TO COME to Crufts uninitiated is to feel like a stranger in Dog City. Humans still outnumber canines at the greatest dog show on earth – more than 120,000 people now visit the event through its annual four-day run at the Birmingham NEC arena. But the object of their journey is to honour and to serve and to worship.
I arrive at Crufts 2005 on the night of the gun dogs, reaching the main hall just in time to see which of the day’s ten winners in that category, each judged the best of their breed, will go through to the final Best In Show competition tomorrow – where the finest dog on the planet will be decided. Although this set is just a sample of the 180 different breeds and more than 24,000 individual dogs in attendance, they represent the variety of the whole exhibition.
Many look familiar, but some are exotic, obscure, improbable, even hallucinatory. As they are paraded across the green carpet, under the scrutiny of one specialist judge and four surrounding stands full of onlookers, the announcer provides a useful and mildly esoteric introduction to each pedigree. The popular Golden Retriever, he says, has “friendly qualities that make him a totally unsuitable guard dog, but a sense of smell which makes him highly proficient in the detection of drugs and explosives”.
The Chesapeake Bay Retriever, he explains, is a breed directly descended from two dogs who survived a shipwreck off the coast of Maryland in the 18th Century. But his words “profuse coat” do not adequately describe the phantasmagorical appearance of the American Cocker Spaniel. It looks like a black duck riding in on a bushy hovercraft. The English Setter, more conventionally attractive, wins the gun dog group and goes through to Best In Show.
A Shetland Sheepdog, with its long, sharp face and heavy fur coat, looks like a cross between a small Border Collie and a young Barbra Streisand. But it is not, of course, any kind of cross at all – it is a pure breed officially recognised by the Kennel Club of the United Kingdom and the Federation Cynologique Internationale (the World Canine Organisation). Caroline White, a legal executive from Edinburgh, owns three of them. They are all male, and all bred to a very high standard in their pedigree.
But there is high standard, and then there is the ‘breed standard’ – a set of ideal physical specifications laid down by the Kennel Club, against which all dogs and bitches are measured at Crufts and every other licensed canine competition in the UK. And most are found wanting in some way. “I don’t think there’s any such thing as a perfect dog, ” says Caroline, a relative newcomer to the dog show circuit. “Everyone thinks their dog is perfect, but the breed standard is something you can only really strive for. The judges look at everything – abundance of coat, hardiness, sweetness of expression, whether the body is in proportion, the legs positioned correctly. If they give one of my dogs a prize for all that, then great. If they don’t, I still love them and I think they’re the best. You always take the best dog home with you.”
I go to meet Caroline’s Shetland Sheepdogs at her suburban home, a few days before she brings two of them down to Crufts, where they will compete in the Working & Pastoral group. And pedigree though they may be, they seem high-strung to the point of junkyard hostility. “That’s in the breed as well, ” says Caroline. “They’re a bit apprehensive toward strangers, especially when you’re coming into their territory.”
In an attempt to keep order, she brings the dogs into her living room one at a time. They have each been given authentic Shetland names in memory of Caroline’s late father, who was an islander himself. Heogan is named after a particular place, Jarl is named after the term for a traditional Viking chieftan, Tushker is named after a farming tool used to cut peat. But because they are born show dogs, they also have show names, like superheroes, to distinguish them in competitions, and to honour the breeder who made and sold them. Heogan was bought and registered 18 months ago only as a pet, a companion for Caroline’s widowed mother. If he went on show, however, he would be known as Molson Mission Impossible (Molson, explains Caroline, is the “affix” of the breeder). At first he yaps like the most uppity guard on the gates of hell, but gradually proves himself pretty good natured – Heogan has competed in the Kennel Club’s Good Citizenship Dog Scheme, publicly demonstrating his obedience and general civic-mindedness. Before she bought him, Caroline had never wanted a show dog, had “never even thought about it”. “I always thought I was a cat person, ” she says. “I thought a dog would be all take take take. But I was really amazed by the level of affection you get back.”
So last March, and again last June, she went back to experienced local ‘Sheltie’ breeders and got two more show-quality pedigrees. “In the space of a year, I went from no dogs to three.” Over the last eight months, Tushker and Jarl have become Caroline’s winning tickets into the world of competitive dog exhibitions, taking prizes around the UK and Ireland under the names Rivvalee Winter Ridge and Black Warrior. She’s not married and has no kids, so she’s been able to dedicate herself to showing the dogs as a sport and a hobby.
