By Julie Hill
Crufts is the world's top dog show, as well as a great day our for dog enthusiasts. Covering the event for DogCast Radio gave me the opportunity to experience the magic, and discover some of the secrets of the show.
Crufts is unique being the biggest pedigree dog show in the world, and those are the two things that stand out about this event - the dogs, and the sheer size of the thing. There are dogs everywhere, starting in the queue for the bus that ferries you from the car park to the main site. Once inside the main buildings, there are even more dogs everywhere. Most are down at foot level, weaving their way through what must seem like a crushing maze of legs. But it doesn't seem to bother them. Some get a better view of proceedings, being carried in protective arms. Still more can be seen on the various stands, demonstrating their skills as assistance dogs, persuading you of the charms of an ex-racing greyhound, or simply representing their breed.
Obviously, the majority of the dogs at Crufts are found in the judging rings. Before I went there, I naively pictured one judging ring; in reality, although there is a special events ring, and the coveted main ring, there are also 35 smaller judging rings, and it is here where the real business of Crufts happens - the breed judging. It is in these rings that reputations are built and reinforced - or hopes are dashed and hearts are broken. The hopefuls walk out for their few minutes in that glorious Crufts spotlight, giving the best performance they can muster, as months of preparation come to fruition.
I was fascinated at getting to stand so close to the judging rings, because you get a really good glimpse into the relationship playing out between handler and dog. Sometimes the dog is co-operating and behaving well, some of the handlers have obviously done this time and time again and love the fact that this is their moment in the limelight. One of the things I love about dogs is their playful character, and their ability to think independently. The dogs I really enjoyed watching at Crufts were the ones that were oblivious to the fact they were at this terribly serious dog show where the line of their back, and the angle of the ear can make or break their chances of success. I liked the ones who were just having a good time, being dogs. There was a little Papillon dancing around on the lead, standing on its back legs, jumping to get treats, and you could see the handler thinking, "Please don't do that here, be sensible!" and the dog merrily carried on.
However, while the judges are pronouncing in the rings, many other stories are played out in the surrounding benches. In the longer haired breeds, there is frenetic grooming- a bad fur day is to be avoided. Practice walks and runs are taken in final preparation. The excitement and nerves of those still awaiting their turn are channelled into many different activities, and in sharp contrast with this, are those who have already been in the judging rings. The lucky few wait for the next class they are going forward to, but many more have nothing to do but wait until they can go home. Impromptu picnic areas spring up, as dogs and people settle down together to wait it out, and many canine eyes are focussed and concentrating in hope of a share of the food. As the day progresses, it seems there are nearly as many humans as dogs sprawled in the compartments on the benches in the sections where judging has already taken place.
It is very hard work being a show dog. They don't get to have breakfast, although some handlers did confide somewhat guiltily, looking both ways shiftily before they spoke, that they had in fact given their dog a light meal. At best lightly fed, the dogs are bundled into the car early, driven to the show and taken to their designated bench. And that's the English ones, who haven't had to travel here by ferry, or even worse (from the dog's point of view) plane, and then put up with strange lodgings. The benches are numbered, and you have to find your particular number in among the bewildering number of halls and benches and rings and so on. Now, you have to be at your bench by ten o'clock at the latest, but some judging starts at 8.30, so you can imagine just how early they have woken up.
Another thing I didn't know was that you can't just go home in a sulk if you don't win anything in your class. The rule is that exhibitors have to stay at Crufts until at least 4.00 o'clock. That can make it a very long gruelling day for the dogs, although I have to say the majority of them cope well with it. There was one young Shar Pei - that's the cute wrinkly dog, looks like a size 18 skin on a size 14 body - it was his first Crufts. It was late in the afternoon, and he sat with his chin on his owner's shoulder, and his eyes - which are hooded anyway by the folds - were really tiny, he was almost out on his feet.
One of the lovely people we had interviewed on DogCast is a lady called Gwen Bailey. She is a dog trainer, she organises national and international events and runs Puppy School with franchises around the country. She was involved in displays on the main Pedigree stand, where we agreed to meet. Gwen and a colleague demonstrated with their own dogs, various behaviours and tricks you could teach, and Gwen showed training techniques with a volunteer dog. Then they showed how their dogs would obey a volunteer human from the audience - and he was much less eager then the volunteer dog had been, but then he didn't get any treats!
Gwen had suggested we have a cup of coffee together, and I had envisaged buying her a coffee, but in the event she took us up to the breeders hospitality bar on the Pedigree stand. That was so exciting! All the people who knew what they were doing, who were performing in displays on the stand were there, some being interviewed by press and so on, and it was marvellous. If someone had said seven months before Crufts, you'll be sitting in the Pedigree stand hospitality bar, I would not have believed it for a moment.
I spoke to one of the handlers competing in the obedience competition, and my goodness those dogs have to be so clever. There are various manoeuvres they have to do, including heel work at various paces, slow to fast, with downs and sits thrown in. They then have to do a down stay where the handlers walk away from them, but the real killer is a ten minute down stay where the handlers leave the room. Most of the children I have taught wouldn't sit still if I left the room for ten minutes. I was impressed.
The agility competitions are fast and furious, and never more so than when observed close up. This was incredibly exciting, being just a few feet away from dogs competing at Crufts. We saw the speed and skill of the dogs, the communication between handler and dog, and my favourite bit at the end, when whether he's technically done well or not, the exuberant dog jumps up into the handler's arms in triumph.
There's an aspect of theatre to Crufts, that adds to the whole dog scene too. There's a glamour and a buzz I haven't experienced at other dog events. They have been fun, but Crufts it somehow different, it does stand alone; it has a magic. Crufts is a truly massive event, with 22,256 dogs, of 178 different breeds, involving entrants from 32 countries
Crufts is not just about fabulous show dogs though, with dogs also competing in obedience and agility competitions - many of them cross breeds, and a further 6000 dogs participating in displays and demonstrations.
As a dog lover it was lovely to see dogs included everywhere, in fact the only places they were excluded from were understandably the sit down restaurants, and bizarrely the toilets!
The organisation needed for an event like Crufts is phenomenal, and there are 500 organizers including judges, stewards and so on. Then there is the unenviable task of catering for a huge number of people - 14,000 alone in dog exhibitors, plus over 120,000 public visitors, Then there are the 500 trade stands involving 1,200 staff. The show covers an area of over 900,000 square feet and is spread over the 5 massive halls of the NEC, making it virtually impossible not to get lost at least once a day!
Crufts was established in 1891, and is world renowned as the pinnacle of any dog and owner's career, but at the heart of it is the relationship between dogs and people, in all the different forms that can take. It is the warmth of that unique relationship that draws us to Crufts. While we may marvel at their beauty, skill, obedience, and devotion to duty, it is the unconditional love dogs offer us that has lead us to value their companionship so highly, and that I believe truly deserves an event as tremendous as Crufts to celebrate it.