Dog day afternoon: Inside the world of Crufts

They're pampered, well-groomed and looking their loveliest. As 24,000 canine competitors descend on Birmingham for Crufts, Deborah Ross meets the hounds - and their owners - hoping for a brush with fame
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The Independent Online

I am going to Crufts for the first time and I am looking forward to it as I love dogs, grew up with dogs, would like to get a dog. The thing I love best about dogs is that whenever they look at you, that look seems to say: "God, you are so right about everything, so spot-on, and just so perfect and cool to boot." This is something that, peculiarly, people rarely get about me. This is why I figure I know enough people but really need to get a dog.

So it's the train from London to Birmingham where, on arrival at the station, I guess that if I follow the two ladies in the anoraks with the fluffy poodles appliquéd onto the backs and the matching appliquéd handbags - hey, less isn't always more - I will get to the National Exhibition Centre, as I do.

Now, I know that Crufts is the biggest dog show in the world - 24,000 dogs, 200 breeds and 120,000 visitors over the four days - but still. The scale is terrifying. It's like four Gatwicks and 17 Heathrows absolutely packed with dogs, doggy people ("I went out showing last weekend even though it was minus nine and the caravan got stuck in the snow") and doggy stuff. So much doggy stuff. I had no idea. It's stand after stand after stand selling doggy stuff; bespoke charm collars; diamanté leads; waterproof booties; seaweed kelp supplements; bandanas; mats; rugs; greeting cards (for your dog's birthday); industrial-looking hair-dryers; calendars; your-dog's-portrait-painted-today!; a product called "Urine Off" with no explanation beyond "The Name Says It All!". Anyway, I find I've arrived in good time for the first demonstration of the day - "Dr David Frape undertaking a Gillian McKeith-style You Are What You Eat dog poop analysis" - but, bizarrely, appear to miss it all the same.

This is the first day and the first day is working and pastoral dogs. I'm thinking a working dog might be good, as every little helps, even if it's part-time office cleaning or just a Saturday job in Boots. I wander among the show dogs and their "benches", many of which have been taped with "Good Luck" and "You Can Do It!" cards. Of course, there are no Luckys or Blackies or Rovers. They all have spectacularly wonderful names: Arbrodin Knight of Legacy; Snowshe Ferrari Spirit; Refflesea Starry Romance.

I decide that I need a better name for myself today; that mine just isn't going to cut it. Maybe I could be Windhaugh Just Humble. That has a classy ring to it. I decide on that, only to discover later that some Newfoundland has snaffled it up already! Talk about bad luck. On top of missing the poop analysis and everything.

I walk among the benches, skipping over the mini-rivers of piss while experiencing a sudden yet overwhelming yearning for Urine Off! I have already decided that I do not want a German Shepherd, Rottweiler or Doberman, for no good reason other than the fact that they take babies from prams and then eat them. Labradors are nice, even-tempered and reliable, but perhaps too Vauxhall Corsa-ish.

The Portuguese Water Dog is charming - like a black mop with feet - but I'm not sure I can forgive the Portuguese for being so nasty to Jews in the 16th century. I'm sorry, but if you persecute a race you can't later expect them to look after your dog, even if it's only for the weekend years later. I take a look at the Bullmastiffs. A Bullmastiff looks like Oliver Reed, but with lots of slobber. (Maybe Oliver Reed had lots of slobber. What do I know?) Still, a shake of a head from a Bullmastiff and you're showered in drool. I do not think a Bullmastiff is for me, but stop to pat one all the same. "Nice dog," I say, as you do, and because what would I say otherwise? What do you see in these hefty, smelly drool-monsters? "I'm glad you think so," says the owner, "because the bloody judge didn't." Oh dear, not a good day? "We're out already. That bloody judge. A rule unto herself."

I'd imagined Crufts would be simple elimination system but it isn't. From 8am until 8pm, all the show rings are on the go and there is category after category after category: junior dog; open dog; puppy; working trial bitch, open bitch; veteran bitch. I don't think I could go home with a veteran bitch as I know what my partner will say. "Oh no, not another one." As I deliberately put my coloureds in with his whites last week when he really annoyed me, I'm guessing I'm in no position to argue. I watch the judges checking the dogs over for all those important little details, like a leg at each corner, before the owners - ladies of a certain age, mostly - jog them round the ring. If I return next year, and can't take out a stand selling Drool Off!, "The Name Says It All", I think I could make a killing on sports bras.

