HAMBURG, Germany – If Elvis had one advantage over his competitors, it was his long legs. Well, relatively long. His slightly extended snout and slender body also helped him swallow the 80-yard stretch of sandy track in just over eight seconds.
"Sensational!" the timekeeper called as the pug pounded across the finish line and bounded into the arms of his 13-year-old owner, Emma Pollex, who had run ahead, shaking a small, zipped bag packed with treats.
Elvis was one of 50 pugs entered to race on a recent sunny Saturday at the Hamburg NWR dog track on the outskirts of the northern German port city.
In the country that gave the world the German shepherd and the Doberman pinscher, short-legged, smashed-nosed pugs — called "mops" in German — have become stars. Celebrated for their loyalty and clown-like temperament, the animals are pushing back against the breed's reputation as committed couch potatoes.
German comedian Vicco von Bülow, known by his stage name Loriot, has boosted the breed's popularity, featuring the dogs in his work and declaring, "A life without pugs is possible, but meaningless."
As the dogs' popularity has grown, pug races have sprung up across Germany. At least, they are called "races." The winners are as much the pets who display their particularly pug-like attributes — which does not necessarily include speed.
The annual International Pug Meeting in Berlin features a 50-yard dash timed with state-of-the-art photo finish equipment and prizes for the fastest — and the slowest — pugs.
Humans enter the dogs in the races, of course. But it's ultimately up to the pugs whether they want to participate.
"A pug will know if they want to run or not," said Ursula Streich, owner of Hanna. "If they don't want to run, then they will just lie down. You can't do anything about it."
Ashley Reinhart was at the race with Kirby and Thor, two rescue pugs. The animals made their way across the Atlantic with Reinhart and her husband when they moved earlier this year from Pennsylvania to Lübeck, Germany, for work.
Neither Thor, who has use of only three legs, nor Kirby had been registered to race. Like their owners, they had come along just for the camaraderie.
Last year, a pug named Emma was the most celebrated dog in Germany, called the "Usain Bolt of Pugs" after winning her third-straight race in Berlin with a record time of under six seconds. Like Elvis, Emma is a variety of pug known in Germany as an "Altdeutsche mops," or "Old German pug."
In Germany, both the Altdeutsche strain and more recent efforts to crossbreed pugs with Jack Russell terriers, so-called "retro pugs," have become increasingly popular.
In the race that Elvis won, Lulu took a more circuitous route to the finish line, which was fine with owner Angelika Schmorr. "We are all here just for the fun of it," she said.
Schmorr's mother had a pug. Schmorr confessed that she was uninterested in the breed until her mom died and she took in her pet. That was six years ago. When that pug died, she knew she needed another one.
"Pugs don't leave anyone indifferent," she said. "Either you hate them or you love them — and if you do, you can't live without them."