Alfie, Becky, Barley and Rascal: remember the names. They say every dog has his day, but these four iconoclastic pooches are about to make history by becoming the first “scruffy” dogs to enter the arena at Crufts as show dogs - a category usually reserved for the purest pedigrees.
Crufts, known for its promotion of the strictest selective breeding standards, is for the first time hosting the final of the Kennel Club's lesser-known national dog show, Scruffts - for ordinary, cross-bred or mongrel pets.
Though Scruffts has been running since 2000, the Kennel Club has been wary of including it in the main show, which dates back to 1891. Crufts attracts competitors from all over the world and they must meet the highest breeding standards to have their dog win Best in Show. The four Scruffts finalists competing to be Crossbreed Dog of the Year today are a different beast altogether.
Becky, who qualified in the Prettiest Bitch category, is a mongrel rescue dog from Co Down. Alfie is a Great Dane/Labrador retriever cross, Rascal a 10-year-old Jack Russell/Norfolk terrier cross, and Barley a Pyrenean/golden retriever cross more used to village dog shows in his native Suffolk.
Cross-breeds and mixed-breeds have been permitted into agility competitions at Crufts for years, but this is the first time they have their own show competition at the event. It marks a departure for the Kennel Club, which has been criticised for pushing selective breeding practices blamed for a range of health defects. The RSPCA cut its ties with Crufts five years ago, accusing the show of encouraging the breeding of "deformed and disabled animals". The charity has cautiously welcomed a bigger role for cross-breeds at Crufts as a "move away from judging dogs on their appearance".
For Rascal's owner Anne Worthington, 41, from Dereham in Norfolk, the decision has been a long time coming. "It's a good idea because it will broaden the cross-section of dog society that is represented at Crufts," she said. "It's introducing a bit of equality between the cross-breeds and the pedigrees."
Becky's owner Margaret McKnight, 61, from Bangor, added: "It's important to have a showcase for the cross-breeds because it shows that even dogs that are mongrels of mongrels of mongrels, with no breeding at all, still make wonderful pets."
The Kennel Club has acknowledged that there are health problems associated with certain breeds and introduced changes to encourage healthy as well as show-ready animals. "We have identified those breeds where we felt there were some serious issues," said Caroline Kisko, secretary of the Kennel Club. "We started veterinary checks at Crufts last year and all of the winners in the high-profile breed sections had to pass veterinary checks."
More than 25,000 dogs will descend on the NEC in Birmingham to take part in this year's Crufts. Competitors from 41 countries will take part, with dogs from as far afield as India, Indonesia and Malaysia being represented for the first time.
Child's Best Friend
Barley a mountain dog/golden retriever cross owned by Annabelle Shemming, 14, from Ipswich, Suffolk. Annabelle's father, Andy, 48, said: "It will be the height of Barley's career."
Becky, a mixed breed owned by Margaret McKnight, 61, from Bangor, Northern Ireland. "It's amazing that a rescue dog should end up in a final at Crufts," Ms McKnight said.
Rascal, a 10-year-old Jack Russell/Norfolk terrier cross owned by Anne Worthington, 41, from Norfolk. Ms Worthington was pleased the Kennel Club was "concerned for the health of dogs as well as how good they look".
Most Handsome Cross-breed
Alfie, a Great Dane/Labrador retriever cross owned by Neil Stow, 36, a civil servant from Poole.