Lamb Chop and her owner work with Bailing Out Benji in an effort to shut down puppy mills and encourage pet adoption

By Kelli Bender
September 30, 2020 09:10 AM
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Christin Schubert will never forget the first time she laid eyes on Lamb Chop, the shy little 12-pound Maltese she adopted in December 2014. After the death of her beloved rescue cat Seven, Schubert had gone to the Washington County Humane Society in Slinger, Wisconsin, in hopes of making another special connection with a pet in need of a home.

″I hadn’t planned on getting a dog,″ admits the 41-year-old, who works in IT for Harley Davidson, ″but she was so small. She struck my heart."

Lamb Chop has also stolen the hearts of voters in PEOPLE's third annual World’s Cutest Rescue Dog Contest Presented by the PEDIGREE® Brand. After almost two weeks of voting, she triumphed over more than 10,000 other adorable dogs to take first place in the annual contest.

Her prizes include a year’s supply of dog food from the PEDIGREE® Brand, $1,000 to donate to the animal rescue of her choice, and an appearance on Good Morning America — as well as the chance to share her very moving story in the hope of helping other animals.

Like an estimated 2.4 million dogs sold in America each year, according to the Humane Society of the United States, Lamb Chop’s life tragically began in a puppy mill, where she spent more than six years, likely giving birth to multiple litters.

″When she was rescued, local vets had to remove all of her teeth because they were rotten,″ Schubert, who lives in Milwaukee, tells PEOPLE.

The tiny pup was also treated for cauliflower ear and had to have several tumors removed as a result of medical neglect. All of these later medical expenses were covered by the Washington County Humane Society before Lamb Chop went to her forever home.

″I couldn't bring her home right away, because she had to have all of those surgeries, and Washington County used a significant portion of their medical fund to take care of her,″ Schubert says. ″I am really thankful for that. They are a small, little shelter that I think does really great work with animals."

Credit: Sharon Vanorny

After leaving the puppy mill, there were emotional scars as well: Lamb Chop was scared of people and unsure how to interact with other dogs. These days Lamb Chop is a different dog from the frightened pup Schubert first brought home.

″I can go grocery shopping and come home, and she’s just sitting there happy and waiting, unlike when I first would leave her,″ says Schubert, who enrolled Lamb Chop in shy dog classes and worked with a trainer to help her develop trust in humans again.

Today they work with a nonprofit called Bailing Out Benji, which is dedicated to exposing the connections between pet stores and puppy mills and educating people on the importance of adopting pets.

″We always say that in order for puppy mills to close, the public needs to stop funding them through their purchases,″ says Schubert.

As part of their work, Schubert and Lamb Chop go to pet expos to talk about how puppy mills dogs are often sold at pet stores — where employees lie about where the dogs came from — and work with local councilmembers and the state and federal lawmakers to try to implement humane ordinances, which stops the sale of puppy mills puppies in pet stores.

″Lamb Chop is a supercute face to an ugly industry,″ her proud owner adds.

Credit: Sharon Vanorny

The only outward sign that remains of Lamb Chop’s traumatic start is the way her tongue hangs out of her mouth — particularly when she’s tired — because of losing all her teeth. Schubert says this feature is often a draw to pet expo visitors, who approach the Bailing Out Benji table to meet the dog and end up learning about puppy mills.

The coronavirus pandemic has put a pause on Bailing Out Benji's events, but animal lovers can still learn more about their work on the nonprofit's website.

″I did start an Instagram page for her, so we can use that platform to educate virtually,″ Schubert adds.

Lamb Chop, who was named for ventriloquist Shari Lewis’s famous puppet (who was also toothless), has become a happy, well-adjusted pup. She’s obsessed with her owner, her stuffed-animal collection, and cheese — like a ″true Wisconsinite,″ says Schubert. ″She is still shy, but we’re working on that, and I think with treats and people’s patience, she will be anybody’s best friend.″

Schubert hopes this win for Lamb Chop will also be another step toward a better life for all puppy mill dogs. ″I always tell people that I think she is super brave and resilient, given what she has gone through,″ she says. ″She has an amazing joy for life."

While Lamb Chop took the top prize, she was joined in the top 3 by two other amazing rescues.

Credit: Jane Jones

Lunas is a former stray that has owner Jane Jones over the moon. She says he has been her ″joy″ ever since she adopted the dog in 2014. The 6-year-old pooch, originally found as a flea covered stray in Jackson, Mississippi, loves to play ball despite missing part of his lower jaw due to a pre-adoption injury — which also causes his tongue to hang out from the side of his mouth.

Credit: Nina Aguero Rios

Once abandoned with a broken back in Oklahoma, Diana’s dark days are behind her. The 3-year-old dog now lives in New York City, where she easily navigates the city streets thanks to her custom wheelchair. ″She teaches me every day that happiness and love are precious," says owner Nina Aguero Rios.

To learn more about Lamb Chop and the runners-up, pick up the new issue of PEOPLE on newsstands Friday.