As the Sonoma-Marin Fair prepares to celebrate its 25th year hosting the World's Ugliest Dog Contest, the man who invented the competition that has gone international in its popularity can still remember the show's humble beginnings.
Contest creator Ross Smith said that it all started back in 1971, at a barbecue of Petaluma's Old Adobe Association.
“The association put on all sorts of programs for children and adults at the Old Adobe in the 1970s and '80s, including a pet parade, “ said Smith. “We were sitting around talking, and we all agreed that the pet parade never got much response. Someone suggested that we hold a dog contest instead, and I piped up that we should hold an ugly dog contest. Everyone jumped all over that idea.”
Longtime Petaluman Leo Lavio also remembers that fateful event. “People were really excited to pick out the ugliest dog,” Lavio said. “It was different and everyone got a kick out of it.”
From there, Smith's idea grew furry legs of its own, drawing large audiences — and extremely ugly dogs — from across the country. Early contestants included African sand dogs, Chinese crested hairless dogs, English bulldogs, and even a piglet in 1980.
Smith said he even convinced Petaluma's famed sculptor Rosa Estebanez — the sculptor who made the original Vietnam Veteran's plaque in Walnut Park, along with several other statues throughout the city — to pitch in.
“I kind of had to browbeat her into making an ugly dog statue,” Smith said jokingly. “She was a famous sculptor and didn't think it was that important to begin with. But I convinced her.”
The statue, created in 1977, was placed downtown at the intersection of Petaluma Boulevard North and Washington Street. But then, vandals began defacing the piece. Finally, in 1983, the statue was moved to the Great Petaluma Mill, where it remained until the Sonoma-Marin Fair took over the contest in 1988. The statue now sits in the fair's front office.