If anyone had a good reason to keep a low profile at Crufts, the diminutive dachshunds were head and tails ahead of the pack. While their owners were pondering what fame, fortune and dog food endorsements may lie ahead if their darlings outshone their canine counterparts, the nervous hounds had every reason to wonder if their stumpy legs would waddle them to the judging ring at all.
For today was a day to keep low to the ground, a talent in which dachshunds clearly excel. And running a gauntlet of Irish wolfhounds, which were occupying the neighbouring set of kennels, would need all their craftiness and cunning.
It was the big and small of Crufts, the world’s biggest dog show, held in Birmingham last week; the wolfhounds, which could quite easily be shaved down, saddled up and entered in the fifth at Cheltenham, perched precariously next to the dachshunds, which to their Irish relatives must have looked more like meaty bon-bons than distant continental cousins.
Fortunately, in the dog-eats-dog world of competitive dog shows, the adage rarely comes to fruition. At Crufts, which hosted some 24,000 dogs over four days, the vast majority of competitors seemed to be deliriously happy just to be there. Crufts is doggy nirvana, a dog’s Glastonbury Festival, where goodwill and a bit of subtle bottom-sniffing is always welcomed with a kind lick and a cheeky bark. What’s not to wag about?
Even the wolfhounds – gentle giants, owner Bradley Nicholson from Middlesborough says as his dog Finn licks his face with a tongue akin to a slab of rump steak – were enjoying the festivities.
Finn, a sprightly one-and-a-half- year-old, was far too busy standing on his enormous hind legs and chewing on Bradley’s ear to notice the passing dachshunds, whose anxious stares made them look like if another dog didn’t claim them, a heart attack just might.
Crufts is an extravaganza of all things canine that can be seriously overwhelming for the uninitiated. It’s as traditional as tweed coats and an English Ashes loss, where bloodlines and breeding take precedence in proud and defiant snobbery, stamping out any thought that tainted terriers should have their 15 minutes of fame. There are no mongrels at Crufts, chaps, no dogs tied up in utes out the front – and that’s the way it’s been for 102 stately years.
With wall-to-wall puppies in an arena about twice the size of the Earl’s Court Convention Centre, the show’s former home, any stray tennis balls are in constant danger of being pounced upon by a stampede of hyperactive hounds.
All the excitement can take its toll on the participants. The ironically named beagle Byleeton Joviality looked anything but as he reflected on the morning’s work with a hard-earned, afternoon nap in his hiding hole. For others, like Afghan hound Deefor (deefor dog, that is), was all about looking good. Owner Claire Hendley, from Glasgow, says getting Deefor ready for the ring took careful preening and preparation, including a weekly clean, shampoo and condition of his coat and straightening of his blond hairdo, no doubt modelled on Poison frontman Brett Michaels.
While Claire explained the ins and outs of caring for Deefor, her friend was busily chattering away, suggesting that Afghan hound numbers were dwindling due to residents of Afghanistan eating them. For her part, Deefor seemed disinterested in the plight of her relatives back home as she gazed regally into the distance, her hair being lovingly brushed. Again.
All creatures great and small converge at Crufts, from Australian terriers to British bulldogs, salukis, borzois, Norwegian elkhounds, basset fauve de Bretagnes and tiny Italian greyhounds, which look suspiciously like oversized chihuahuas. This year, it was their slightly bigger counterparts, the whippets, that were getting some added attention after one of their ilk, Dee Dee, took out the prestigious Best In Show last year.
Dee Dee’s photo has been plastered around the walls of the arena and graces the glossy pages of official guides. For now, Dee Dee is the David Beckham of dogs.
The contenders to her throne were lining up last week to go under the stern eye of the judge, who seemed to be making the whippets look guiltier and more frightened than they already appear.
The whippets were paraded and posed like Egyptian deities before being hoisted onto a table for further inspection, a good patting down and a look at their dental hygiene. The losers skulked off to howl into their food bowls, or just run around and play with each other, while the winners are left to collect their ribbons and bark another day.
Steve Eburne, meanwhile, was having trouble moving his Hungarian komondor, Boo, more than two metres without being mobbed by fans asking for an explanation of the dog’s Bob Marley dreads, which occur naturally if anybody is interested.
Resembling a large mop, Boo was clearly lapping up the attention, although Steve was quick to dismiss my suggestion he tell people he put the plaits in the dog’s hair by hand to impress people. A few more pics and Steve and Boo were off on another three-metre voyage.
Back in the judging rings it was all business, while across the hall a chorus of the Village People’s YMCA heralded the arrival of Kath Hardman and her fabulous dancing dogs.
Kath and her dancing partner, Karen Sykes, entertained the crowd with dazzling displays of obedience from their dogs Fly and Ginnie. Ginnie, a 12-year-old collie that takes sedatives for her epilepsy and is deaf in one ear, proved old dogs with a raft of disabilities can learn new tricks, spinning, leaping and twirling her way through the athletic routines.
Her hearing difficulties partly spared her from the Boney M finale, though an appreciative crowd guessed her and Fly, the clear stars of the impressive show, weren’t behind the choice of tunes.
By the time Fly and Ginnie had taken their leave, day one at Crufts was winding down. As weary pooches and their owners began to make their way out, cleaners appeared to mop up what the dogs had left behind, leaving the halls shiny and new for the parades of strangely shaved poodles that would grace the arena the following morning.
For a duo of dachshunds, their final walk past the wolfhound kennels was one of relative peace. For the Dee Dees of this world, Crufts is about winning. For some, just getting through the day is more than enough.