It's a dog's life on death row

Mongrels and three-legged dogs are all welcome at the alternative dog show. Adrian Turpin reports
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This weekend, spare a thought for Otis. On Sunday, the great dane cross breed will be spending his 1,250th day behind bars. Days after the Dangerous Dogs Act was introduced in 1991, the Hackney resident was observed minding his own business in his owner's Cortina and detained under suspicion of being a "pit bull type" animal, and, guilty until proven innocent, swiftly sentenced to die. Two and a half years followed on death row, and in the summer of 1994 Otis, now a reluctant media star, was given a stay of execution, though only on condition that someone stumped up his kennel fees. Fall behind on the payments and the mutt gets it. £3,250 a year or - the efforts of Lord Lester apart - Otis goes to the electric dog basket.

Whatever did a dog do to deserve this? Nigel Winfield, the co-organiser of the first "alternative" Spitalfields Dog Show, believes he knows. If only LBC, London's old talk radio station, were still broadcasting. He'd make a perfect Nigel from Stepney: community impresario, East End eccentric, founder of the "small but influential" Stepney School of Socialist Dog Historians ("well, it's me actually"), a man who could talk the hind leg off the sturdiest mastiff. To Winfield, Otis's dilemma has nothing to do with a propensity to eat children. Rather, it's that he is perceived to be common: the kind of dog that if he didn't have fur would have tattoos. As such, Winfield argues, Otis is just one more victim of history, a "canine Dreyfus".

And he has the facts to back up his thesis that dogs have long been a weapon of class warfare. You want to know the relationship between tail- docking and taxation of the working class? Nigel's your man. Or how the Victorian equivalent of the road lobby stamped out the dog-cart? Ditto. Drawing much of his evidence from Harriet Ritvo's seminal social history of Victorian attitudes to animals, The Animal Estate (Penguin, 1990), he points out that dogs have been a weapon in the class war for over a century.

Since the Kennel Club came into existence in 1873, and began to codify which dogs were acceptable in polite society and which were beyond the pale, distinctions of breed have had more to do with cementing a position in society than recognising genetic purity or utility. In Victorian times, acceptable dogs were the ones that the bourgeoisie arbitrarily deemed fashionable, and when it came to dog-breeding they displayed dubious taste. The results were bulldogs so deformed that they collapsed after walking two miles and collies with heads so narrow that they left little room for brains. Meanwhile, other breeds were vilified.

"There are writings from 100 years ago," Winfield says, "which call an Old English Sheepdog - a Dulux dog - 'ugly to a mind educated to beauty' and 'obeying no lighter punishment than a blow from an iron-shod crook'. It was too ugly for the show ring. In other words, it was a working dog." Otis may not be a working dog, but he is working-class. And it is largely for this reason, so the argument goes, that he and other dogs suspected of being pit bulls are being persecuted.

All of which gives some kind of background to Sunday's Spitalfields show. Not only because the Endangered Dogs Association will be collecting money for Otis's upkeep and holding a show within a show of bull breeds - but because Spitalfields is through and through an anti-establishment dog show. That establishment is still the Kennel Club, revered and feared by breeders in equal measure, and for 10 years Winfield has, both voluntarily and professionally, been organising what he calls "backstreet" (ie non- KC) shows open to all dogs. Typical of these, Spitalfields levels the playing field for the dog in the street, with classes that include Best Mongrel, Best Herder (all breeds welcome), Best Three-legged Dog, and even Best Eurodog (of which more later).

"All a farmer wants," says Winfield, "is a dog that will round up sheep efficiently, and not eat too much, whereas what a Kennel Club dog is about is how many inches it is at shoulder, or whether it's got too many spots on its ears. The East End is a no-go area with regard to the Kennel Club. So, what we're doing is not putting two fingers up at them, but ignoring them. That said, I do have standards. I don't like it if people say, 'It's just a fun thing'. The supreme champion here is a very nicely kept dog."

And the Eurodog? Well, it's a kind of Piat D'Or of a pooch. "The Eurodog cannot be described as any recognisable breed. If you can say it's part corgi it's out. A second function is that it should have no immediate function, and too much character would also disqualify a dog. It should be pretty bland." But, and here comes the moral, "The Eurodog reminds us that there are perfectly good working dogs all over the world that wouldn't fit any breed standard." For, as any socialist dog historian will tell you, even the most pointless dog has a point.

The Spitalfields Dog Show takes place this Sunday at Old Spitalfields Market, Brushfield St, E1. /BR Liverpool St. 12 noon-5pm. All dogs welcome. Register between 12 noon and 1.30pm on the day. Entry and registration free