Living life in a dog daze

They drive you to distraction but, as Crufts 1998 opens, Ruth Padel admits to an enduring passion for the world's most frustrating pets
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Indy Lifestyle Online
In one side-aisle at Crufts you'll find a machine like an electronic horoscope, which tells you your dog-type. Have you an affinity to Affenpinschers? Do they call you the Samoyed girl? Are you a Chinese Crested guy, a secret Bouvier de Flandres? Punch in your details and there you are, teamed for life with a Portuguese Warren Hound.

Dog-breeding, genetic engineering, happened originally for utilitarian purposes. Out of the innocent genes of lupus lupus came a weird species ranging from the feathery fragment shivering in King Charles' sleeve to the slavering pack that killed boar for his supper. But now this specialization serves a different function. Rhodesian Ridgebacks don't hunt lion any more, but they slot beautifully into the "Country Life" image of a Range Rover toting infants to school through Islington traffic. Dachsunds don't Dyno-Rod badger setts these days, but suit people who like their aggression to come small and slinky. Standard Poodles aren't doing what they were bred for, retrieving eiderduck from swamps. No dog is, in cities. They are all busy doing one thing: flattering their owners' self-image. Crufts is a celebration of furry mirrors; a narcissist's dream.

Dogbreeding depends on that part of speech which sentences don't need, but publicists and dating agencies do: the adjective. The "breed standard" of every dog is a set menu of adjectives. Otterhounds? "Amiable, boisterous, inquisitive". Great Danes? "Elegant, graceful, charming: alert, fearless protectors". Bloodhounds? "Sensitive, reserved, noble". It's a bit like book-reviewing: your Springer Spaniel novel ("symmetrical, strong, compact, merry"), Gordon Setter poem ("stylish, thoroughbred appearance"), Tibetan Spaniel autobiography ("charming, gay, assertive"). Blurb culture programmes our response to adjectival packages. At Crufts, these turn up as bouncy, smelly, inquisitive slices of DNA.

I'm as bad as anyone. My first dog, a Newfoundland, did for me. - When I die, you'll find FLUFF engraved on my heart. I'd never have a smooth dog. My labradoodle Jenny (an accident - a Labrador-Poodle cross) just has to look at a carpet to smother it in fluff. It gets everywhere: fridge, word-processors, babies' nappies. My hair's as untidy as hers. My daughter's spaniel, Velvet, is blonde as she is. They gallop down the street, girl in flared jeans, platforms and green nails, blonde hair swinging in a "Rachel" cut (from C4's Friends), frenetic American Cocker flurrying her blonde curls alongside. Velvet would like flares and Miss Selfridge nail polish too.

Trying to find a second dog really brought me up against genes. I thought I knew dogs, because of Jenny. All poodle crosses, if found, have her classy irony. I identified with poodles madly and bought poodle histories. When you pick your furry mirror you buy into its mystique. I told people proudly a poodle was at the head of a French army entering Constantinople. I disapprove absolutely of marching into cities: why was it OK a poodle did it? When Gwen (age nine) and I chose her dog, we plumped for an apricot Miniature Poodle. "Apricot" looked gorgeous in the poodle books. We didn't know it's difficult to achieve; that wicked breeders ditch temperament to get it.

"Peanuts" seemed a great name for a puppy with a dry-roast coat. I went off it fast. (Try yelling "PEEEEEANUTS!" urgently, repetitively. The T gets lost; the U comes across as I. But her name was easier than the rest of her. She was tiny, but God she was bright. Everything that could be done on a newspaper, was. "Sit" came in a day. "Recall" was flawless. But what she wanted was stature. Colette the Puppy Trainer clocked her instantly. Peanuts was one frustrated Napoleonic bantam. Constantinople would have been a pushover. When Peanuts started snarling over invisible tufts of Kleenex, it was time to say goodbye. I phoned The Miniature Poodle Rescue Association and found her a childfree home with the power she craved. She now walks everywhere Animal Farm fashion, on hind legs, pushing an Old English Sheepdog in front of her like a massive pram.

Was there life after Peanuts? We investigated other breeds. German Spitzes, balls of fluff who never stop barking; Papillons, whose legs break if they jump off chairs; Wheaten Terriers like gold carthorses. What did we wind up with? The fluffiest we could. Velvet's mutant genes mean that for every one hair in an English Cocker follicle, she has five. She has spaniely passions I didn't know about, especially for fox-shit, has a hefty indignation gene, steals all food, even raw potatoes. She is selfishness, greed, criminality personified. We adore her.

I'm hooked; but that doesn't mean I approve of using canine genes for narcissistic human purposes. I get up at night, clear shit off grass, off everything, walk hours in freezing rain, keep butter (Velvet's favourite plunder) six feet off the floor; to pay for flea-spray I write articles about dogs when I should be writing books; I let half-written poems get drowned out by orgiastic barks when Velvet starts thinking about cats and Jenny helps her. All to pamper some stupid psychic nerve, some batty inner iconography.

But then, as another consideration, there's the love thing. Which you can't do anything about.

Crufts 1998 starts today and continues until Sunday.