Only last weekend, Tushker was awarded the first place rosette for his breed at the East of Scotland Canine Club show. He is a beautiful dog, of a type called ‘blue merle’, with mottled grey markings and different-coloured David Bowie eyes – one blue, one brown. Breeders document the family trees of their litters in rigorous detail, so there can be no doubt Tushker is related to Hoegen. “He’s his nephew basically, ” explains Caroline. “Heogan’s step- sister’s puppy.” Even so, he’s palpably more suspicious and confrontational. Jarl, however, is downright rude. The youngest dog, the “wee warrior”, he sports a thick black topcoat that helped him win Best Puppy at last year’s Scottish Shetland Sheepdog Club show. “When he got that I almost burst into tears. I was so proud.”
I slowly extend this young champion the hand of friendship, and he immediately goes for it like a crocodile after a flamingo. Caroline pulls him up short on his leash. For a moment I feel attacked, and my impulse is to offer Black Warrior outside for a proper tussle. But this is, after all, his house. “Stop growling, ” Caroline tells him. “Stop being so grumpy. Nobody wants to listen to a bad boy.” While he settles down into quieter, cuter repose with the other two, she admits that even though their pinboard full of championship rosettes makes them officially qualified for Crufts, Tushker and Jarl will be underdogs at the event, as will their owner.
Caroline has recently spent most of her spare time and money on their “constant grooming” and training, taking them to ringcraft and obedience classes in the evenings, travelling to competitions on weekends. “It’s a very sociable thing, ” she says. “You meet so many people with the same interest. Everyone is out there to win, because it is a competition, but as a total beginner, I’ve had a lot of support and advice.” Her Shelties are still young, still hard work, and still to reach their “full glory”. So she doesn’t think they have a chance against the most prime specimens, most experienced handlers and most scrupulous judges in dogdom.
“I’m not going to Crufts expecting to win. I’m just so honoured to have qualified for the most prestigious dog show in the world.” That show was founded by travelling doggy-biscuit salesman turned canine events organiser Charles Cruft in 1891, providing the Victorian leisure class with another opportunity to demonstrate the moral and aesthetic value of good breeding, and running at a considerable profit to Cruft himself. Since 1948, when the Kennel Club took over with more stringent regulations, the exhibition has gradually expanded into its modern complex of beauty pageant, fashion show, industry conference, and trade fair. And since the introduction of doggy passports in 2001, canine challengers now come from all over the world.
The central tournament itself is non-profit – the cash prize for Best In Show being just 100 – because the Kennel Club believes “dog showing should only be a sport or a hobby”. But the contest, and the various side-shows, are surrounded by nearly 500 market stalls, advertising such items as Eukanuba puppy “brainbuilding nutrient”, the Diamond Edge Superturbo 2800 canine- grooming hairdryer, the Pero Organic range of hypo-allergenic, wheat and gluten-free dog foods. One product that practically howls for attention is Poop Freeze, anew chemical spray that can instantly cold- blast a lump of excrement into a white, hard fossil for easy disposal.
“It’s an American patent, ” explains chief salesman and British co- director John Graham. “We were talking about it in the pub and we decided to form a company around it because it’s such a good idea.” The active ingredient, Freezing Agent 1348, “contains no CFCs, no butane, is not flammable, is environmentally friendly”. “Which is important these days, ” says Graham. “As is picking up poo.” Crufts and Kennel Club spokesman Phil Buckley knows all about Poop Freeze and all the other brands on display. “There is a commercial aspect to Crufts, ” he admits, in the only small, quiet room available at the NEC.
“And a lot of the exhibitors who have been showing here for 20 or 30 years don’t like the way it is today. It used to be about pedigree dog breeding and nothing else. But we had to evolve with the times. There are 6.2 million registered dogs in this country, and we have to cater for the average pet owner who wants to buy a pedigree, wants to take advantage of cheaper insurance and health schemes, wants to know about new products on the market. And that’s causing us some problems, but it’s paying dividends in terms of our profile.”
That profile was once, to be honest, elitist. Personally, I have always thought there was an unpleasant touch of eugenics about pedigree dog breeders, an element of vicarious racial superiority in their mating programmes to produce the perfect specimens. And I presumed that the dogs at Crufts would be a canine kind of Hitler Youth – disciplined, goaloriented, genetically disinclined toward stupidity or fun. “You’re accurate in some ways, ” says Buckley.
