The word "terrier" ordinarily calls to mind some kind of small, compact postman-botherer, but full-grown Skye terriers can weigh 35-40lbs. They have big heads, powerful jaws, slightly bowed, tough- guy chests. The ancestors of the dogs that Sue now sets on tables for judging were employed to root out badgers. As Sue said, when we were standing outside the pens, "They're not a dog to be dealt with lightly."
Sue and Skyes go back. Her parents in Birmingham showed Pyrenean mountain dogs - they had 13 of them at one time - and Sue's first husband was a professional dog handler. "I always liked the grooming aspect, so I chose a Skye." She made her first dog into a champion and has managed a string of successes since, commemorated in a gallery of photographs on the kitchen wall. "I'm very competitive and always have been," said Sue, who was wearing grey track pants and a pink puffa jacket and who, in contrast to the clich about owners resembling their pets, has short, curled hair.
On the dog circuit, Sue cuts something of a controversial figure. She got some stick for being the first to ferry her dogs to shows inside American animal crates. ("They're smarter and the dogs rest better," she maintains.) She has been accused of being "too professional". She writes the occasional opinionated piece for Dog World. And last April she withdrew from the Skye Terrier Club (membership: just under 200) when her unanimously-carried motion to purchase a grooming table for club use was ignored by the committee.
Sue remarried 14 years ago. She and her husband ("a very sane, sensible civil engineering estimator") also keep a 13-year-old Siamese cat called Cleo and two whippets, Muffin and Poppy. The whippets get to hang out in the kitchen on a duvet and also to let off steam across brambly Cannock Chase, to the rear of the house. But there's no way Sue would let the prize dogs follow them. "Long walks would destroy their coats," she said.
Instead, the dogs exercise in a lush paddock at the foot of Sue's garden. Each has a spacious day pen, containing a mini trampoline-style lounger and a bottomless drinks dish. It's not a dog's life; it's the kind of life led by successful Californian novelists.
When I visited Sue one afternoon last week, she was preparing to bath Jasper, her top dog, large and silvery. We went to get him out of his pen. Sue tied on a plastic apron, heaved Jasper up into her arms ("I won't be able to do this when I'm 90") and set off quickly across the lawn to the house. We went through the kitchen and into the bathroom. Sue plonked Jasper down in the bath, plugged his ears with cotton wool and began to drench him with the shower attachment.
Jasper is two and a half. His full name is Champion Classic Touch of Silhill. (Silhill is the name of Sue's kennel.) Jasper received his championship crown a fortnight ago in Manchester. At Crufts he'll be going for the Skye Terrier Open Dog category. He has sired 21 puppies in only two litters (the average litter yields six or seven pups). All in all, the lad's a bit special. "Even at six months," said Sue, "he had a big coat and a very positive attitude."
Here are some of the things the judges look for in a champion Skye terrier: a strong head, a nice, dark eye and a long, crested neck. Also, a good length of rib, a fairly short loin and well-muscled hindquarters. They should have thick, double coats of hair ("I'm known for huge coats," said Sue), and black, fringed ears, like Jasper's.
"Now you'll see terriers at Crufts that have got no fringes. Well, they may as well have no tail." And the ears must be set at ten to two. Jasper's ears, as if monitored by Accurist, stand at 1.50 precisely.
"Basically, in Skyes, we have the three Ls," Sue explained. "They should be long, low and level. But I always say there should be four Ls. Because they can be as long and as low and as level as you like, but if they're not lovely, they're just another dog."
They need to develop calm under pressure, too, not to mention calm under water. With Jasper in the bath, there was none of that rueful, head-down, OK-it's-a-fair-cop, stuff you so often see when a muddy dog hits the tub. Jasper just stood there firmly and let it all happen. "He's so laid back it's not true," said Sue, as she worked the dog into a froth. "He doesn't get hyped up, takes everything in his stride. Always has done." The smell of wet dog filled the room.
After a thorough rinse, Sue applied some conditioner. "I use high-quality human hair products," she said. "I buy the stuff by the gallon from the hairdresser's. If you want your dogs to look better than anybody else's, you've got to pay for it, haven't you?"
