Around Mrs Butler and Laura lounge several other Rottweilers, all panting hoarsely as they wait for their weekly obedience class, held in a draughty barn in the tiny Kentish village of Newenden. But their owners are not your stereotypical Rottweiler person, all cropped hair and Essex postcodes; most of the hands gripping the choke-leads tonight are wedding-ringed, manicured and cuffed with Barbour jackets. The Rottweiler, devil of council estate males, has fast become the darling of county females; as far as the women of Newenden, and the dogs' trainer, Molly Boyce, are concerned, there is simply no better dog to own.
Mrs Boyce has been conducting dog obedience classes for 20 years and owns four Rottweilers herself, two of whom have come along tonight 'for fun'. 'Don't worry', she shouts, as Bergen and Thunder come bouncing up to me, 'they'll love you to death.' Bergen and Thunder proceed to put their paws on my shoulders. They are growling in a rather menacing manner. 'Never fear]' she calls. 'They're just roaring at you. It's their Rottie way]'
I have begun to stammer; the barn is filling up with exceedingly dangerous-looking dogs and I seem to be the only person worried. 'Directly I saw them, I loved them,' says Laura Martin, who lives at Battle, East Sussex, and owns five Rottweilers. 'They really do guard your home, and they look so fierce; but yet, that's really their lovely expression, isn't it boys?' She leans down and pats Browner and Beth, who must weigh about 150lb apiece. 'They're so good with children. I've got nine grandchildren, and they're fantastic. And they mix so well with other dogs. My Rottie bitch had puppies at the same time as my Jack Russell; in a few days the Jack Russell puppies were drinking from the Rottweiler. Lovely, it was. They just need to be trained properly.'
'There's no such thing as an evil Rottweiler,' says Mrs Boyce, who has owned seven at a time. Trouble can set in when a dog has had multiple owners, or has never had disciplined training. 'People think they are so sweet when they are puppies; they let them get away with biting, and pulling and so on, and it gets them into bad habits. I have never allowed my boys to raise their lips at anyone, even when they were small.' Owners should go to regular obedience classes as soon as their dog has finished injections (three months), until it is one year old. 'You must consider how large they become, and ask yourself if you can cope,' she adds. 'Many people don't know how dominating a Rottweiler is. And you have to buy them from a proper breeder. Keep away from backstreet dogs; go to a show and ask the experts for a good-tempered, well trained dog to breed.
Hence the class, which some dogs have been attending for nearly three years. Within a few minutes, Mrs Boyce has all nine Rottweilers, plus a couple of nasty-looking Staffordshire bull terriers and a bemused Dalmatian, walking round in a very organised circle, studded collars flashing. 'Dogs in sit position,' she warbles. Mrs Butler is having a hard time containing Laura, who in fairness has only just been promoted to this advanced class. 'No] No] No]' she says as Laura rolls on her back, 'Forward]' shouts Mrs Boyce. 'I'm not sure Mrs Butler realised what she was taking on,' she whispers to me as the class walks on. 'But she is getting on top of Laura very nicely. They won third prize for perseverance this Christmas at our award ceremony. Halt]'
Distantly related to the Neapolitan mastiff, the Rottweiler was brought over the Alps from Italy by the Roman army in AD73. Living for years in relative obscurity in Rottweil, Germany, it was introduced to the UK by Thelma Gray in 1936. Its status was restricted mainly to breeding circles until the Rottweiler boom of the Eighties. 'When I started owning them in the early Eighties, there would be only about seven in a class,' says Mrs Boyce. 'But by 1986, there were about 41 Rotties in one class at Crufts. It was a vast escalation.'
Molly Boyce feels that members of her obedience class may have bought their dogs as domestic guards, encouraged by publicity following 'incidents' in the late Eighties. However, she insists they are all now ardent Rottweiler fans, won over by their 'looks, temperament, and working ability. Once you have one, your are hook, line and sinkered on them,' she enthuses. 'After an owner loses a Rottweiler they ring me up for another; I warn them about being on the rebound, but they insist. I think, yes, even Mrs Butler will be a long-term Rottweiler lover.'
The winner of several Rottweiler-lookalike contests at county shows ('It's an honour'), Mrs Boyce was herself something of a late arrival on the Rottweiler scene. 'I used to own German shepherds, but I phased them out. Rotties are so much quieter, and more intelligent. They are far better for security work; when a Rottie roars, it means business.' She looks affectionately down at Bergen and Thunder. They return the compliment with extremely toothy grins (pros call this the 'bully grin', for obvious reasons). 'Why doesn't the police force use them? Their biting power is too great,' says Mrs Boyce, impassively. 'It's about 200lb per square inch, you see.'
Strange as it may seem, the Rottweiler is apparently very much a woman's dog. 'Oh yes]' enthuses Mrs Boyce. 'In the ring, women have far more control than men; men go falling all over the place.' Owners at the class testify to their safety with children, and the benefits of having an instant burglar deterrent for homes which do not always come in well lit semi-detached rows. 'My friends say no one's going to burgle you or steal your car when they see Kim in the back,' says Wendy Lawson, who comes to the class with her mother, another devotee. 'The only trouble with them is that people look a bit worried when they see us both coming along in the woods. You have to watch where you walk a Rottie because people get panicky if we take them off the lead, on the beach for example.'
'I live on my own and they're excellent companions and guard dogs,' agrees Barbara Lawson. 'You need to be a strong character to own one, and you need to train them in the ground rules of obedience.'
The class ends with everyone attempting the 'finish position' in true Crufts style; the dog circling behind the owner and coming to rest squarely in front. Poor Mrs Butler is, as ever, struggling with Laura. 'Don't let her bounce,' yells Mrs Boyce. 'Quickies, Laura, quickies?' she squeaks (apparently this is some sort of pacifying term, which seems to work). Mrs Boyce surveys her dogs with satisfaction. They all sit stock-still, gazing up at her adoringly. 'I have faith in my Rotties,' she says. 'They're just like children. Only a bit stronger.'
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