Imagine being in Times Square at midnight on New Year’s Eve, New Orleans at the height of Mardi Gras, or any presidential nominating convention, then add many thousands of shedding, joyful, agitated, and high-maintenance dogs to the mix and you have some idea of what attending Crufts, the world’s largest dog show, is like. The show is held at the National Exhibition Centre in Birmingham, England, a mega-venue 611 acres in size, and after the fourth and last day, even the hardiest dog enthusiasts will feel like they have run the Iditarod.
Crufts is different from any other canine event on the planet. Although as well planned and protocol-heavy as only a British event can be (with winners’ trophies delivered on silver trays by white-gloved couriers), Crufts is also a frenetic merry-go-round of dog fanciers, groomers, veterinarians, food vendors, and doggie-goods concessionaires all swirling together in a sort of delirium set to the score of endless barking.
I have been to the longest-running American dog show, run by the Westminster Kennel Club, many times. The New York event is glittery and prestigious and always seemed enormous to me, but compared to Crufts, it is very small potatoes. For comparison’s sake, Crufts had 21,474 dogs entered this year; Westminster had 2,711. Crufts had 57 bull terriers (the squinty-eyed Target mascot) in the ring. Westminster had five.
So is it any wonder that even the most regimented viewer gets stricken with a Cruftian case of ADD? There’s simply too much to do and see. Will you watch the Wes t Midlands police dogs attack “bad guys” in padded suits? Is it possible to turn down the spectacle of 261 English bulldogs, who all look like Winston Churchill sans cigar, lumbering into the show ring to patriotic squeals and fluttering little Union Jacks? And what is one to do about the medical-detection dogs trained to sniff out seizures or hypoglycemia in diabetics, or the doggy CPR lesson, or the presentation on adopting a needy dog or cat from an army shelter in Kabul? Is there time to stop at the rather empty booth devoted to convincing the public not to buy a hedgehog as a pet? “They stink, they bite, they run away, they are, in general, quite disgusting,” says the ruddy-faced man in a tweed cap.
Even if you are completely dog-crazy and have carefully annotated your show guide in advance, you will still find yourself running from halls 1 to 5 (each the size of a small airport) desperately trying to find a seat to watch the judging of breeds you love, own, wish you owned, or have never heard of.
“So that’s a Hovawart,” you mutter with amazement, and then you are onto the Turkish Kangals, the Large Munsterlanders, the Glen of Imaal Terriers, and a pack of Sloughis. You may just find yourself so overwhelmed that you collapse in an empty folding chair next to an enormous gray Neapolitan mastiff and become mesmerized by how his jowls hang almost to the floor, secured by thick ropes of slobber.
In addition to hosting the dog show’s main event—the best-in-breed contests—the 16,000-seat Genting Arena houses an ever-changing program of agility heats, obedience trials, and good-citizen dog awards. One of the most popular categories is called Heelwork to Music, wherein trainers and dogs perform synchronized dance routines acting out various scenarios: a hunter (played by the trainer) in sporting tweeds with shotgun looking for a rabbit (played by the dog), or the tragic tale of the Little Match Girl, wherein the shivering trainer finally succumbs to frostbite and is covered with her coat by her grieving dog. I used up more than one hankie watching the Eukanuba Friends for Life Competition that highlights exceptional canines who have improved the quality of life for disabled people. Heartfelt in a different way is a popular contest called Scruffts, a charity dog show held only for mutts (now politically correctly referred to as “crossbreeds”). The categories include Most Handsome, Prettiest Bitch, Child’s Best Friend, and Golden Oldie. At Crufts, all dogs are worthy of praise.
Crufts was first held in 1891 at the Agricultural Hall in Islington and was a popular society event from its inception. It was considered a pleasant weekend activity to mingle with your friends and show off your favorite hunting or companion dog. It was not until 1928 that the event offered a Best in Show trophy to the winner. Crufts then quickly became a serious contest of canine perfection. Apart from the World War II years, when Crufts was put on hold, the show marched steadily onward and upward, moving to ever more capacious venues as it grew in popularity.
Although Crufts (at least to this American) still seems an extraordinarily British affair, there are those who long for the good old days before dogs from other countries were allowed in. Before 2001, when the byzantine U.K. quarantine laws were eased, Crufts was a strictly domestic affair. There are still traditionalists who want the borders closed. Part of their argument is purely statistical: As of 2015, there were about 3,000 “foreign dogs” entered in the show; the odds of winning Best in Show suddenly got much higher.