It was only after the conditioner was rinsed out that Jasper did the traditional doggy thing and made like a spin-drier, covering Sue, myself and the far wall of the bathroom. Sue picked him up and we all went out to the garage which Sue has converted into a grooming room and where she keeps her hydraulic dog table and a huge, free-standing hair-dryer with a directable nozzle. Being near the drier when it was switched on was like standing on the tarmac beside a flight-ready Jumbo. Jasper was, again, unflustered. The air was thick with puffs of hot dog hair. Sue and I shouted to each other above the din.
"What about his sex drive?" I shouted.
"Oh, it's all there," shouted Sue.
"But doesn't it create problems in the show?"
"Dogs and bitches are judged in separate classes and dogs generally go in the ring before bitches," she said. "But if a dog does scent a bitch, you can have a problem getting its head off the floor. On the other hand, it can make them show like a stallion - they can be raring to go."
Sue took an aerosol from the shelf and sprayed Jasper's coat generously with mink oil. Jasper dipped his nose and expelled three powerful sneezes.
I asked Sue about bowel control. "Dogs are very regular," she said. "If they empty themselves in the morning, I know they'll be all right until late in the afternoon. At Crufts we're judged on carpet, which looks wonderful, but it's every exhibitor's nightmare that the dog's going to empty itself on the green carpet. It's embarrassing, but then again, the dog will move better when it's emptied itself."
Sue resumed with the comb and created Jasper's parting, from the base of his head, right the way down his back. "There," she said proudly, standing back. "That's the glamorous Champion Classic Touch of Silhill." The process had taken an hour and a half. Jasper looked about seven times the size he had been when we started.
Sue said that the common response to the dogs, at street level, is "Ooh, don't they look like Dougal?". And some wise guy once thought it might be amusing to ask her where Zebedee was. "I don't encourage people to stroke them very much because ... well, you never know about infections, to be quite truthful, do you? And I'm very particular."
After grooming, Jasper was returned to his pen along with an enormous silver dish of Pedigree Chum Adult Formula. Top breeders really do recommend it. Sue did confess, though, to adding some grated cheese occasionally, or the juices from cooked meats ("they never go in the gravy; they always go to the dogs").
I had imagined a champion dog-breeder would be up to her neck in product endorsement deals - Pedigree Chum supplies for life, weekly Winalot deliveries, all the Nylabones you could chew, and so on. In fact, the only evidence I saw of corporate backing was a couple of red and yellow Pedigree Chum towels in the garage and a fringe of Pedigree Chum stickers round the rear windows of Sue's estate car.
When Champion Silhill Silver Secret won Best Terrier at Crufts in 1974, Sue filmed an instant-reaction Pedigree Chum television commercial at Olympia, with the crowd still cheering. She received £100. After that, it was down to Sue and one other person for a follow-up advertisement, filmed at home, but Sue lost out.
The Best in Show prize at Crufts this year is worth just £100. But then, wouldn't there be big money in trading the dogs themselves? After all, Sue does have an impressive security searchlight mounted on a tall pole above the roof of her kennels.
"You hear money being talked about, overseas deals - £8,000, £10,000, £12,000. But I've never been offered that for a dog."
She sells her champions on, but for hundreds of pounds, she claims, not for thousands. Four years ago, Sue resumed in business as a dog-groomer in order to help pay her way through the year's shows - "as far north as Glasgow and as far south as Paignton".
I asked Sue what she would be wearing for Crufts. "It's one of the few occasions I wear a skirt. You have to be careful, because we do bend down and there's nothing worse than seeing a lady bend down with stocking tops flying, is there? I shall wear a colour that complements the dog. My legs are my backcloth for my dogs. We owe it to dogdom to look our best."
At 6pm, it was time to put the dogs to bed. Sue explained that the dogs each get a custard cream biscuit as a goodnight snack. We went back down the garden and Sue led the dogs from the day pens round the corner to the enclosed night pens with their numbered stable doors and curtained windows.
When I last saw Jasper, he was in his panelled boudoir, snorting down the custard cream.Reuse content