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2017-2018 Issue I Editors' Picks World

Homely Hounds: Defining Ugly at the World’s Ugliest Dog Contest

Martha is a snorer. When she dozes, it sounds like a Boeing 747 revving up on the tarmac. She also has a drooling problem. Her bipedal best friend, Shirley, warns others that when they meet Martha, their clothes might accidentally get slimed. Sometimes Martha gets a bit gassy, and she has a lot of wrinkles for a three-year-old.

But make no mistake. Martha, a 125-pound Neapolitan mastiff and the reigning champion of the World’s Ugliest Dog Contest, is at the top of her game.

Martha’s win on Friday, June 23 was a fluke: She almost didn’t even enter the competition.

“It was kind of a last-minute thing,” Shirley Zindler, Martha’s former foster-parent, told The Politic.

Zindler fostered Martha after the mastiff received surgery for injuries to her eyes. Zindler looked at this slobbery, bovine creature, and then remembered the upcoming contest just a few days away. A light bulb went off and Zindler registered her for the competition. Martha, the new queen of ugly, was crowned just two days later.

Besides entering late, Martha was an unexpected victor for a more notable reason: Martha is not a Chinese crested.

The Chinese crested breed is to the World’s Ugliest Dog Contest what Usain Bolt is to Olympic sprinting. The competition has been held annually since 1976; in the last sixteen years, Chinese cresteds have taken home the gold a staggering nine times.  

While there are two types of cresteds—the hairless and the powderpuff—the hairless variety is the showstopper at the World’s Ugliest Dog Contest. If a crossbreed between a Clydesdale horse and a Barbie doll were shrunk down to the size of a cat, the result would approximate the curious blend of grace, exoticism, and nearly cabalistic spectacle that defines the hairless crested.

The origin story of the Chinese crested is muddled: Even the American Kennel Club (AKC) isn’t quite sure where they came from. Some think they evolved from African hairless dogs and were then bred to be small by Chinese sailors. They were popular on voyages because of their catlike predilection for hunting vermin but are now commonly kept as house pets or show dogs.

But the hairless cresteds at the World’s Ugliest Dog Contest are not well-bred in any sense. The AKC breed standard defines the ideal crested as “fine-boned, elegant, and graceful.” The ones that compete in the World’s Ugliest Dog Contest are usually larger than the standard prescribes. Many of these cresteds have lost their teeth from old age, and their gaits tend to be awkward and gangly.

But should any of that actually matter?

Bev Nicholson, the owner of Mugly, the 2012 winner of the contest, doesn’t think so.

Nicholson, who lives in Peterborough, England, told The Politic in an interview that the first time she ever saw Mugly was in a photograph that her friend sent her while she was visiting an animal shelter in Wales.

“They sent me this photo back of this scrawny little thing,” Nicholson said, describing Mugly as “a bag of skin with big beady eyes.”

The moment she saw that photo, her decision was made. “I need that dog.”

She adopted him in 2004, when he was just eight weeks old. Nicholson has never viewed Mugly’s victory as offensive.

“I’ve always seen it for what it is,” she told me, “just funny.”

But for Karen Cooper, the President of the American Chinese Crested Club (ACCC), the World’s Ugliest Dog Contest is no laughing matter.

The ACCC enrolls all official breeders of Chinese cresteds in the country and ensures that they adhere to responsible breeding regulations. It should come as no surprise that members of this club, whose stated purpose is “to bring [the Chinese cresteds’] natural qualities to perfection,” hold the World’s Ugliest Dog Contest in low regard.

Cooper put it bluntly: “They hate it.”

She doubts whether the cresteds who compete are truly purebred, calling them all “crossbreeds.” While it’s true that the competition accepts mixed-breed dogs, many of the contestants are not mutts—they are just that ugly.

Mugly is a bona fide purebred, but he, like most of the competitors, does not fit his breed standard at all. His head crest is scraggly like steel wool, and his expression, which should be “alert and intense” according to the crested breed standard, is wearily sympathetic, like a retired psychiatrist’s. His bald hide is mottled and uneven, and his feet, which should be covered with fur, are bony and bare, not unlike chicken legs.

Mugly was the perfect addition to the family. Nicholson’s friends came over to see Mugly frequently, and he was warm and outgoing with all of them.

