Canine crusaders: Meet the dog-handlers dedicated to saving the best of British breeds

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This evening, Crufts crowns its Best in Show at an event now dominated by fancy foreign breeds. Meanwhile, all that stands between our endangered native dogs and extinction is this proud band of costumed canine eccentrics...

Today, in the main arena at Crufts, 21 dogs will take a musical lap of the ring to "Land of Hope and Glory". They will be accompanied by handlers dressed as British historical characters associated with the breeds: "The Duke of Newcastle" with a clumber spaniel; "Beatrix Potter" with a Lakeland terrier; and "Bill Sikes" from Oliver Twist ("historical" is interpreted loosely here) with his miniature bull terrier, Bullseye. Some dogs will lope, some bound, and some – for there is marked discrepancy in the leg-lengths of the breeds – will run at turbo-trot. At least one owner will wave a little Union Jack. The whole bonkers parade would be a masterwork of patriotic kitsch were it not for the fact that there is a serious point: these dogs are running for their lives.

Last year there were 45,000 Labrador puppies born and registered with The Kennel Club. By contrast, the Glen of Imaal terrier (escorted here by, oh goodness, a lady dressed as a leprechaun) registered only 36. If a native breed consistently registers fewer than 300 puppies every year, The Kennel Club assigns it "vulnerable" status, recognising that its pure-bred gene pool is worryingly small, which may in turn lead to future inbreeding and litter depression. (No, they don't need pet psychotherapy, you hopeless urbanite! "Litter depression" means three or four pups instead of 12.) The noble otter hound has a worldwide community of less than 1,000 and is therefore, according to the British & Irish Dog Breeds Preservation Trust, "twice as rare as the giant panda". The harsh truth is that these dogs are losing popularity. Genetically, they are living on the edge.

But look at them! The teeth, the hair, the dignity! The insouciant flip-flop of the back paws! To see them is to love them, or so their owners believe, which is why they have organised this historical pageant. They reason that if ' people knew about these British breeds, they would choose them over the influx of foreign exotica: Affenpinschers, Weimaraners, lhasa apsos and the like. Ever since the pet passport scheme was introduced and quarantine laws were overhauled in 2001, these travellers from distant lands have become increasingly popular here, putting native breeds in the shade. Lindsay Lohan modelling her Maltese andMischa Barton showing off her Pomeranian haven't helped. Those fashionable fluffballs make our sturdier British breeds look, well, square. The clumber spaniel is a fine dog, but he is never going to get into Bungalow 8 in a handbag.

To many native breeders, chihuahuas are the enemy. (And don't even mention that modish crossbreed, the Labradoodle.) But have you noticed what is happening? This is starting to sound like sublimated nationalist rhetoric: these foreign hounds, they come over here and take our bones... There is sometimes a dash of xenophobia discernible in ' the way native dogs are discussed. "The Great British Dandie Dinmont terrier related to the Dachshund? Harrumph."

However, consciously at least, the owners I spoke to are simply concerned with the preservation of their breeds; many have a small export market, so if they decline here, they risk total extinction. To add insult to injury, Crufts is becoming increasingly international. Of the 23,000 dogs competing this year, 1,165 are foreign-owned; four years ago it was just 370. And show dogs from abroad are beginning to clinch the top prizes. A Norwegian-owned poodle took the Best in Show title overseas for the first time in 2002, and the majority of winners since have been foreign. All this has led to accusations that The Kennel Club, which runs Crufts, is neglecting native breeds. Not so, say its representatives, citing today's parade as proof the issue is a priority.

"We're trying to raise these dogs' profiles, with events at Crufts and Discover Dogs," says Jeff Sampson, The Kennel ' Club's genetics consultant. "And there's a lot of ongoing research into why they are less popular than other breeds."

Why indeed? "I cannot understand it," says Peter Eva, of his beloved Manchester terriers. "Logic dictates every home should have at least one." The breed is favoured in every way: "It has a single coat for ease of maintenance, amazing teeth, the agility and speed of a first-class athlete..." And last but not least: "Owners agree that the digestive system is like a stainless-steel tube that makes it fuss-free."

But breeds have always come in and out of fashion. "Before the Second World War, the Wire Fox terrier was all the rage," says Simon Parsons, of Dog World newspaper. "Then we had the peak of poodle popularity, the Afghan boom in the swinging 1960s and 1970s and the worrying proliferation of 'macho' breeds, which seemed to go with the national mood of the 1980s." And all booms bust. '

Some of the dogs in this pageant had their heyday a long time ago: otter hounds were very thick with Henry VIII. To keep these breeds alive, says Sampson, we need to "broaden the parental base". This can mean parachuting in help from abroad: some dogs in this parade were sired by expats (native breeds resident abroad for several generations), and Sampson also advises that domestic owners of vulnerable breeds should consider mating their dogs once or twice a lifetime, rather than having them customarily spayed.

