D is for … Dog Showing

“That must be the most pee’d on lamppost in the country!” The lady in front of me laughs as her dog cocks his leg to contribute to the rapidly expanding wet patch. We are walking from the Birmingham NEC car park into Crufts – ‘The Greatest Dog Show in the World’ – playing host to over 22,000 dogs over its four-day residency.

The vista is a sea of dogs, some in trolleys, some being carried and others walking on leads, a few of them wear unflattering doggy onesies to keep their well manicured coats clean.

I had already dipped my toe into the world of dog showing a couple of months earlier, thanks to an invite to be an assistant steward at an Open Dog Show in Henley. As I walked through the door on a rainy Saturday morning, my senses were bombarded by the sound of yapping and the overwhelming smell of damp dog. My co-steward and new friend Karen guided me to our ring, through the local sports hall that was now crammed with hundreds of dogs and their fussing owners. We walked passed stalls selling dog photography sessions, diamond encrusted leads and gourmet venison dog sausages.

I was amazed by how much some of the owners looked like their dogs. The owner of a Rottweiler who won an early class looked and sounded like she had walked straight out of East Enders, the Labrador and spaniel classes were full of tweed and Dubarry boots, and two of the ladies in the Shih-tzu class wore matching pink diamanté suits.

The community is mostly female, of a ‘certain age’; “I would say women between 60 and 70 make up the vast majority,” Karen tells me. The community was largely daunting and unfriendly to her when she first started to get involved a few years ago; “the women can be quite bossy and territorial. They don’t have a lot of time for newbies”.

One of the ladies in the Dalmatian class we are stewarding loudly threatens to pull her dog out if we do not lengthen the ring so her dog has more room to ‘show off his gait’. “Some women take it a little bit too seriously,” Karen tells me diplomatically.

So I was prepared – as much as one can be – for what was to come at Crufts, albeit on a completely different scale. The whole place is littered with huge signs bearing the phrase ‘healthy, happy dogs’; undoubtedly the result of a documentary called Pedigree Dogs Exposed which aired in 2008 and was a watershed moment in the dog showing world. The documentary lifted the lid on the numerous health problems experienced by certain dog breeds, due to being selectively bred (and interbred!) to produce qualities that are deemed ‘desirable’ by the Kennel Club. Examples include Pugs whose faces are now so flat they struggle to breathe and cool themselves, Cavalier King Charles Spaniels whose brains can outgrow their skulls, leading to terrible neurological problems, and Bulldogs whose heads have become so big many cannot give birth naturally.

The documentary resulted in Crufts losing numerous sponsorship contracts, as well as its BBC coverage. It also triggered the Kennel Club to introduce a ban on father daughter mating, to open a DNA research and health testing centre and to make some revisions to its breed standards (such as changing the size of the bulldogs head from ‘massive’ to ‘big’). It is a complex and highly political topic, with much still to be done.

I spent four days at Crufts and never ran out of interesting things to see; numerous agility, flyball and obedience competitions, heelwork to music performances and gun dog displays; all punctuated by hundreds of show classes.

The dogs seem to thoroughly enjoy the agility, the obedience and the fly ball – their tails wag constantly and they simply can’t contain their excitement, especially when they see how happy their owners are with them. It is heart warming to watch.

I don’t think they enjoy the showing in quite the same way. Everywhere you look people are grooming, nail clipping, hair curling with tongs, hair straightening with GHD’s, walk practicing, fluffing or back combing their dogs – I feel a bit like I am back in Essex.

There is a lot of waiting around, then when they finally do get to the competition ring they are constantly fiddled with by the owners and judges; leg placing, head lifting, tail straightening; topped off with unnecessary amounts of cupping(!)

The dogs just stand there, putting up with it. I am sure if they could roll their eyes they would.

The climax of Crufts is the ‘Best in Show’ competition, selecting a dog that has been whittled down from thousands to take the ultimate title. This year the prize was taken by Afterglow Maverick Sabre (‘Ricky’), a beautiful but ridiculous looking standard poodle who was tipped as the winner from the beginning of the competition.

“It’s all rigged!” I am told by Eric, a professional breeder of fox terriers who sits next to me. I immeadiately recognise this phrase, having heard it many times over the last four days, almost exclusively from the mouths of embittered owners whose dogs have been beaten in the ring.

“How did you get on?” I ask him.

He looks irritated, “Five dogs, and we didn’t win anything!”