Local festival celebrates squishy-faced pugs

Aaron West

Austin has plenty of festivals celebrating books, movies and music. Only one festival, however, celebrates more than 100 squishy-faced pugs dressed in Halloween costumes that range from bumblebees to soldiers to Marilyn Monroe.

The ninth annual PUGkin Fest, a celebration and fundraiser for Austin-area pugs, will take place on Saturday in Woodland Park. About 120 costumed, curly-tailed dogs and their owners will gather at 9 a.m. and strut their stuff into the early afternoon, competing for trophies, bragging rights and titles like “Best in Show,” “Funniest,” and “Best Owner and Pug Combo.”

The festival, which aims to raise about $3,000 for the local nonprofit group Pug Rescue of Austin, is a chance for pug owners and non-owners alike to donate money that will go towards helping abused, neglected and unwanted pugs, all while showing off hand-crafted, pug-themed costumes.

“It’s exciting because you never know what costumes people are going to come up with,” said Kia Cialuette, a local pug owner who has attended PUGkin Fest since 2005.

“Last year there was somebody who had done an entire ‘Twilight’ scene. She had a huge set and she had five pugs that she had made look like creepy vampires.”

Rebekah Saltsman, PUGkin Fest coordinator and Austin Pug Club organizer, said that the costumes really bring out the competition in people. Festival-goers often work on their pets’ costumes for months and the results are all over the spectrum. Saltsman said there are bumblebee pugs, pugs dressed like historical figures and even one last year that was dressed as a vacuum cleaner that ate popcorn off the ground. “It was beautiful simplicity,” Saltsman said, referring to the costume.

“People are getting crazy,” Saltsman said. “Every year the costumes get more and more insane. Several years ago we had a pug in a small toy airplane, she was ‘Amelia Pughart.’ Last year there was a pug Marvin the Martian with a spaceship and everything. Some of these dogs are on floats, like actual trailers. It’s getting ridiculous.”

At 10 in the morning the pugs will take their places and strut down a marked runway, wowing onlookers with their curly tails, costumed grace and wrinkle-induced snorts. Three unbiased judges, who don’t own pugs but “can be persuaded by their cuteness," will oversee the proceedings according to Saltsman. The pugs, which Cialuette said are natural attention-seekers, don’t mind the celebrity status.

“They’re the most important in their minds and they’re not shy about it,” she said.

Pugs, which have been around since before 400 B.C. according to the American Kennel Club, are often described by the Latin phrase “multum in parvo” — “a lot of dog in a small space.” In the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, they were a favorite breed in various European royal courts.

This nobility endured the breeds’ introduction to America when pugs were brought here in 1885 and became one of the first dog breeds recognized by the club.

Their ancient bloodline and wrinkled faces, whose “roguish features,” according to the American Kennel Club will “wriggle its way into the hearts of men, women and children,” has a downside, however. Pugs often suffer from a myriad of health problems including respiratory issues and skin infections that stem from bacteria trapped in the moist spaces between their wrinkles. The money raised at Saturday’s festival will help pugs with issues like these.

Despite the health concerns, Ciaulette and other PUGkin Fest attendees know that pugs and their squished faces have no problem finding a home with dog-lovers.

“I think it just melts your heart, it’s so cute,” Ciaulette said.

“They have so many different facial expressions. I think the more squished the better, really.”

Printed on Friday, October 28, 2011 as: PUGkin Fest raises funds for pup rescue