Meet Bentley, the Winner of the Owney Look-alike Contest

Bentley, a terrier from California, nabs the title—with a little help from his owner

Bentley poses for the camera, sporting medals like those Owney accumulated from different cities as he rode the rails in the 1880s and '90s. Photo courtesy of Judy Perry

Owney, the National Postal Museum’s favorite dog, served as the unofficial mascot of the U.S. Railway Mail Service for nine years in the late 19th century. Loved by mail clerks, he was preserved by a taxidermist after he died in 1897. The Smithsonian Institution acquired his remains in 1912, and he became a permanent fixture and much-loved artifact at the National Postal Museum, when it opened in 1993.

This past year, Owney has gotten a lot of love. He underwent a conservation treatment by a taxidermist. He is the star of a new exhibition at the National Postal Museum, an augmented reality iPhone App and an upcoming children’s e-book. In July, the U.S. Postal Service released a postage stamp with his face on it. And, most recently, in partnership with the Washington Humane Society, the museum hosted an Owney look-alike contest.

The contest opened on July 27, the same day the stamp was released. Before the submission round ended in mid-September, 73 dogs were nominated. Over the voting period, from September 16 to October 17, a grand total of 8,284 votes were cast. And, today, the National Postal Museum announced the grand winner: Bentley, a four- or five-year-old terrier mix from Fremont, California.

Bentley will have his photo displayed at the museum for two weeks. His owner, Judy Perry, a legal secretary with the city attorney of San Francisco, will receive an iPad 2—and bragging rights. I spoke with Perry yesterday:

The National Postal Museum was looking for a dog that captured Owney’s spirit even more so than his looks. But Bentley actually does look like Owney. Are they similar breeds?

It’s hard to say. When I adopted Bentley from the shelter, he was listed as a border terrier mix. He is basically a terrier mutt, and I think Owney probably was too. I have seen the pictures of Owney and they look to be about the same size and same kind of coloring.

Bentley has actually played the role of Owney before. Can you explain?

Yes. Every year in early July there is a local dog show . It is just a get together in the area and people bring their dogs, of all kinds. There are silly little contests like “Oldest Dog,” “Biggest Dog,” “Most Unusual Mix,” and so forth. This year, the Golden Gate Railroad Museum got involved, and they had a special category for an Owney look-alike, because they were planning a celebration here in Fremont. They had a railway postal car that they were in the process of restoring. They were going to have an event later in the month to display their car and celebrate the Owney stamp. Bentley won that contest, pretty much paws down. He was such a look-alike. So, when they had their event on July 30th, they had me bring Bentley there. Bentley was in the railway car as people came through. He was Owney for the day.

In what ways does Bentley have Owney’s spirit?

Bentley is a rescue, and a fearful dog in some ways. He is not really good with having strangers come right up to him and try to pet him. But he jumped into that railway car, and he became Owney. He was the perfect little Owney. He sat there, and people were coming up to him, petting him and taking pictures. Can you pose him this way? Can my daughter sit with him? He just sat there and was a perfect little dog. I thought he sort of got the Owney spirit a little bit that day.

How did you hear about the contest?

When he won this little local contest, that was the first time I had heard of Owney. I started researching Owney, his story and seeing everything I could find on them. I guess I must have stumbled across somewhere online some kind of an announcement that there was this National Postal Museum contest.

Did you campaign for votes?

Yes, I did. I sent out messages on Facebook and an email to all my friends, and asked them to ask their friends to vote. I made a little poster, which I posted in my office. I’ve got this whole display of Bentley and encouraged everyone there to vote. Last night, I was on the computer from the time I got home from work to the time the contest was over, just reaching out to everybody I knew online and asking them to vote and get other people to vote if they could too. We managed to pull it through.

What does it mean to you to have Bentley’s photo on display at the National Postal Museum in the coming weeks?

That was really the whole goal. When he won the first little contest here locally, and got a lot of attention, the way he took to it, I just thought he is the guy that should be the Owney representative. So, I am pretty excited about that. My daughter actually lives in Washington, D.C., and I was there in September visiting her. We did go to the Postal Museum, and we did see the Owney display. I even asked the docent there where he thought my dog’s picture would be, because I was pretty confident we were going to win.

How did you come to own Bentley?

I got him in 2008. I was at the Niles Dog Show that year. The local animal shelter has an adoption mobile, a big bus. It has windows with little displays for the dogs or cats to be in. Bentley was in one of those windows. I looked at him and just thought that’s the dog I want. I went down a few days later to the shelter. Fortunately, he was still there, and I adopted him.

Get the latest on what's happening At the Smithsonian in your inbox.