When this Cuteness Correspondent attended the 2012 World’s Ugliest Dog Contest, she saw a friendly, silly competition celebrating the, uh, uniqueness, of some very well-loved dogs. After Britain’s Mugly swept the competition in his dandy little coat, I packed up my camera and went home ready to write a heartwarming story about finding beauty in the most unexpected places.
But my understanding of it took a drastic turn once I watched John Beck and Don R. Lewis’ Worst in Show. The documentary from the award-winning filmmakers offers a behind-the-scenes look at the history, hounds, and humans of the contest. While the dogs themselves are anything but ugly, some of the attitudes of the humans involved are less than attractive. From online voting fraud to stalkers and obsessive rivalry, Worst in Show reveals a world of competitive egos and show-stopping controversy. Read on to find out how bad it gets, then enter to win a DVD of the film!
See the trailer for the movie here:
John and Don met at a music festival in northern California and discovered that they shared a mutual obsession for, well, obsessions. After two award-winning short documentaries about fascinating fixations (Stringers follows four San Francisco videographers who capture mayhem to sell to news stations, and Drag Kings unveils the culture of “boat racing” — only there’s no water involved), John was reporting on the 2008 World’s Ugliest Dog Contest for the Press Democrat when he uncovered a treasure trove of material, which led to Worst in Show.
John recalls the experience as “entering another world,” with British and Japanese press going crazy for the motley mutts, whose owners applied gel to spike the dogs’ fur and fed them peanut butter for extra dangling-tongue action. Worst in Show reveals the lengths to which the dogs’ handlers will go to win a title the rest of us would do our best to lose. Thankfully the hounds themselves are charmingly oblivious, and no matter what rivalries rear their ugly heads among the humans, the dogs are all well-loved.
Worst in Show follows some of its more notorious dog owners in the contest.
Most prominent is Dane, with his African Sand Dog Rascal and their patented hot dog leash. Dane has made a career out of working the ugly dog circuit (yup, it exists), and Rascal is actually fourth in a “dynasty” of ugly dogs Dane has shown. While Rascal’s physical uniqueness has garnered him guest spots on talk shows, the petite pooch doesn’t seem to care as much as Dane does.
According to another ugliest dog competitor, John — whose Chinese Crested, Icky, gets a visit from Mormons in the documentary — 800 online votes for Rascal were invalidated one year when it was discovered that someone had hacked the system.
Icky and John play a mitigating role in the film, with one foot in the ugly dog circuit and another foot in reality — that is, until Icky and Rascal go paw to paw in a contest in which votes were literally bought (it was a fundraiser). Pabst and his human guardian, Miles, are harassed by a mysterious stalker, who may or may not be Dane calling repeatedly to try to offer ugly dog advice. According to Miles, when Pabst won in an unprecedented victory (Chinese Cresteds usually sweep the competition, and Pabst, as a Boxer mix, charmed the audience and surprised contest officials), Dane discouraged him from taking a modeling gig that he later tried to claim for himself.
The more extreme ugly dog contestants are supported by a cast of interesting characters, such as Susie, who owns Sam. Described by John as “by far the gnarliest dog ever,” Sam was a truly unique canine loved by a truly unique human who took him in as a rescue. According to Susie, Sam — whose “Tales from the Crypt shot” is probably familiar to you — was initially an aggressive dog, but she eventually won his trust, and after hearing about the Petaluma contest on a show, she entered Sam. Sam won from 2003 until 2005, when he passed away undefeated.
There’s also Winston, a Hurricane Katrina victim with a battle wound to show for it, whose human, Ashley, vows to return to the contest after not getting a chance to tell the dog’s harrowing story. Though the filmmakers don’t follow Handsome Hector much, John Beck said they absolutely had to include a sound bite from Hector’s human, Ghada, who informed the filmmakers that women used to use the dogs like hot water bottles to alleviate monthly cramps. “You can’t make that stuff up!” John says.
However, a tender story of hope emerged amid the ugly competition. Kathleen and her hunchbacked hound, Princess Abbey, rescued each other in dire times. Diagnosed with a terminal disease, Kathleen’s human partner stepped in front of a train, killing himself without leaving a note. At about the same time, Princess Abbey, a disfigured but precious Chihuahua mix, was found on the streets, near death. For Kathleen it was love at first sight, and though she finds Princess Abbey beautiful, she decided to enter the dog in the World’s Ugliest Dog Contest — and won with flying colors. With a trip to New York and lots of attention, the victory helped transform Kathleen into a more confident woman, and helped her find closure following the loss of her partner. And it’s all thanks to a little lopsided dog. “There hasn’t been a story like that before or since,” John says.
When I asked John about the possible controversy over calling the dogs “ugly,” he says, “Ugly is definitely the new cute. If we all embraced ugliness, the world would be a better place.” He adds, “Just imagine Turner and Hooch or Milo and Otis with really ‘ugly’ dogs — much better story, right? Or imagine if [President Barack] Obama had rescued an ‘ugly’ dog — much better story, right?”
So, what’s the perfect ugly dog? John said that if he were Dr. Frankenstein, he’d take “Pabst’s underbite and Sam’s eyes and Icky’s ugly cuteness and Hector’s tongue and Rascal’s owner … put it all together and win that contest every year.”
Yeah, but would you also rig the ballots? Wait, don’t answer that.
One lucky reader can win a DVD of Worst in Show! To enter, tell us in the comments below about the ugliest dog you have ever met who was also adorable. The mutt can be yours or just one who made an impression on you.
Voting closes at noon Pacific time on Tuesday, August 21. We’ll pick our favorite comment. (Note that this is a PAL-format movie, which only plays in the U.S., but we’re opening up the competition to worldwide readers because we know you all love ugly dogs!)
To be eligible for the prize, use your Disqus account to comment below. Creating a profile and avatar takes just a minute, and is a great way to participate in Dogster’s community of people who are passionate about dogs. And note that you must have a valid e-mail address associated with your account, or we can’t contact you if you win.
Check out the Worst in Show website for updates on screenings and events; it’s also available on iTunes. John and Don are currently making the festival rounds with their latest film, Harvest, which follows an all-woman grape-picking crew from Mexico as they struggle with last year’s wine harvest.
Photos via the Worst in Show website