Furry friends go head to head in Teton Valley’s ‘Pooch Playoffs’

A March Madness-style bracket has dogs competing for the title of ‘ulti-mutt cutie.’
Portraits of the competitors in the Pooch Playoffs. There was 32 dogs in the running to start. Some are pets living in Teton County, Idaho, while others are shelter dogs waiting to be adopted. (Jess Curren)

by | Mar 18, 2024 | Teton Valley

March Madness is about to be in full swing. But, in the Tetons, a competition is about to wrap up, and it’s not basketball teams in the bracket — it’s dogs.

Pets in Teton Valley, Idaho are competing to be voted the most cute. 

KHOL sat down with the photographer, Jess Curren, who took portraits of the furry friends to raise money for a local animal shelter. 

A Cocker Spaniel Poodle nestled against Curren who sat on her living room couch in Driggs, Idaho.

She scrolled through her phone, looking at what she calls the “Pooch Playoffs.” 

“Okay, so game six, we have Olive on the left,” Curren said, pointing to a wide-eyed dog with droopy ears and a dark chocolate brown beard with a little gray in it.

Olive, the brown hunting dog, poses for a portrait. According to Jess Curren, Olive’s owner is competitive and looking to win the entire contest. (Jess Curren)

“She’s a beautiful hunting dog,” Curren added. “And, she’s very talented, tracking and pointing.”

On the right was a puppy named Panda Bear, a Saint Bernard Poodle mix. 

“She has a beautiful white stripe down her face and across her muzzle, and then she’s black, on the side,” Curren explained. “So, she pretty much does look like a panda bear, which I think is perfect.”

Olive and Panda Bear were going head to head in one of the first games in the Pooch Playoffs, where voters can choose who’s their favorite. 

How to pick? Curren said go with your gut.

“People have very different opinions about which dog is the cutest or has the best expression or which dog speaks to your soul, right?” Curren said. “Like, I feel I love poodle mixes. And so I would definitely vote for a poodle mix, probably because I have one.”

As a boutique portrait photographer, Curren’s clients are typically humans. It was her first year working with dogs, which she said was a learning curve. 

One trick to getting a good shot? Peanut butter.

“Because if you stick it on their snout or on the roof of their mouth, they’ll spend a good two to three minutes trying to lick it off,” she said. “And that’s when you get the really funny faces or tongue licking photos that are just so cute.”

The Teton Valley competition is happening alongside similar ones coast to coast, along with ones in Canada and Australia. All these places are home to photographers in Curren’s business mentoring group. 

She said the group started the contest during the pandemic, since social distancing made it hard to be around other people.  

“Someone had the idea that dogs don’t really care about Covid. Let’s photograph some dogs,” Curren explained.

Jess Curren holds her Cocker Spaniel Doodle, Gizmo, on her front porch in Driggs, Idaho. (Hanna Merzbach/KHOL)

They each photograph dogs in their town or city, and put them in an online March Madness style bracket. This will ultimately lead to a face off for who is the cutest dog overall — or, according to Curren’s website, the “ulti-mutt cutie.”

Pet owners also get to take home the portraits and hang them on their walls, which Curren said is important to always remember them.

“We get them for such a short amount of time, right? We love these animals and they’re such a huge part of our life, and unfortunately, the truth is that we will probably outlive them, which is so sad,” Curren said. “But having that beautiful reminder of this dog and the joy that it brought to our lives in our home displayed, so that we can see it often, is really great.”

Shelter dogs available for adoption at PAWS in Driggs, Idaho. (Jess Curren)

If Teton Valley wins, a pot of money could go to the Driggs animal shelter, PAWS. Curren said she’s already donated over $2,000 to the organization, since pet owners pay a fee to have the photos taken. And she said some shelter dogs also made the lineup.

“They are adorable, and I do not doubt that they will get adopted very quickly,” she said, as she got up to check on her own Cocker Spaniel Poodle.

A relatively new resident in Teton Valley, Curren said the project has helped her meet new people and feel more part of the community. 

“The best part is that we all love dogs,” she said. “It’s like this common denominator that makes people instant friends.”

The Pooch Playoffs are going on through Wednesday, March 20 at 7 p.m. Anyone can vote online through Curren’s website. 

And while the Saint Bernard Poodle, Panda Bear, has been voted out, Olive — the chocolate brown hunting dog — is still in the running.

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About Hanna Merzbach

Hanna is KHOL's senior reporter and managing editor. A lot of her work focuses on housing and local politics, but also women's health — and whatever else she finds interesting. You can hear her reporting around the country and region on NPR, Wyoming Public Radio and community radio stations around the west. She hails from Bend, Oregon, where she reported for outlets such as the Atlantic, High Country News and Oregon Public Broadcasting. In her free time, you can find Hanna scaling rock walls or adventuring in the mountains.

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