Britain's pets: The best of times, the worst of times

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A Slice of Britain: In 1862, Charles Dickens penned 'Two Dog Shows' to satirise British attitudes to pets – and this is still a land of pampered pooches and abandoned mutts

Milo stands patiently as the final few tweaks are made to his already perfectly groomed beard. The four-year-old shih-tzu has been up since three o'clock this morning. He was bathed, brushed and blow-dried before the hair on the top of his head was put into curlers. Hair tongs are then used to achieve the desired height for his bouffant fringe.

"Do you use hair spray?" I ask his proud owner, Janet Watts from Weston-super-Mare. "Oh no, just the curlers and tongs, that's all you need," she says, indignantly. Welcome to the world of pampered pooches. It can mean only one thing: Crufts.

A million miles away from the dog show in Birmingham, down the M6 in south London, Trevor is nursing a cough and a snotty nose. He's about the same age as Milo but this wiry-haired Jack Russell was one of several hundred strays brought into Battersea Dogs & Cats Home last month. Despite his cough, the wee fella is up for rehoming, and staff think he'll be snapped up over the next few days. The pirate-like patch over his right eye means this little scruff would never make it through the doors at Crufts, but his sad eyes and sweet nature pull at your heart strings. Maybe my killer cat could get used to a dog, I find myself thinking.

In October it will be 150 years since Mary Tealby opened the Temporary Home for Lost and Starving Dogs to tackle the growing number of canine waifs and strays roaming the capital. For the first 11 years the home was less than a mile away from the annual dog show in Islington, north London, which was the precursor to Crufts. Dog lover Charles Dickens was so struck by the disparity between the dogs' lives that he wrote an article – "Two Dog Shows" – published in the August 1862 issue of All the Year Round – which he wrote, edited and published.

Dogs were generally maligned at that time, but Dickens's support for the strays' home helped to change public attitudes, and Battersea slowly became established as a national institution.

Crufts is no less an institution but it caters for a very different crowd. Not that the 150 volunteers and paid staff who run Battersea every day are any less dog-mad. Most have adopted at least one mutt or moggy which they were unable to resist. But they are definitely a bit less, er, barking.

Milo's up next in the show ring. He doesn't look particularly nervous, though the same couldn't be said about Janet. She travels the length and breadth of the country with an equally dog-obsessed friend to enter Milo, his sister and his dad into dog shows most weekends. It's their hobby; well, actually, it's more like their life.

In the main arena, second up for the freestyle doggy-dancing competition, is Shena the border collie, from Holland. The only way to describe this bizarre event is a canine version of Strictly Come Dancing with the dog most definitely playing the part of the professional dancer. Shena's owner is dressed like Harry Potter and their routine, I kid you not, is a re-enactment from a scene at Hogwarts. Shena twists, weaves and jumps in what is a very well-choreographed routine which the judges score highly to rapturous applause. If you're picturing John Sergeant in Strictly a couple of years back, you wouldn't be far off.

Back in the normal world, Melanie Young, one of 25 full-time veterinary nurses at Battersea, has had a busy day, but she cannot stop smiling. "I love it. I did my training here and I'll do this for ever. Caring for animals all day long, when they have no one else – it's the perfect job," she says. Within weeks of arriving at Battersea, Melanie had adopted a three-week-old puppy that someone had tried to drown in the Thames. Today she's been looking after Pollyanna, a Staffordshire bull terrier pup found alone last night, limping, a few miles from Battersea. She's got a broken front leg and was probably run over, but she's young, cute and will probably find a new home quite quickly.

Not like Sidney. He's a Staffie too, but he's going blind from cataracts and has been waiting for the right family for 18 months now. In the meantime, the animal welfare officers who feed, clean and care for all 400 dogs in the home love him as best they can. But this military operation would be impossible without the 300 volunteers who walk the dogs every day. Police officers, lawyers, soap actors and composers are among those who give up at least five hours a week to help. The longest-serving volunteer, Lawrence, has been coming in for 25 years; the oldest, Betty, is in her 80s, and she even comes in on Christmas Day.

As you walk around the kennels it is predominantly Staffies you see – and hear. These eager-to-please terriers have been undeservedly tarred with the same brush as the aggressive-looking young men who increasingly walk the streets with them in tow. But Staffies are not fighting dogs by nature and they have an uncanny ability to whine and whimper to get your attention, and make you stop and play.

"It's all about the dog, not the breed," explains Carlton Spears, who gave up a well-paid career in IT recruitment to work at Battersea. "Every dog up for sale here has been assessed and cleared, so it's just about matching them up with the right person, no matter how long it takes."

While the dogs at Crufts may be the top dogs who take home the praise and the prizes, Battersea graduates should take some pleasure from the fact that at least they'll never have to endure the heartache, or the ridicule, that goes with the limelight. With their shaved bottoms and blow-dried mullets, the poodles win the prize for the silliest looking dog by a canine mile. And spare a thought for the prized pooch whose owner was spotted passing him a doggy treat: mouth-to-mouth.

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