World’s Ugliest Dogs return to Petaluma

Annual competition a howling success for 40 years|

Petaluma, once known as the World’s Egg Basket and the Wrist-Wrestling Capital of the World, is best known now, one could argue - to non-locals, anyway- as the home base of the quirky annual World’s Ugliest Dog Contest.

This Friday at the Sonoma-Marin Fair, the competition - now in its 40th year (opinions vary on its actual start date) - once again trots out some of the ugliest, oddest, most adorably shocking mutts you’ve ever seen.

This year’s judges are communciations consultant and political analyst Brian Sobel, illustrator Paige Braddock (of Charles M. Schulz Creative Associates), and NBC’s Kerry Sanders.

“Many think this is just another ‘beauty contest,” said Tawny Tesconi, the event’s organizer, “when (the Ugly Dog Contest) is really an event to highlight many animal rescue, adoption and care organizations. The contest brings much needed attention to them and the causes they support.”

A large number of the dogs entered in the contest annually are rescue dogs who were having trouble finding homes because their looks are, shall we say, “unconventional.”

Starting three years ago, one entire day of the Fair is now a tribute to pets, with special focus, of course, on dogs.

Says Tesconi, “We’ve expanded the pre-event festival - now called “Pet Fest” - to bring much needed attention to animal-related adoption, rescue and care organizations. Several rescue shelters will be on hand with adoptable pets, and many pet-related services - like doggie day care facilities, veterinarians and a wide variety of new and unique pet items for purchase - will be set up throughout the contest area.”

According to Tesconi, attendees can also expect a surprise appearance by Snoopy, and the captivating and entertaining Faux Paw Fashion Show, featuring rescue dogs, beginning before the contest begins.”

The event has always been popular, but in many ways, the World’s Ugliest Dog Contest hit its peak in 2008, when Gus, a blind Chinese Crested dog - which had lost a back leg to cancer - won the contest. While the winnings for the contest were intended to help Gus with his cancer treatment, the Sonoma-Marin Fair, as well as presenting sponsor Animal Planet, received a huge amount of backlash with many viewers objecting to the term “ugly” as a description of an animal with cancer. Others felt Gus’ owners were exploiting their dog.

In spite of this, or perhaps aided by it, the 2008 contest marked the highest year ever for contest attendance, as well as national coverage via Animal Planet. After the controversial year, Animal Planet then pulled out as a sponsor, and the contest settled back into an (almost) “locals only” type of event.

Even so, each year the winning dog (and yes, its owner, too) are flown to New York to appear on the Today Show. And the pot of prize money has bumped up a bit, having climbed to $1,500.

The 2015 winner, a dog named Quasi Modo - described by some as not just ugly, but truly hideous - was flown to Los Angeles in order to receive a makeover on live TV, via the Jimmy Kimmel Show. The World’s Ugliest Dog Contest also has flirted with international fame, as winners have made the news in countries such as China, Japan, Germany and India.

The 2012 winner, Mugly, yet another Chinese Crested, hailed from Great Britain.

Tesconi said this year’s entrants include four out-of-state dogs, as well as one flying in from the U.K. to participate.

Then, of course, there are always the returning competitors, whose owners often represent an offbeat version of the dog owners in Christopher Guest’s enduring mockumentary “Best in Show.”

One such competitor is Jon Adler, who started in 2010 with his Chinese Crested dog “Icky,” which went on to capture Third Place from the judges in 2014. When asked what keeps him coming back year after year, Adler’s first answer is an honest one: “Funnel cakes.”

But donning a more serious side, Adler said, “It’s the deep friendships, with like-minded people from around the country and beyond, that develop each year. Throughout the year we are in contact and we truly are a goofy kind of fraternity.”

Each year, Adler noted, many regular contestants meet before the contest, at a local brewery-restaurant, and catch up on what’s new. When asked how his affection for “ugly” dogs started, Adler tells the story of a girl, a dog, and a kiss.

“I can remember seeing a picture on Facebook of a girl I had a crush on in high school, kissing Elwood,” Adler explained. Elwood was the winner of the 2007 contest. “I was so jealous!” he continued. “That kiss should have been me, not her. Still, I fell in love with Elwood.”

For all his joking and bravado, Adler uses Icky’s relative fame for a larger purpose.

Said Adler, “Icky’s notoriety has helped raise somewhere between 10 and 15-thousand dollars for a cause that is very close to my heart - HIV/AIDS awareness, as well as testing and education. By returning to the contest year after year, it keeps the fundraising potential fresh.”

It’s that theme of compassion and tolerance, Adler pointed out, dovetails nicely with the underlying theme of the contest, a theme that may not always be visible from the surface; tolerance and love for all.

“It’s so easy to walk down the street and see someone down on their luck and just walk by,” Adler said. “But if you sit down next to them and simply acknowledge and listen to them, what you will see is that they are a real person, like a sister or brother or son or daughter. At that point an amazing thing takes place, they are no longer invisible.

“The same is true for our pups,” Adler continued. “They weren’t the first in the shelters to get picked. Some bright eyed fluffy one took that honor. But they offer the same amount of love, if not more.

“They just seem to have higher vet bills.”

(Petaluma filmmaker and movie reviewer Don Lewis is the co-director, with John Beck, of the award-winning 2011 documentary “Worst in Show,” which chronicled the 2010 World’s Ugliest Dog Contest.)

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