So here they are, 10 dogs from six of the rarest British breeds. The studio session was just like a Vanity Fair photo-shoot, with slightly more slobber – though the dogs treated one another remarkably amicably; 10 starlets would have done much more growling. The only time a yowl was heard was when the master of the otter hounds went to get changed, and his two hounds made a little bereft exclamation. Let us hope it is not we who, ultimately, are left bereft of them.

The Master of the Pembroke & Carmarthen Hunt with his otter hounds

Otter hound puppies registered this year: 41

Characteristics: Happy in water or galloping on land

No need for fancy dress here: Richard Griffiths is wearing his own costume, the traditional get-up of the Master of the Pembroke and Carmarthen Otterhounds – the last remaining hunt of its kind in the world.

He is pictured with Gandalf (white and black) and Figaro (black and tan), representatives of his 48-strong pack. Do they all sleep in his bed? Griffiths makes a growly-yowly laugh. It's kennels and fresh air for these hounds. Large and lolloping ("more shire horse than racehorse") they have almost amphibian touches: black webbed paws and a slight waterproof oiliness to their coats. They are friendly: at Crufts they "just want to lick all the kiddies hello". And when their healthy pong is remarked on, Griffiths retorts that it's better than being a show dog and "smelling of violets".

An ancient breed, otter hounds hunted with King John, and kept otters from preying on village fish "stock" ponds. But by the 1970s, otters had been almost wiped out by insecticides. A recent explosion in the mink population, however, has given otter hounds a new reason for living: mink are ravenous for our water voles, and hunting them helps keep the ecosystem in balance. Griffiths now leads his pack after mink with a hue and cry. It is the same as when he was a young "whipper-in" – "hunting the traditional way and in full compliance with the law!" Still, the breed is in peril, with about 1,000 dogs left worldwide. "Quite a responsibility, isn't it," says Griffiths. "Friends tell me I can retire knowing I've done my bit!"

The Duke of Newcastle with his clumber spaniels

Clumber puppies registered this year: 223

Characteristics: Silent, slobbering, great-hearted

Whom, thought Chris Page, shall I dress as in order to celebrate the pedigree of my favourite dog? (A question not enough of us ask ourselves, to be sure.)

Then Page came across a reproduction of a 1788 oil painting of Henry, the second Duke of Newcastle, the founder of the breed, out hunting with his hounds, and an idea took hold. Page commissioned a costumier to make the outfit especially for him, and the rest is all before us. Scores more historical pageants surely beckon. Here's hoping Page has kept all his bank holidays free.

Chris and his wife Carol's dog, Spice, is "a soft little girl, loving and attentive". Clumbers have many devotees, but they are not, admits Carol, "a breed for everyone. Not with the hair and the slobber". Their generous dewlaps are considered a mark of beauty but ropes of drool do tend to hang from them... "On a nice hot day, they'll shake them off all over you," laughs Carol. "And they shed their coats constantly. You buy a good vacuum cleaner and you learn to live with it."

With nine clumbers at home, Carol has clearly done a lot of living and learning. "They're intelligent, but they play at being thick – 'I can hear you calling, but I'll respond in my own time...' That sort of thing." Out and about, they are known as bulldozers because they will go through anything – bush or bramble. They also have a fatal attraction to mud. "You leave home with a white dog and come back with a black one." Not a dog, one imagines, Paris Hilton will ever acquire.

An Edwardian sporting lady with her Sussex spaniel

Sussex puppies registered this year: 61

Characteristics: Unique "golden liver" colour.

Sussex spaniels were popular gun dogs in Edwardian times, so Ann Moon appears here in a costume inspired by Dorothy Tutin's in the film The Shooting Party. She is accompanied by Storm, a two-year-old Sussex spaniel and "complete angel".

Storm is a show dog in summer (he took a First at Crufts last year) and a working dog in winter, when he and his mistress go beating for pheasants. "Sometimes when it's cold and wet I don't feel I want to take him out beating," says Moon. "But I do because he likes it so much." Greater love hath no woman... "They're meant to work," she adds – "that's why they're so muscular." Hear that? The Sussex isn't porky. Just well built and misunderstood.

At this photoshoot, Storm was posing like a pro: the breed is known for wrinkling its lips and flashing its teeth – the "Sussex smile". Storm does it after a good meal, or sometimes just when looking at his mistress. Sussex spaniels are also unique among dogs for their "golden-liver" colour and their quirky rolling gait. "The phrase 'drunken sailor' comes to mind," says Moon. "They've never been numerically strong," she adds. "But they're a part of our heritage, aren't they?"

