This time last year the Kennel Club, organisers of Crufts, were trembling like fearful Chihuahuas.
‘Murder at Crufts’ screeched one headline, when three-year-old Irish setter Jagger died from poisoning the day after coming second in his class at the world’s biggest dog show. Even in the dog-eat-dog world of canine competition that was shocking news.
There’s a long tradition of ferocious rivalry at dog shows, with dirty tricks including last-minute cutting of a rival competitor’s glossy coat or the covert application of chewing gum – there’s even been alleged doctoring of food with sedatives or laxatives. But surely that sort of thing wouldn’t happen at such an august institution as Crufts?
The world’s biggest dog show returned to our TVs on Thursday night and this year’s contest is set to be more ferocious than ever before
‘The Americans in particular were all over what they saw as a murder mystery at this genteel British event; it was like a Miss Marple story to them,’ recalls Beverley Cuddy, editor of Dogs Today magazine.
‘Thanks to social media, rumour and hype took over. It was awful for the organisers. It got completely out of control, with talk of six other dogs being poisoned. But then, just as suddenly, all those stories disappeared.’
Jagger’s death was a tragedy, but a post-mortem revealed he had eaten the poison after returning to his home in Belgium. The Kennel Club’s secretary Caroline Kisko is adamant there have ‘never been any confirmed reports of poisonings at Crufts’. And so the show was mercifully in the clear.
Jagger the Irish Setter was poisoned after last year’s Crufts where he came second in his group
After that fuss, the Kennel Club were keen to move on, and this year they have cause for celebration as it’s the 125th anniversary of the first Crufts all-breed show – that’s an even more momentous 875 in dog years. The vast event, which began on Thursday and ends tomorrow, is being staged at Birmingham’s National Exhibition Centre, spread over 25 acres in five halls.
There are numerous competition categories, but the climax is the award of the Best In Show prize to the top overall dog. Channel 4 is devoting two two-hour shows to Crufts, with Clare Balding once again presenting, and who better to help you distinguish a bichon frise from a Bolognese, a Siberian husky from an Alaskan malamute?
Clare grew up in a horsey family – her father Ian was one of the Queen’s racing trainers – but she became a dog lover early on. ‘I grew up with a boxer called Candy, and one of her puppies, Flossy, who was “mine”. She was my best friend for most of my childhood.’ She would even sleep on the dogs’ bed with them. ‘Their life seemed to be very nice, so I just wanted to be one of them.’
Clare has since become a hugely popular presenter of Crufts’ TV coverage – from 2005 to 2008 on the BBC, and on More4/Channel 4 since 2010.
‘When I first went to Crufts I just couldn’t believe the size of it,’ she says, ‘how many rings there were and how competitive the atmosphere was. I’ve covered sporting events all over the world, including Olympic Games, and Crufts is that to the dog world – it matters so much to the owners and their handlers that everything goes right.’
Things have come a long way since travelling dog-biscuit salesman Charles Cruft put on his first all-breed show at London’s Royal Agricultural Hall in 1891, attracting 2,437 dogs from 36 breeds. Queen Victoria entered and won prizes with her Pomeranians in both of the first two years, beginning a royal tradition of participation which continued with Edward VII and George V.
This year 21,929 dogs will converge on Birmingham, of which 3,396 (13 per cent up on last year) will come from 47 overseas countries, including first-time participants Venezuela, Peru and the Philippines.
Channel 4 is devoting two two-hour shows to Crufts, with Clare Balding (pictured here with her dog Archie) once again presenting
There are also two breeds that are competing in their own categories for the first time – the cirneco dell’Etna (a hunting hound from Sicily) and the lagotto romagnolo (a gundog and truffle hunter from the Emilia-Romagna region of northern Italy) – as well as a first appearance from the Hungarian pumi (an intelligent, energetic, terrier-type sheepdog with wonderful extended ears).
‘The prize for Best In Show is still just £100, plus a small replica trophy, but it’s the glory of winning that counts,’ says Caroline Kisko. ‘We welcome overseas contestants. Considering the time and money needed, they are not going to come unless they’ve got a decent dog. As for our British exhibitors, most are quite pleased to have the competition from abroad, saying, “Bring it on.”’
OUR LITTLE LIFE SAVERS
There are extraordinary stories in the Friends For Life competition, voted for by the public, which is decided tomorrow.
