Amid sun lamps, hair dryers and hot wax, 22,000 pampered beauties contemplate the end of an era

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Beside the "gun-dog binoculars" stall, a tiny Yorkshire terrier, its head festooned in paper curlers, is carried in triumph by a huge truck driver in a lumberjack shirt.

Beside the "gun-dog binoculars" stall, a tiny Yorkshire terrier, its head festooned in paper curlers, is carried in triumph by a huge truck driver in a lumberjack shirt.

The dog, like all miniature dogs at Cruft's, looks faintly indignant and holds up its bonsai paws with a gesture of 18th-century - La, my lord - protest. To no avail. Soon, it will suffer the shame of being led around a green carpet by its alarming owner, examined by a headmistressy dame the dead spit of Susan Kramer, the Liberal Democrat candidate for London mayor, (but then all dog judges resemble Susan Kramer) and forced to trit-trot about in a way that is expressive of perky intelligence. It must put up with being combed, preened, de-ruffled, de-matted, styled, glossed, having its ears prodded with Q-tips and its bottom rudely wiped.

Whatever you could want to do to a dog, short of actually mate with it, you can buy the materials at one of the 15,000 stalls here. Grenade-shaped rubber bones, leatherette dog passports, mugs, rosettes, jewellery, and horrible leads that make dogs lift their chins up more. Seeing me pause beside a hair dryer for dogs (a bargain at just £360), a lady shouted "Rubbish, that is. Rubbish. You need one with a proper setting control," and indicated the £390.80 Tornado model. Thanksfor the tip.

It's the passing apparitions that stop you in your tracks. The puffball explosions of Dutch keeshond barge-dogs, the I'm-not-here shagginess of the streaky-monochrome Tibetan terriers, the shambling Italian bergo mascara, a sort of Rastafarian bear whose thick dread-locks should never be washed. Or this little snuffly pug, peeing on the carpet when confronted by two giant akita fighting dogs, straining to get away from their bald and tattooed proprietor in his "Born To Raise Hell" sweatshirt.

This is Cruft's 2000, the annual outpouring of barking mad canophilia in five great halls across a quarter of a million square feet of Birmingham's National Exhibition Centre (NEC). In four days (it runs to Sunday), 15,000 exhibitors will explain to 120,000 visitors why their exquisite mutt is the acme of well-bred doggiosity. No fewer than 22,000 animals from 170 breeds will cross the NEC's flooring, or run around display rings or sit in alarmingly small cages, howling for home.

This is a key year for Cruft's because, for the last time in its 110-year history , it will feature only British-bred dogs. From next year, because of the relaxing of the quarantine laws, dogs bred overseas will be allowed to enter.

Most breeders are relaxed about the coming invasion. "They'll still have to qualify for Cruft's at British standards," said a lady at the Irish wolfhound stand. "They've got their own shows and kennel clubs, and I'm sure they'll be responsible about, you know, disease," said another, as though speaking about immigrants heading for a grammar school. Indeed. At Cruft's, as we know it, two subjects quite unrelated to the pet passport business are being chewed over by everyone.

One is the scandal of the Chinese crested hairless, a skinny, purplish-grey toy dog like a sexy rat, with tiny pom-poms on its ankles and peek-a-boo platinum blond hair falling over its vast Kylie Minogue eyes. Nasty rumours suggest some owners have improved their pets' bilious skin colour under an sun-lamp; and that others have ensured the smoothness of their dogs' coats by employing hot-wax treatment. No one will admit to such a thing, but everyone knows someone who does it. The other subject is the docking of dogs' tails. Breeders say it doesn't hurt, it's necessary to stop dogs getting caught in brambles, and it should be decriminalised for non-vets.

At the Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals stall, Chris Laurence, the Chief Veterinary Officer, didn't agree. He said it was mutilation, done for cosmetic reasons, "and you can't ask the dog if it minds suffering the pain and discomfort." It will keep the warring factions busy for months in that terribly British way.

When not bitching about each other, the owners and breeders are terribly friendly. They talk with passion about their astonishing pets and say "I think he's got wonderful conformation," meaning a dog has "conformed" well to the breed-type "standard".

It's a conservative business, dog-showing. There's no room for the avant garde and the maverick. The nearest you get is Sharon Goldby who breeds American cocker spaniels. Her pride and joy is a gorgeous, mahogany-coloured beast called "Soldor Inspector Morse" (though he answers in huge lolloping bounds to the name of "Cherokee"), the possessor of unfeasibly long ears and a sensationally complex coat as though he were wearing a dozen flouncy petticoats around his paws. "That colour," she says proudly, "is simply not allowed in Iceland."

Sharon has docked Cherokee's tail so as not to spoil the animal's "top line" - an aesthetic nicety which she explains as if it were a law of nature. She is concerned that next year's influx of foreign breeders will bring with it a lot of new rules, and then laws, about what you can do to your dog's rear end. "It'll be horrendous," she says with feeling.

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