Highly trained competitors take strain at Cruft's: Rhys Williams spends a dog-day afternoon assessing the pedigrees at this year's show

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IT IS a simple truth that the only benefit in holing up 19,841 pedigree dogs and about 65,000 devoted fans in the National Exhibition Centre in Birmingham for four days is that the pavements of Britain are clearer to walk down.

It is also true that the problem has not been solved but merely moved under one roof. Still, the NEC makes ample provision.

The light grey and black carpet tiles, which transformed the four exhibition halls into giant chessboards, are washable and, in more extreme circumstances, removable.

They bear a striking resemblance to the tiles used for the last two years at Cruft's, which suggests, frighteningly, they are also re-usable.

The NEC's cleaning department dispatches 16 of its staff to patrol the main halls each day - they act as rapid 'foul-up' response units, ready at the buzz of their walkie-talkies to disappear with brush and detergent in hand to clear up after some excitable hound. The nightly hose-down after each day's competition occupies a further 43 cleaners.

Mike McHugh, deputy cleaning manager, said: 'The cleaners enjoy it - some are dog lovers, some like the work, most like the money it brings in.'

The NEC's gritty band of muck-busters also has the pleasure of monitoring the 10 designated 'Exercise Areas', the fenced-off squares of sawdust where dogs can relieve the tension of all that fierce competition.

Every couple of hours or so the sawdust is tilled or replenished. Note, however, that 'Exercise Areas' are distinct from 'Grooming Areas'. 'Exercise' is strictly forbidden in Grooming Areas.

Cruft's, don't forget, is only for highly trained dogs, the best of the best. The dogs are skilled and controlled, unlike, says Mr McHugh, people who attend some of the NEC's other events. Rock concerts, for instance.

'If we have Johnny Mathis up here, the fans are quite well behaved,' Mr McHugh said. 'But if there is a headbanger concert, well, they get a bit boisterous, and leave behind a lot of waste we can do without.'

Between parades in the exhibition rings, the dogs squat in open-topped pigeon-holes, about 3ft x 3ft x 3ft. As you walk up and down the alleyways, they peer out with mournful eyes - the Cavalier King Charles spaniels are particularly good at this.

In front of each pen lies an assortment of items: a bowl of water, a stack of rosettes, a half-mauled chewing stick and a deckchair with an owner attached in a state of despair.

Owners are a far more entertaining breed altogether but sadly they cannot take part. Which is surprising considering the only rules governing entry for males at Cruft's is that 'they should have two fully descended testicles' and that 'the teeth of upper and lower jaw should meet when they close their mouths'. A lack of pedigree, judging by the predominance of dubious anoraks, is not a bar to entry.

By 3 o'clock in the afternoon the combined efforts of the hall lights, around 15,000 visitors and the dogs have done their work. Picking your hot and sticky way through myriad doggy goodies, including rubber chickens and homoeopathic remedies, on sale at the 200 or so trade stalls, a final truth sinks in: buy a gerbil.

(Photographs omitted)