Experience: I own the world’s ugliest dog

I knew I wasn’t helping the situation by naming her Quasi Modo, but it stuck

When my colleague at the animal shelter called me to meet a dog that had just been brought in, I couldn’t believe what I was looking at. It was about 10 years ago, and a man had come in saying he’d found three dogs and couldn’t keep them. I wondered if I was on Candid Camera: I’d worked at the shelter as a vet for 20 years, and had seen thousands of animals, but never anything like this.

As he walked them towards the shelter, someone said, “He’s meant to be bringing three dogs, but that one’s a pig or something.” Quasi Modo, as I later named her, was around a year old and had a birth defect called short spine syndrome: everything fused together in her back and she couldn’t move her head. She still has to turn her whole body to look at anything.

Everyone at work knows I like the strange and unusual animals, and when no one claimed her, I quickly adopted her. I tried a lot of cute names – Flowers, Tulips – but none of them fitted. I knew I wasn’t helping the situation by naming her Quasi Modo, but it stuck.

She gets unkind comments about her appearance. People see her and say, “Ooh, what’s that?” I tell them it’s a dog, and you see them staring. But then she’ll go over and rub on their leg and they’ll reach down and pet her. She’s very sweet and self-confident, even though you’d think something that looks so strange might not be. When she walks past you, she taps her foot to yours – it’s her way of saying, “Hi”, because she can’t raise her head.

For years, friends said we should enter the World’s Ugliest Dog contest in Petaluma, California, but it’s a long way from where we live in Florida and I never got around to it. Finally, two years ago, my husband and Quasi and I flew over and she came second. The crowd was so behind us that I thought we could win if we entered again.

So last summer we returned. There were 26 other dogs. They were uniformly ugly. The Chinese crested and Mexican hairless ones were all rotten teeth, missing fur and tongues hanging out. Quasi wasn’t the ugliest, but she was definitely the most different-looking. A lot of the little dogs recoil at crowds, whereas Quasi was rubbing everyone’s legs and making friends. When it came to judging, the crowd were chanting her name and I think the judges were too afraid not to pick her.

The night we won, we didn’t sleep. After the competition, we were taken to San Francisco and had a 2am shoot at a television studio, then went straight on to a flight to New York. At the airport, everyone wanted selfies with Quasi and we had to keep moving to get on the plane. In Central Park, a man stopped us to show a clip of her on Russian news. Next we were flown to LA for Quasi to get a makeover on the Jimmy Kimmel talk show. For a while, we couldn’t go anywhere without someone saying, “Oh my God – that’s the dog from TV.”

We had some criticism, people saying they thought it was cruel, but you have to have a sense of humour to go to an ugly dog contest. This isn’t about making fun of her, it’s about celebrating our differences. We don’t think she’s ugly, but we love her enough that we can have a little joke.

I wish I’d known her as a puppy. I picture her small enough to hold in your hand, and she’s with her brothers and sisters; they’re all normal little dogs and then there’s this tiny hunchback. Working at the shelter, I could adopt all the beautiful purebreds if I wanted to; but Quasi shows that you don’t need to be the most perfect-looking animal to be a loving pet. She gets on with all our other animals and cuddles up to one of our cats who likes sleeping with her.

I don’t feel sorry for her. She teaches people tolerance, especially those who initially stare, because they think she’s ugly or they’re afraid; she always wins them over. She’s taught me not to dwell on what’s wrong in life. She’s not self-conscious. She doesn’t look in the mirror and go, “Oh, poor me.” She’s the epitome of happiness.

• As told to Candice Pires

Do you have an experience to share? Email experience@theguardian.com

Virginia Sayre

The GuardianTramp

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