Before adopting Puppy Bowl 2024's assistant referee, Whistle the poodle mix, Dan Schachner fostered 40 dogs
Puppy Bowl 2024 is almost here, and this year, the referee of the big game has someone special helping him call the shots.
Dan Schachner has been the referee for the Puppy Bowl for over a decade.
"This is my 13th year," Schachner, who will be the ref for the upcoming Puppy Bowl XX, tells PEOPLE.
"This is Puppy Bowl 20. It just continues to grow and grow, and this year will be no exception," he says of the 2024's big Puppy Bowl anniversary, adding, "I'm psyched."
Puppy Bowl 2024, airing Sunday, February 11 at 2 p.m. ET/11 a.m. PT, promises to be the "puppiest" Puppy Bowl ever, with 131 puppy participants from 73 shelters and rescues across 36 states and territories.
"There's dogs that are working the cameras. There are dogs in the control rooms. There are dogs on the red carpet. Cheerleaders, coaches, you name it, they're everywhere," Schachner says of the upcoming event.
Another new dog on the field for Puppy Bowl 2024 is Whistle, the canine sporting event's first assistant referee. Whistle the poodle mix is ready to win the hearts of Puppy Bowl viewers after earning Schachner's love first.
Schachner and his family officially adopted the "fluffball" dog in late 2023 after 10 years of fostering canines. Whistle is Schachner's first pet pooch since his childhood dog.
How did Whistle charm the Puppy Bowl ref, who had met hundreds of precious rescue dogs throughout his career? Most of it came down to timing, according to Schachner.
"When I first got the job, I was tempted, of course, every year we're tempted," the Puppy Bowl ref remembers, "But, I was like, "Let me learn." There is no better way to learn than through fostering. I remain a staunch advocate for fostering. If you are unsure of what kind of dog to get, if you can handle caring for a dog, or any trepidation, you should 1000% foster."
In his 10 past years of pet fostering, Schachner and his family have helped care for 40 different dogs and have enjoyed the company of each pup.
"You're doing good because you're making room in the shelter for the next dog. So you're automatically winning here, and you're helping the shelter," he says about the many pros of pet fostering, adding, "Forty different dogs in 10 years has really given me perspective."
Schachner's family had fostered large, small, special needs, and senior dogs before adopting Whistle. All of the pet care experience left them feeling confident that they would know the pet that was the right fit for them.
When Schachner met Whistle through Phoenix Animal Rescue at an adoption event in Pennsylvania while searching for a puppy to foster as his assistant ref, he had an inkling that the puppy mill rescue dog might become a permanent family member. He brought Whistle home, and after the second night of fostering the dog, Schachner's family sat together, "and we're just like, 'This is the one, right? This is the one.'"
Schachner adopted Whistle in December after several months of fostering, during which the puppy received several vet exams for luxating patella, a "fancy way of saying displaced kneecaps," per the ref.
"It's hard for her to run. She can't do stairs well because of her kneecaps. It's something that's going to require surgery down the line. But so far so good," Schachner adds.
Animal lovers can expect to see Whistle refereeing most of Puppy Bowl 2024 from Schachner's arms. He says the spot gives the pup the perfect view to cover the game.
"I think a Puppy Bowl assistant ref is probably an idea that's a long time coming; I've always needed a little help on the field. And honestly, having a dog in stripes along on the field helps enhance my authority because the other dogs see me with a dog, and they're like, 'Ah, this guy's cool. I trust this guy,'" Schachner explains.
Whistle is a valued team member of Schachner's family off the field.
"It's been great," the ref says of having Whistle as a pet. "It's been a lot of changes for this little dog. If you think about it, going from the breeder, being surrendered to the rescue, and having the medical issues, and going to Puppy Bowl,"
Whistle has handled it all with a cuddly demeanor.
"She's the clingiest, sweetest dog you've ever met," Schachner says.
Schachner notes that adopting Whistle doesn't mean the dogs he fostered before were "disappointments."
"They were all awesome, and they were all incredible learning experiences. It's like Santa Claus doesn't have his own kids. He has kids around the world. Every child is Santa Claus's kid. It's the same idea. I get to follow these dogs on Instagram and see their forever lives, these 40 dogs, and it's just the most fulfilling thing," he says.
Never miss a story — sign up for PEOPLE's free daily newsletter to stay up-to-date on the best of what PEOPLE has to offer, from juicy celebrity news to compelling human-interest stories.
The Puppy Bowl referee hopes his enriching experience with pet fostering inspires others to foster and adopt.
"Adoption and fostering are the way to go, and I'll shout it from the rooftops forever that you've got to adopt, not shop," Schachner shares.
Puppy Bowl fans can get a peek at the variety of dogs they can meet at animal shelters across the country by tuning into Puppy Bowl XX. Puppy Bowl 2024 will air on Sunday, February 11, at 2 p.m. ET/11 a.m. PT and will be simulcast across Animal Planet, Discovery, TBS, truTV, Max, and discovery+.
For more People news, make sure to sign up for our newsletter!
Read the original article on People.