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

view gallery VIEW GALLERY

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.

News
people'It can last and it's terrifying'
News
people Emma Watson addresses celebrity nude photo leak
Arts and Entertainment
tv
News
Katie Hopkins appearing on 'This Morning' after she purposefully put on 4 stone.
peopleKatie Hopkins breaks down in tears over weight gain challenge
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
News
ebooksAn unforgettable anthology of contemporary reportage
Life and Style
fashionModel of the moment shoots for first time with catwalk veteran
Life and Style
fashionAngelina Jolie's wedding dressed revealed
Sport
Alexis Sanchez, Radamel Falcao, Diego Costa and Mario Balotelli
footballRadamel Falcao and Diego Costa head record £835m influx
News
i100
Arts and Entertainment
Madame Vastra and Jenny Flint kiss in Doctor Who episode 'Deep Breath'
tv
Arts and Entertainment
Olivia Colman topped the list of the 30 most influential females in broadcasting
tv
Life and Style
techIf those brochure kitchens look a little too perfect to be true, well, that’s probably because they are
Arts and Entertainment
Danish director Lars von Trier
tvEnglish-language series with 'huge' international cast set for 2016
Life and Style
tech
News
Kelly Brook
peopleA spokesperson said the support group was 'extremely disappointed'
Sport
Andy Murray celebrates a shot while playing Jo-Wilfried Tsonga
TennisWin sets up blockbuster US Open quarter-final against Djokovic
Arts and Entertainment
Hare’s a riddle: Kit Williams with the treasure linked to Masquerade
booksRiddling trilogy could net you $3m
Arts and Entertainment
Alex Kapranos of Franz Ferdinand performs live
music Pro-independence show to take place four days before vote
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

HR Generalist (standalone) - Tunbridge Wells - £32,000

£30000 - £32000 per annum: Ashdown Group: HR Generalist (standalone) - Tunbrid...

Year 3 Teacher Plymouth

£23500 - £40000 per annum: Randstad Education Plymouth: Year 3 Primary Teacher...

Junior Software Developer - Newcastle, Tyne & Wear - £30,000

£25000 - £30000 per annum + benefits: Ashdown Group: Junior Web Developer / J...

Systems Administrator (SharePoint) - Central London - £36,500

£35000 - £36500 per annum: Ashdown Group: Systems Administrator (SharePoint) -...

Day In a Page

'I’ll tell you what I would not serve - lamb and potatoes': US ambassador hits out at stodgy British food served at diplomatic dinners

'I’ll tell you what I would not serve - lamb and potatoes'

US ambassador hits out at stodgy British food
Radio Times female powerlist: A 'revolution' in TV gender roles

A 'revolution' in TV gender roles

Inside the Radio Times female powerlist
Endgame: James Frey's literary treasure hunt

James Frey's literary treasure hunt

Riddling trilogy could net you $3m
Fitbit: Because the tingle feels so good

Fitbit: Because the tingle feels so good

What David Sedaris learnt about the world from his fitness tracker
Saudis risk new Muslim division with proposal to move Mohamed’s tomb

Saudis risk new Muslim division with proposal to move Mohamed’s tomb

Second-holiest site in Islam attracts millions of pilgrims each year
Alexander Fury: The designer names to look for at fashion week this season

The big names to look for this fashion week

This week, designers begin to show their spring 2015 collections in New York
Will Self: 'I like Orwell's writing as much as the next talented mediocrity'

'I like Orwell's writing as much as the next talented mediocrity'

Will Self takes aim at Orwell's rules for writing plain English
Meet Afghanistan's middle-class paint-ballers

Meet Afghanistan's middle-class paint-ballers

Toy guns proving a popular diversion in a country flooded with the real thing
Al Pacino wows Venice

Al Pacino wows Venice

Ham among the brilliance as actor premieres two films at festival
Neil Lawson Baker interview: ‘I’ve gained so much from art. It’s only right to give something back’.

Neil Lawson Baker interview

‘I’ve gained so much from art. It’s only right to give something back’.
The other Mugabe who is lining up for the Zimbabwean presidency

The other Mugabe who is lining up for the Zimbabwean presidency

Wife of President Robert Mugabe appears to have her sights set on succeeding her husband
The model of a gadget launch: Cultivate an atmosphere of mystery and excitement to sell stuff people didn't realise they needed

The model for a gadget launch

Cultivate an atmosphere of mystery and excitement to sell stuff people didn't realise they needed
Alice Roberts: She's done pretty well, for a boffin without a beard

She's done pretty well, for a boffin without a beard

Alice Roberts talks about her new book on evolution - and why her early TV work drew flak from (mostly male) colleagues
Get well soon, Joan Rivers - an inspiration, whether she likes it or not

Get well soon, Joan Rivers

She is awful. But she's also wonderful, not in spite of but because of the fact she's forever saying appalling things, argues Ellen E Jones
Doctor Who Into the Dalek review: A classic sci-fi adventure with all the spectacle of a blockbuster

A fresh take on an old foe

Doctor Who Into the Dalek more than compensated for last week's nonsensical offering