Skip to main content

Sandra Hale Schulman
Special to ICT

Diné musician and activist Jeneda Benally wanted something special for her birthday last year, so she went to the local animal shelter and asked for the “oldest and most unadoptable dog.”

That’s how Mr. Happy Face joined her family at their spacious ranch in Flagstaff, Arizona, along with the horses, sheep, rams, ducks and her mother’s Chihuahua.

“The staff prepared me for what I was about to see as they brought out this 17 year-old, hairless, toothless, hobbling dog,” she told the Today Show on NBC on Monday, June 27.

“Despite being from a hoarder situation and being abused, he looked happy to me and made me smile. That’s when I knew I should call him Mr. Happy Face,” she said.

Mr. Happy Face is bringing smiles to a lot of faces these days since winning the World’s Ugliest Dog competition in California on June 24. He’s now a multi-media star with an Instagram account, @mrhappyface_wud, and a new title, Ambassador of Kindness, with a mission of helping elder dogs and rez dogs find a better life.

Mr. Happy Face, crowned the World's Ugliest Dog on June 24, 2022, at the Sonoma-Marin Fair in Petaluma, California, relaxes at his Arizona home with his owner, Jeneda Benally, a Dine musician and activist. An elderly dog with a string of health issues, he is going to help raise support for other shelter and rez dogs. (Photo courtesy of Jeneda Benally)

He’ll be touring with Benally’s band, Sihasin, this summer, doing meet-and-greets along the way to raise funds for the Tuba City Animal Shelter, where he came from.

“This is about respecting elders and adopting old dogs,” Benally told ICT. “Mr. Happy Face is doing what he can with his platform … to bring awareness to rez dogs not having resources and accessibility to vaccines and spay and neuter clinics.

“And if we can create a little bit of kindness, a little bit of compassion towards each other, we can make the world a whole lot more beautiful.”

Defying the odds

A cross between a Chinese Crested and a Chihuahua, the elderly canine has tumors as well as neurological issues, requires a diaper, struggles to stand up and walk with his bowed legs and has a tilted head.

His long, pink tongue hangs out the side of his mostly toothless mouth.

It’s truly a face only a mother could love – and she does.

“I vowed that day, he would be so loved that he would never remember how awful his previous life had been,” she told the Today Show. “Love, kindness and mommy kisses have helped him defy the anticipated short life that we all expected him to have with our family.”

SUPPORT INDIGENOUS JOURNALISM. CONTRIBUTE TODAY.

Scroll to Continue

Read More

Benally was in California last year doing a recording for a radio show she’s doing for Indigenous youth when she heard about the World’s Ugliest Dog contest, a popular event that returned this year after a two-year hiatus.

She entered him “on a whim” into the Sonoma Marin Fair, which hosts the contest in Petaluma, California.

“I just happened to be there, having reserved a whole chunk of time just to do some editing and mixing of my radio show, Indigenous Youth Nation. And we decided that it might be a fun thing to do at the end of the week with a group of youth and of course, my dog,” Benally said.

“I had brought the dog with me, because the dog is attached to me,” she said. “I am attached to the dog. I am the dog’s emotional support human; he kind of needs me. So, I took the dog and entered him. I thought, “’Hey, let's just do this because it will be fun.’”

Mr. Happy Face won the contest, beating out eight other competitors for a large blue-and-gold trophy and a trip to New York with Benally to appear on June 27 on the Today Show, which helped sponsor and judge the event. 

The pair sat with hosts Savannah Guthrie and Carson Daly in Rockefeller Center to tell them about his journey from unwanted shelter pooch to top dog. She stayed in New York a few more days to do photo shoots and interviews with the international press.

“I thought that Mr. Happy Face was way too glorious and way too beautiful to ever win a contest like that, but then we did win,” she said. “It was such a shock and such a surprise to be able to win this title for him.”

Benally said she was surprised in other ways, as well.

“We enjoyed the fact that New York City is a really dog-friendly kind of city,” she said. “And I've never traveled with the dog before. He did so well; they were so kind to him. So it was actually a whirlwind trip to New York City, there for just over a day -- just enough time to sleep and to eat Italian meatballs at a restaurant for the first time that Mr. Happy Face got to enjoy.”

Creating kindness

What’s next for Mr. Happy Face?

His social media platform has nearly 1,000 followers, and he’ll be the one-of-a-kind face for a campaign called Create Kindness. She hopes to work with organizations that partner senior pets with elders.

But Benally said the campaign goes beyond the title; it’s also about traditional values.

“I've seen firsthand how much joy this happy face brings to people,” she said. “And I love sharing. I love sharing that, and that he's able to do that for people.”

New ICT logo

Our stories are worth telling. Our stories are worth sharing. Our stories are worth your support. Contribute $5 or $10 today to help Indian Country Today carry out its critical mission. Sign up for ICT’s free newsletter.