared on America’s Got Talent, will pluck out the notes to “The Star-Spangled Banner” before the game kicks off. “It’s real, I saw it happen,” Scachner swears.
4. A Sloth!
“I usually have an assistant, and this year it’s a sloth named Shirley, who’s dressed in a ref costume,” Scachner shared. “She did quite well — a little slow on the uptake — but otherwise quite great.”
5. Stealth Outfit Changes
A Puppy Bowl secret? Scachner has five backup outfits because things can get that messy on the field.
“I step in stuff all the time,” he says. “It’s an hourly occurrence. But I have a great team of cleaners, and it’s like a NASCAR 60-second change at this point.”
The game starts out with the tiniest dogs, going up in size each quarter. “It gets progressively harder, too,” he admits. “By the time we’re in the fourth quarter it’s like picking up small children. I need two hands and all of my leg strength to pick up a puppy and put him on the 10-yeard line!”
But it’s all worth it: all of the dogs on the show are available for adoption (two PEOPLE editors have scooped some up in the past) and that’s the way it’s been for 14 years.
“I think we’ve done a lot for adoption awareness,” Scachner says. “And this is not a TV gimmick: this is life or death. These dogs do need homes and they need them immediately.” Hence, many of the dogs featured in Puppy Bowl are already adopted following the October taping, though there is always the chance a few stragglers are left by the time the show airs (contact Animal Planet for more information).
Overall, Scachner is proud of this year’s presentation, and can’t wait to watch his four-legged friends instead of the Super Bowl (he’s a New York Giants fan).
“It was a good year,” Scachner says. “No penalties, no unpuppylike conduct. They played fair, scored a lot of touchdowns … it’s a very exciting game from a scoring perspective. They played clean — though not literally.”
Catch Puppy Bowl this Sunday, Feb. 4, at 3 p.m. ET on Animal Planet.