Moon loves keeping traditions alive: she rides side-saddle around the countryside. "It would be sad if the breed were no longer around," she says. "Unfortunately, Storm just lost his first litter but we very much hope he'll sire a couple more."

Mr Dandie Dinmont with Dandie Dinmont terriers

Dandie puppies registered this year: 78

Characteristics: Deep hazel eyes with a "melting" expression

John Charlton has been growing sideburns for several months now. Day by day, in a tufty way, he has begun to look more and more like his dear Dandies – and the fictional character who introduced them to the world, Mr Dandie Dinmont of Sir Walter Scott's 1815 novel Guy Mannering.

John has Dandies of his own but they are getting on a bit, and he is pictured here with those of another breeder, Lynda Bromley. She drove Megan, Bryony (a former Crufts champion) and Bella down to the shoot from Herefordshire, strapped into their doggy seatbelts.

"Once you've had a Dandie you don't look back," says Bromley, who fell in love with the breed in 1987. "They are well-behaved and courteous – the gentleman of the terrier world. They can be active – Megan goes after hedgehogs, trying to toss them up in the air to get at their soft undersides – but they're also couch potatoes. My three love to lie in front of the log-burner in what I call a Dandie sandwich."

For a small breed, they have a deep bark, prominent forehead and thoughtful expression, almost as if they were an important person – Andrew Motion, perhaps – decanted into the body of a diminutive dog and wondering what to do about it. A more poetic description comes from Sir Walter Scott: "He evolved from the Scottish hillside, mists forming his body, a bunch of lichen his topknot, crooked juniper stems his forelegs, and a wet bramble his nose." That's the kind of PR Dandies need today...

PC John Grey with his Skye terrier

Skye puppies registered this year: 37

Characteristics: Elegant, seemingly effortless gait

Lettie the Skye terrier is pictured as Greyfriars Bobby, the Victorian paragon of loyalty. Her owner, John Breeze, is dressed as Police Constable John Grey, whose grave Bobby guarded for 14 years.

"Skye terriers are so loyal – they truly would die for you," says Breeze. Seldom do pets get that opportunity – though John's wife Sue does remember the night when Lettie's grandfather "saw off a prowler" outside their home.

Skyes have curtained eyes and lovely shaggy ears: sort of Care Bear meets Norman Lamont. They move glidingly, as if on casters. Sue Breeze tries to find words for it. "They're just so... glamorous," she says.

The Breezes have bred Skyes since 1979, and Lettie's sire is currently Dog World newspaper's Skye Terrier of the Year, no less. The Breezes' pride in this title is not diminished by the fact that competition was limited: Skyes are the second-most endangered British breed. When Hollywood recently remade the story of Greyfriars Bobby, the star was – oh, perfidy – a Westie. "We at the Skye Terrier Club were very annoyed," says Sue. "The film company gave various excuses which didn't hold up. They said a white dog would show better on camera – but Skye Terriers come in cream as well."

Sue intends to redress the damage with a 150-year anniversary Skye parade around Edinburgh. Greyfriars Bobby's loyalty was unwavering, and Sue is starting to resemble him, behaviour-wise at least: "This breed will be safe in my lifetime," she says. "I will make sure of that. It would be so sad if you only saw them in picture books."

Queen Victoria's ratcatcher with his Manchester terrier

Manchester terrier puppies registered this year: 113

Characteristics: Keen, alert, gay and sporting

This is Ralph Gordon in the costume of Jack Black, Queen Victoria's official ratcatcher. His Manchester terrier, Inka, represents Billy, Jack Black's trusty ratter. In fact, Inka may well be a descendant of Billy, since according to the 19th-century social historian Henry Mayhew, he was a great "stock dog" and fathered most of the black-and-tan terriers in town.

Billy was also, if posters from the time are to be believed, "the Phenomenon of the Canine Race, and Superior Vermin-Killer of his Day, having killed nearly 4,000 rats in about Seven hours". But, thankfully, the days when betting on terriers in rat pits was a popular pub sport are gone, and Inka competes in agility competitions instead.

Inka's co-owner Chris Garrett reports that she loves the tunnel and weave poles best; they train three times a week and compete at weekends. "I'm a bit of a nut for it really – ever since I had to give up hockey because of an injury this has become my sport instead," she says.

And do Inka's ratting instincts ever come out? "Once, when visiting a stables, she got hold of one. Five of us were chasing her, trying to stop her eating it in case it was poisoned. But no way was she letting go of that rat."

Inka, ruthless ratter, is affectionate at home. "She's my little sweetie!" says Garratt. "Always there for a cuddle." The popularity of the breed is strong, but litters are small and waiting lists long. Meantime, Jack Black's memory lives on: Rentokil annually awards its best worker his sash.

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