Rosie with lurcher Boo
Among the devoted dogs in the running are Boo the lurcher, who has given confidence to a heartbroken Rosie Reid after she had a miscarriage and was then told she couldn’t have children, and labrador Scooby, who’s twice saved the life of young diabetic Sophie-Alice Pearman by alerting the family in the night that her blood sugar had reached a dangerous level.
Alice with her labrador Scooby
‘He has brought me back my independence and made me feel better about myself,’ says Sophie.
But not everyone’s so happy. Last year’s Best In Show winner was a black Scottish terrier with a Russian owner and an American handler. And to Beverley Cuddy that signals a problem. ‘I can see the top honour going to a foreign dog again this year,’ she says.
‘Exhibiting is a very expensive business and I think it’s a shame if our shows are taken over by dog owners with professional handlers, who come to win. For some people the rosette is more important than the dog and there’s a danger the dog can become like a lottery ticket.
‘Handlers are paid to show a dog and are talented at presenting, but if an owner has a dog that doesn’t win, they’re not going to pay anybody to show it. If you are obsessed with winning then you are unlikely to keep what you see as duds.
‘If a dog is a pet, though, then win or lose you go home with it and life goes on. To me it’s glorious when a pet owner wins; if it’s a dog that’s going home with that person and is the centre of their world, then that’s perfect.’
But Crufts is not only about beautiful, backcombed and blow-dried treasures coiffed to within an inch of their lives prancing round the show ring. The agility competitions, when dogs run round an obstacle course, get crowds whooping with joy, while the ‘flyball’ contest is mesmerising as over-excited, yelping teams of mutts go nuts on a relay hurdling race. And if you fancy seeing dogs dance like Michael Jackson then the ‘heelwork to music’ shows are for you.
There are also heartwarming reminders of the bond that can develop between dogs and humans in two ‘hero’ categories. Tears will be shed for the mutts and mongrels in this year’s Scruffts competition final, including the ‘child’s best friend’ Roxy and ‘good citizen’ Fergus, while the shortlist in the Friends For Life contest includes Scooby, who has twice saved his owner from a life-threatening condition.
Alongside all the remarkable dogs, Crufts is also wonderful for people-watching. ‘The terrier and gundog owners tend to come in their country clothes, while the poodle people are very smartly dressed – even though they spend hours grooming their dogs, they still manage to groom themselves,’ says Beverley Cuddy.
‘Many owners also take their dogs round the ring in their bizarre lucky clothes – I was one of them, and used to always wear a yellow trouser suit. But they’re not as eccentric as at the glitzy Westminster Kennel Club shows in America, where owners turn up to some events in evening dress.’
There have also been quizzical canine looks over the years at Crufts as streakers sprinted across the hallowed green carpets – one with a strategically placed cat mask, another with ‘Pedigree Bum’ scrawled in pen across his back.
Crufts is a huge market too, with over 450 trade stands, where visitors last year spent an average of £123 each on dog skin creams, ice cream and breakfast cereals as well as the more usual leads and baskets. Each year there are new variations on the pooper-scooper and new contraptions for throwing a tennis ball, some of which look like rocket launchers and would probably get you arrested if you took them to the park.
And what of the ultimate accolade, Best In Show? Cocker spaniels have been the most successful over the years, taking the top prize seven times, but Clare Balding’s favourite winner was a Tibetan terrier, Araki Fabulous Willy, in 2007, when she was presenting BBC’s coverage.
‘It’s a very personal choice, because he’s the grandfather of my horribly spoilt dog Archie. I got quite emotional. The critical thing is the X factor, and he had that.’
But whichever pampered pooch wins this year, keep an eye out for bubbly Roxy, the alert Scooby and that ray of light Fergus, doing his household chores before his hospital visits. Those are the real winners and our true best friends.
Crufts 2016, tonight and tomorrow, 7pm, Channel 4.
THE MUTTS THAT MAKE EVERYONE’S DAY
Author and dog lover Jilly Cooper judges the Scruffts Family Crossbreed Dog Of The Year final this evening, and says she is ‘thrilled and drooling at the prospect of meeting the wonderful dogs’.
Among the finalists is adorable Roxy, a Jack Russell/dachshund cross, who helped her young owner recover after she sank into depression when her mother, grandmother and best friend all died within the space of two years.
Roxy is joined by Icey, the now healthy collie/corgi cross who was found nearly frozen to death in Romania three years ago with no teeth or tail and a split ear, and labradoodle Fergus, who collects the post and empties the washing machine at home. He also visits elderly patients in hospitals to bring them a little joy.