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By Judy McGuire

“Get that rat away from me!”

“Is she sick?”

“She looks like she’s going through chemo!”

“Do you FEED that thing?”

These are just a few of the zingers that Brooklyn-based illustrator Debra Ziss would have to contend with when she’d stroll the streets with Lambchop, her beloved (late) Chinese Crested.

In case you’re not up on your dog breeds, Chinese Cresteds are odd-looking little canines. They tend to be small, on the scrawny side, and either hairless or peppered with random patches of sparse, wiry fur. While their unconventional — some might say ugly — appearance means they are never going to win any beauty contests, they are often shoo-ins for the World’s Ugliest Dog Contest, winning nine out of the past eleven years. (On Friday, an aesthetically challenged mutt named Peanut wrested the crown away.)

Mangy-looking mutts aren’t the only unattractive creatures that catch our eye. Indeed, in a country that spends over $11 billion dollars a year on various cosmetics procedures, we have a strange fascination with the hideous. Dr. Robert Epstein, senior research psychologist at the American Institute for Behavioral Research and Technology, says: “We lock on to the unattractive because, in the distant past, at least now and then, the unattractive presented real threats. That’s why it’s so hard for us to look away.”

Trish Lamm, program manager at North Carolina’s Museum of Life & Science, has spent a lot of time studying the science of cute (yes, that’s a thing), and says that there’s a reason that so many of the Ugly Dog Contest winners have been small breeds. 

“Tiny babies and baby animals look very cute to humans. But a small, inanimate object can elicit the same ‘awww’ response,” says Lamm. “It seems funny that you would find an ugly dog cute, but it’s also funny that you’d find a tiny spoon cute.”

Dr. Fredric Neuman, director of the Anxiety and Phobia Treatment Center in White Plains, New York, says it’s more than just size when it comes to thinking unconventional-looking animals are cute. 

“We’re attracted not only to the outward appearance of the animal, but the shape. If they look cuddly or appear good-natured, we’re more apt to think they’re cute.”

Lambchop was far from cuddly, but Ziss says the spritely pup had a spirited prance that attracted more people than she put off. 

After Lambchop passed onto to the dog park in the sky, Ziss adopted Francie, a conventionally attractive, adorably chubby, long-haired Chihuahua. But Ziss insists her less attractive dog got far more love from her public. 

“I think her unusual looks were an icebreaker,” she says.

Judy McGuire is a freelance writer and the author of The Official Book of Sex, Drugs and Rock 'n' Roll Lists. Follow her on Twitter @HitOrMissJudy