As a first-timer, I do think I need some guidance, so make for the press room, where the crème de la crème of dog journalists hang out. They work for all the major publications: Dog World; Dog Monthly; Our Dogs but not, alas, Dogmapolitan, with its features on the top three positions of the month - doggy, doggy and doggy - as well as useful advice on what to do if your boyfriend will sniff other ladies' bottoms even though you are about to be married (Girls, you must keep him on a tight leash!).

I introduce myself. "Hello," I say, "Windyhaugh Just Humble from The Independent, although you can all call me Windy." "Hello there ... Windy?" says an elderly gentleman who looks like Jimmy Edwards via John Harvey-Jones and wears a floppy cravat. "Robert Killick, world- famous columnist from Our Dogs." Robert, 79, is a former actor - "but never a homo!" - who used to breed and show Welsh Terriers. He's been Our Dogs' "world-famous columnist" for 22 years now.

I ask what a juicy story for Our Dogs might be. He says: "Once, in a Bull Terrier ring, a judge - who is a well-known homo! - was bitten on the testicles and had to be hospitalised. Ha!" I ask if I might follow him around for a bit. "Certainly," he says. He is very theatrical - but not a homo! - and calls me "my little enchantment". He says: "Come along now, my little enchantment." I wish he'd just stick to "Windy" but there you have it.

We go and meet some Samoyeds, which are dogs like fluffy clouds with pointy faces. I tell him that I've been disappointed at the general lack of preposterous coiffeuring. I've seen one Old English Sheepdog with a top-knot but that's about it. He says it's not like America "where they go the whole hog on the hairdressing thing". He says that the Kennel Club in Britain is now very strict about the use of "product" and if an owner is caught using hairspray, say, "then they will be severely disciplined, fined, possibly banned".

I ask Robert if he finds any breeds particularly repellent. He says: "I find the Mexican hairless repugnant but, funnily enough, I don't mind the Chinese one." Any tips for best in show? "Last year the BBC asked me for my top ten and not one came anywhere. It's a very topsy-turvy kind of competition." He has to go now, has to meet his fans at the Our Dogs stand. It's obviously an extremely demanding business, being a world-famous Our Dogs columnist of 22 years standing.

I go and see yet more dogs. I go and see the Bouviers des Flanders. According to my show guide, these are being judged today by "Mrs Z Thorn-Andrews, Kennel Club Challenge Certificate - Bitch". If I were Mrs Z Thorn-Andrews, I would tell them there is no need to get personal. Bouviers are smashing dogs: like big, gentle bears. Mrs Eleanor Oliver is showing four today. One has already come top of his class, "so I'm walking on air". And where did this breed originate, I ask. "Um ... Flanders?" she replies. I think she might have grasped the fact I don't know a lot about dogs. I ask her why she shows her dogs. I say I can understand why anyone might want a dog, but to show it? That puzzles me. She says what all the owners say, which can be generalised as follows: it's a great day out; it's something the whole family can do together: you make a lot of friends; I want to show I can breed a dog to standard; my dog loves it; I wouldn't do it if he didn't, he'd drive here himself if he could; that kind of thing.

I don't know. If I were a dog and was given the choice between lolling about and sniffing bottoms at home or being driven miles across country, possibly even continents, to be poked and prodded and stared at, I think I'd know what I'd pick. But maybe these people aren't so different from, say, the parent who shouts at their kid from the touchline at football. Or the athlete who devotes a large part of his or her life to being able to run faster or jump higher than anyone else.

Perhaps it's just about the human desire to be "best" at something, and if that means being the best at having the best dog and schlepping all over the place and laying in Urine Off! by the barrel, then that is as good as anything. Alas, Mrs Oliver does not, when it comes to it, win best of breed. That goes to a dog from Holland. I hear much muttering of 'foreigners!" as the other Bouvier owners pack up.

So that's it, really. Apart from one thing; the brilliant "Discover Dogs" section of the show. It's worth the trip in itself. It's where all the breeds are on display simply so the public can meet them. It's like walking through that Observer Book Of Dogs you had as a kid, and it's where I find my dog. It's a Norfolk Terrier. So titchy and cute! I hold one. Her name is Sweetpea and she is gorgeous and I love her even though she does the most astonishing fart, quite out of proportion to her size, while still in my arms. "I tell you what," I say, "I'll go back to being me and you can be Windy. Deal?" I think it is a deal. I can tell by the look in her eyes which says: "You are always right about everything, so why would I even think to argue?" This is why I want a dog.