“Breeders do look at the genetics with regard to the ancient line of the pedigree. And Crufts is a beauty contest, yes. But the Kennel Club is there for all dogs; we’ve got health schemes for mongrels and crossbreeds as well as pedigrees. [In fact, the Kennel Club now runs an annual crossbreed exhibition, cheerfully titled Scruffts. ] Look around and you can see we’re not elitist, we’re quite a young, forward-thinking organisation. And the dogs themselves are happy, lively and basically normal.” He’s right about that. Most of these exhibition dogs seem to have the same sparky/lazy behaviour dynamic as the average mongrel hobo with a bandanna for a collar. Many of them look even crazier. And generally speaking, the owners seem to be good human beings. Back out in the busy halls, Phil and Amanda Cash introduce me to their Samoyeds – Siberian working dogs historically bred to pull freight and herd reindeer, and who look like the product of a stick of dynamite exploding inside a large snowball.
Summer (show-name: Summer Symphony At Polar Spirit) lies docile and cuddly while Amanda (who sports a Samoyed tattoo on her upper arm) grooms her for competition. “If it wasn’t for all this noise, ” says Amanda, “she would be asleep now.” These animals also compete in races against other freight-dogs. “I take them on training runs at night, ” says Phil. “There’s nobody around, the moon is out, you get them up to 20 miles an hour.”
Elsewhere around the arena, I am pleased to meet a friendly Komodor, whose hair grows in thick rastafarian chords, and a Bergamasco, whose fur looks like a coat of rags. I encounter a timorous Italian greyhound, a shrunken creature which could pass for a bat if you stuck on a set of leathery wings. I watch the illustrious Kath Hardman demonstrate “heelwork to music”, a hilarious form of dog-training which teaches them a dance routine performed to the rhythm of disco standards by Boney M and the Village People.
And I go to see Caroline, Tushker (who is known as Rivalee Winter Ridge today) and Jarl (Black Warrior) just before they make their appearance at the Shetland Sheepdog qualifying ring. Caroline is nervous, and trying to suppress it because, she says, “nerves travel down the leash”. But the dogs themselves are much more tranquil than the last time we met, impressively sanguine in the face of such world- class competition. When Tushker is taken for his turn around the ring, he looks elegant and composed compared to some of the other Shelties – one of whom spins in continual circles, delighting himself, but not his handler.
This twisting lunatic, however, apparently makes the grade and is placed in the top four, while Tushker, like Jarl, is knocked out of the competition. Caroline does not remotely consider this a failure. “I’m not disappointed, ” she says, sincerely. “The two of them showed for me so well. I’m so pleased. Come back and see us in two years, and see how we’re doing. Like I said before, I’m still going home with the best dogs.” Just out of curiosity though, I go to ask the judge, a Mrs P Rigby, exactly what she was looking for. She refers me to her husband Derek, one of the top Sheltie judges and breeders in the world, whose Lithwood Kennels have been “producing champions for 45 years”. “Judging is very difficult, ” he says proudly.
“Although you have a standard to work to, there is no perfect dog. With Shelties the main thing is height. The ideal, in inches, is 14 and a half for a dog, 14 for a bitch. The animal should have a long neck, a fairly long back but not too long. The coat should be double textured, the eye should be elliptical and oblique, the muzzle should be round, the ears should be lightly tipped. And these are just a few of the things we consider.” While most contestants will accept a judge’s decision at Crufts, some do not. Phil Buckley admits to a “hard core who own and show dogs only to win”, some of whom have been disciplined for “swearing at judges, things like that”.
One Irish Wolfhound owner, who wishes to remain anonymous, thinks some decisions are genuinely suspect. “You do get what we call face-judging, ” he says, “when the prize goes to a recognised breeder regardless of who else was on show.” The owner of a Newfoundland called Solomon – basically a black bear in dog’s clothing – looks as sad-faced as his pet, but much angrier. “Last year he won his junior class, ” he says. “This year he’s thrown out with the rubbish. Different judges, different standards. I’m really pissed off.”
When it finally comes to Best In Show though, and a cute, compact Norfolk Terrier bitch called Co-Co (show-name: Cracknor Cause Celebre) takes the title, the crowd and the assorted dog-press journalists sitting around me seem to agree that the best dog won, erupting into an ovation. An animal rights protester runs on to the ring waving an unreadable banner and shouting something indecipherable, but she is bundled off quickly by security and effectively ignored amid the mass admiration of Co-Co.
Veteran judge Jean Lanning holds a microphone up to the winner, and she barks into it repeatedly, to general laughter and applause. Having picked up a little dog lingo throughout the day, I think I can translate the speech Co-Co was trying to make. “Yes, I am grateful for my breeding. But I am, in the end, just one little dog. And yet many thousands of you now adore and worship me. So let me ask you this, friends: who is the master, and who are the bitches?”