The Rise of the Wiener Dog Derby

In the world of dogs, dachshunds are the unlikeliest racers.

They don't shoot out of the box at the start so much as meander forward – if they even go in a straight line to begin with. Their short, almost stubby legs may carry them toward the finish line, to the crowd, or to one of the other dogs.

So what is the fascination with "wiener" dog derbies? Clearly it isn't the competitiveness of the contestants. Inches from the finish line, more than one potential winner has taken his eyes off the prize and toddled over to the sidelines.

Perhaps that's the reason: In this dog-eat-dog world, these hounds are more concerned with … well … just about anything else other than winning.

The dachshund originated in Germany, where they were bred to hunt badgers and other small animals. Dachshund, in fact, is German for "badger dog." It received the name "wiener" when an artist drew a picture of a dachshund in a hot dog bun. For more information on the breed see Choosing a Dachshund.

The Miller Brewing Co. helped launch the event's current popularity by sponsoring wiener dog derbies and highlighting them in commercials in the early 1990s. Since then, derbies have become popular year-round events, held in many different venues to attract families, especially children.

That's how it started at the Louisiana Downs, a thoroughbred racetrack located near Shreveport, Louisiana. The Miller Lite campaign gave track officials an idea on how to draw families with young children, explained Rafe Jordon, director of special events for the track.

During a typical race, the dogs are trotted out the same way as thoroughbred horses, complete with saddle towels, each with a unique color. The dogs, eight at a time, are lined up within individual boxes. The door to the boxes is lifted and away they go … sometimes. (Owners stand in front of their pets, urging them forward, with varying degrees of success.)

The Wiener Dog Races is now in its seventh year at the track and has grown into a multi-state event, attracting between 2,500 and 4,000 people every September, according to Rafe Jordan, director of special events for the Louisiana Downs. The money that's raised, through admission, sales of T-shirts and other products, goes to the local animal welfare shelter to help pay for neutering and spaying programs. Jordan estimates that the races have raised $35,000 over the years since the event was first held.

Similar races are held in other venues all over the country, such as the St. Louis Mardi Gras, the second largest Mardi Gras in the United States. Like its sister race in Louisiana, proceeds from the Mardi Gras race goes to local animal welfare shelters.

On the surface, dachshund races would appear fun and controversy-free competitions. But the Dachshund Club of America, Inc. opposes dachshund races and is striving to persuade owners to avoid them.

Andra O'Connell, a corporate officer, explains that their objection stems from the Miller Lite commercial that spawned the idea. The commercial shows dachshunds racing on a greyhound track. Initially, the club asked Miller to stop promoting these events at greyhound tracks.

As a policy, the club – along with animal rights groups – vehemently oppose greyhound racing. They claim that the industry breeds too many dogs to find a winner and disposes of others cruelly, and that the dogs are kept in inhumane conditions. The National Greyhound Association disputes these claims.

Because greyhound tracks used dachshund derbies as a way to attract families, the club decided that its message needed to be consistent, O'Connell says. "We didn't feel we could sit on a fence and say, 'It's okay for us but not for you.'"

O'Connell says the dachshund race itself is benign, so long as it's not commercial and done safely. The dachshund club's official policy statement explains that racing encourages the "breeding of dogs for that purpose rather than as examples of the breed standard as recognized by the American Kennel Club. Racing also encourages the misuse of dogs which are not designed for this activity."

Instead, the club advocates alternate competitions, including obedience and agility demonstrations, and skills in field trials (which test the dachshund's ability to track game animals by scent. According to the club, no game is killed.)

But from Jordan's perspective, the event is meant strictly for fun with the proceeds going to promote animal welfare. The horse track has even branched into promoting Chihuahua racing, and the popularity of the "Wiener Dog Derby" grows with each year.

"I started getting entry applications in January," he notes. "People come from Texas and Arkansas to compete."