One of the more unusual aspects of Crufts is how public it all is. At most top dog shows, the dogs and their people are sequestered away from the crowds in what is called the benching area, reserved only for handlers and groomers. The spectators see the dogs only when they prance into the show ring under the bright lights. At Crufts, all show dogs are benched right out in the open, in three-sided wooden stalls. You can see them up close and, if you have proper manners, ask to pet one. I asked constantly and was never refused. It was a remarkable and luxurious experience for someone used to Stateside dog shows where the hands-off policy is strictly enforced. It was as if I had dropped by the locker room at the Super Bowl to say hi to the players or strolled into the stalls at the Kentucky Derby to hug a horse.
Allowing such close proximity to the dogs is a pact of mutual trust. The dogs seemed relaxed and sociable, and the owners happy to chat. This easy access also allowed me to view a five-year-old boy running in the direction of a stately Newfoundland and tweaking its nose clown- style, crowing “beep beep.” Later on, I saw a Labrador retriever having his muzzle and balls lovingly stroked by a little girl who found both ends of him equally appealing. Close contact also may be responsible for rampant rumors that someone in the crowd slipped diarrhea-producing medication to a particular dog, while another had wads of chewing gum stuck in its fur.
Each edition of Crufts contains a dose of tabloid- worthy intrigue. This year’s most dastardly deed is the death-by-poisoning of Jagger the Irish setter (show name: Thendara Sat isfaction), who was fed slug killer–laced meat. Of course, conspiracy theories abounded, but Jagger’s co-owner Mrs. Milligan-Bott, who estimates the dog to have been worth about $75,000, told the Daily Mail that she thought Jagger was not targeted but rather killed by “some random psychopathic dog hater.”
This year’s headlines made a meal of two petitions signed by more than 208,000 people demanding that the handler of the Crufts 2015 Best in Show winner be stripped of her title for hoisting her dog up by its neck and tail in the show ring. The lifting of the Scottish terrier Knopa in this manner was something that handler Rebecca Cross said was acceptable in the USA. Later, she offered an apology to those who thought it was an act of animal abuse.
Controversy has long lingered in the air at Crufts. Only recently was it formally allowed for show dogs to be hair-sprayed, slicked down with conditioner, scented, trimmed, or presented in any way cosmetological. Handlers previously knew it was forbidden to use beauty aids but often did it anyway. One British newspaper quoted a poodle owner who compared bringing a dog into the ring au naturel to “Miss World being made to go on without her makeup.”
Then there was the man who once streaked through the show ring, and this year’s animal-rights activist who barged in, just as the Best in Show trophy was being awarded, with a sign that said "mutts against Crufts." It seemed an unfair criticism for a show that hands out innumerable awards to crossbreeds and rescues. The sign carrier was set upon by a herd of burly security guards and quickly dragged away as the stately presentation rolled on.
A more freakish event occurred at Crufts two years back when Eddie, a brown and white Akita, immediately followed up receiving his award as the most obedient and well-trained dog in the show by sinking his teeth into the knee and hand of a passerby.
The massive outrage over the death of the Irish setter and the possibly cruel handling of the Best in Show Scottish terrier is British to the core. Although American presidents traditionally have a pet dog (to round out the cozy picture of family happiness at the White House), English monarchs have been utterly devoted to and concerned with the welfare of domestic animals. The most passionate royal was Queen Victoria, who proudly showed her dogs at early editions of Crufts.
Although the Queen is often remembered as a model of stiff propriety, the emotional floodgates broke open when it came to animals. When she signed releases for prisoners, she reportedly refused to sign any for those convicted of animal cruelty. Her personal memos include one in which she worried about “her poor dear friends the dogs.” She was an early opponent of the type of abattoirs similar to the one that Miracle, the Crufts 2015 prize-winning rescue dog, was en route to in Thailand.
Victoria said, “Nothing brutalizes human beings more than cruelty to poor dumb animals, whose plaintive looks for help ought to melt the hardest heart.” She asked for the life of an ox to be spared at a cattle show “because it had licked the hand of Prince Albert.” Animals are and will always be a British passion. Their proper handling and care is something never to “keep calm and carry on” about. As long as there is a Crufts, there will be moments of epiphany alongside rumors of dark and dirty deeds.
It has recently been determined that the Irish setter who died was poisoned at home in Belgium, not at Crufts. And the crazy man who barged into the Best in Show ring hoisting the mutts against crufts sign seemed, at first, to be a case of modern rudeness. But it is possible that, like Queen Victoria, he was simply worried about his “poor dear friends the dogs.”
Image Credit: © Jooney Woodward