Eventually the press discovered him. Nicholson was inundated with calls for news articles and daytime television appearances featuring Mugly, whom the media dubbed “Britain’s Ugliest Dog” in 2005.

When Mugly was eight years old, Nicholson was approached by the television network Channel 5, which offered her an all-expense-paid trip to the U.S. for the 2012 World’s Ugliest Dog Contest, coupled with a film deal. She accepted the offer and registered Mugly for the competition soon after.

Nicholson and Mugly flew into San Francisco, but the World’s Ugliest Dog Contest is actually held about 40 miles north, in Petaluma, CA. It just one event during the five-day-long Sonoma-Marin county fair.

To say that the dogs are given celebrity treatment is an understatement. Members of the press lobby to get the perfect shot of the victor. The dogs ascend a literal red carpet onto the stage before judging. A puppy psychic, apparently convinced that dogs have inner thoughts, attempts to read the contestants’ minds. If the dogs do have such thoughts, the question then becomes: Do these dogs think they’re ugly?

According to Yale University psychologist Dr. Laurie Santos, probably not.

Santos directs the Canine Cognition Center at Yale, which conducts research on the ways dogs think, learn, and interact with humans.

“Dogs share many basic aspects of social cognition with humans,” Santos told The Politic in an email. But while dogs may use some of the same social cues that we humans use, her research suggests that the dogs who compete in the World’s Ugliest Dog Contest do not consider themselves ugly.

“Dogs are probably not using the same cues we use as humans to judge their attractiveness,” Santos said. To a dog, the windows to the soul are not the eyes, but the nostrils.

Santos explained that when a female dog is “in oestrus,” or in heat, she emits a scent that signals her fertility to male dogs in order to attract them. Vision has little to do with canine attraction—dogs can’t even recognize themselves in mirrors. Though they can discern their own scent from other dogs’, that skill alone does not suggest a complex, human-like self-esteem, according to Santos.

But Nicholson remains unconvinced. “He’s very human,” she claimed of Mugly.

When Nicholson and Mugly arrived in San Francisco, it took them a day to orient themselves and meet up with their television crew. The following day, the pair went sightseeing in the city. Mugly wore a glitzy sequined tuxedo and a sparkling blue top hat—Nicholson calls it his “Union Jack outfit.”

After a couple of hours walking around, people began to recognize the conspicuous pup on the street. Strangers would snatch Mugly off the ground and hand Nicholson their phones, asking for selfies with him.

Though at the time she thought the situation was “really bizarre,” Nicholson now recalls the ordeal as “quite amusing.”

The publicity gained by Mugly and the other winning hairless cresteds irritates Cooper and most members of the ACCC.

Cooper has been involved with the breed since it was first recognized by the AKC. Until 1991, Chinese cresteds were cast in the “miscellaneous” category, a puppy purgatory for lesser-known breeds who are not yet officially recognized. Just two years after the breed was acknowledged by the AKC, Cooper purchased her first Chinese crested. She began breeding them shortly after that.

Cooper’s appreciation for the crested breed has only grown now that she serves as an AKC judge. Her style might even be called absolutist.

“You judge everything against the written standard,” Cooper said, adding that personal preferences are discarded the minute one enters the ring. “We have all got prejudices. We like certain things, we might like certain colors, and you try your best to ignore those prejudices.”

The judging of the World’s Ugliest Dog Contest seems almost capricious in comparison.

The first stage of the contest is separated into two groups: purebreds and mixed-breeds. Mugly, a full-blooded crested, was in the former category.

Nicholson led Mugly up the red carpet to the center of the stage. She lifted Mugly onto a small table for three judges to examine him. Flashes from reporters’ DSLRs cast the pair in a glaring light. The judges asked him questions as if he were going to answer them out loud, like “Are you going to enjoy the chef’s chicken dinner tonight, Mugly?” Mugly swept his category handily, as did a Mexican hairless mix named Creature, who won the mutt category. Now it was time for the final round.

Creature and Mugly stood shoulder to shoulder on stage facing the crowd. Creature leaned over to sniff Mugly like a wrestler psyching out his opponent. But Mugly was unperturbed.

The final winner is decided mostly by audience reaction. The emcee asked the crowd who they thought should win. Three thousand voices howled “MUGLY!” The emcee smiled and looked over at Nicholson.

“The Brit has won it,” she announced.

Nicholson could hear nothing over the roar.