Paws for thought: dog days are here again

Dancing collies, flashy foreign interlopers and canine capers of all kinds: where would Crufts, which opens on Thursday, be without them? Way down the TV ratings, argues the Kennel Club, which could be why critics are being called to heel...
Click to follow
The Independent Online

If you are barking, you will probably be spending the coming weekend in Birmingham. From Thursday to Sunday, the National Exhibition Centre in England's second city will be the scene of what is acknowledged to be the greatest dog show on earth.

Crufts. That name used to conjure up pictures of perfectly groomed, perfectly behaved poodles padding along the catwalk at the heels of their perfectly turned out owners. It was a sport for devotees, requiring skill and immense patience – but, to be frank, not the greatest of spectator sports.

That was in the old days. This year, the images you will see of Crufts on TV, if you are not there in person, will be mutts doing doggie dances, weaving around their owner's legs, or jumping up and down on their back paws, in time with the music. Or they might be racing back and forth retrieving tennis balls. This is great entertainment, apparently, but it is really Crufts?

Some people think not. You will not hear them say it loudly this weekend, because this is the world's favourite dog show and no one wants to be a party pooper, but some people think that "Heelwork to Music", "flyball", and other novelties amount to an invasion of US style razzamatazz into an event that used to be so thoroughly British.

Paul Keevil, who runs an art gallery in Lingfield, Surrey, which specialises in pictures of British pedigree dogs, spoke out last week to a Sunday newspaper, and now rather wishes that he had kept his mouth shut.

He said then that since quarantine laws were relaxed in 2001, there had been a "huge influx" of dogs from overseas. "It has led to quite a dramatic change in the presentation of some of the dogs at Crufts," he added. "Some now reflect that kind of North American glamour that you see in Hollywood starlets, who are all teeth and hair. The British still tend to present their dogs in a more traditional way. With all these flashy and flamboyant overseas breeds coming in, the good old-fashioned stock are not doing well."

There will indeed be 1,165 dogs from overseas competing in Birmingham for the most coveted title in the canine world, Best in Show. That is out of a total of 22,964, which is not quite the greatest number ever (in 1991 there were 22,991) but it is close. Four out of the past seven winners of Crufts have been foreign.

In January, the Kennel Club released a list of 20 British breeds of dog they say are in danger of becoming extinct, including the web-footed otterhound, of which just 41 puppies were registered in 2007, and the Glen of Imaal terrier, of which there were only 36 puppies. Part of the cause may be the growing popularity of foreign breeds. Only three rare British breeds have won Crufts since 1990.

The Kennel Club's warning provoked snorts of disagreement from some quarters, however, including Emma Milne, from the TV show Vets In Practice, and Sean O'Meara, managing editor of the online magazine K9, who suggested the Kennel Club should worry less about numbers and more about dogs' health.

Meanwhile there is no dispute about the growing popularity of the "Heelwork to Music" and "Freestyle"' competitions that have become part of the Crufts tradition, even if they are not doing anything for British rare breeds.

The Kennel Club acknowledges that these are Britain's fastest growing canine sports. Last year these events were moved from the Special Events arena into the main ring, to make room for 6,000 spectators. Last year's show attracted over 153,000 human visitors. No doubt there will be a similar number this weekend.

Anyone who has a taste for kitsch should log on to the YouTube recording of last year's winner, Lesley Neville, and her bearded collie, Choxxstart Dream Angus, strutting their stuff for four minutes to the sound of "The Farmer and the Cowman" from the musical, Oklahoma. She is dressed as a cowboy, and begins the routine with a lariat. The dog seems to be continually jumping up to ask for a biscuit, but actually it is following a complex routine that it has learnt to perfection. Having won the national freestyle championship, dog and owner went on the next day to win the international competition, against opponents from the Channel Islands, Sweden, New Zealand, and seven other countries.

But that is not by any means the top item of its kind on YouTube. The recording of the runner-up, Tina Humphrey and her collie Bluecroft My Blue Heaven, is proving to be more than ten times as popular, having chalked up nearly a quarter of a million hits. You can hear the audience in the arena going "Aah!" as the collie goes up on its hind legs so that the animal and the human can execute a circle, back to back.

The first appearance of this sport in Britain, and possibly in the world, was in Bedford in 1990, when a dog trainer named Mary Ray was persuaded by a fellow professional, John Gilbert, to give an evening seminar, which included two routines with different dogs, each set to music, each lasting three minutes and 54 seconds, in front of an audience of about 100 people.

It went down so well that in 1992, Mary Ray gave the first "Heelwork to Music" demonstration at Crufts. More exhibitions followed. Meanwhile, the idea had caught on in Canada, where the first freestyle competition was staged in Vancouver the same year.

Mary Ray and others took part in the first British competition, in Coventry, in 1996. "We made sure that the heelwork did actually fit the music and started to choreograph the routine. The public and doggy people alike gave us warm praise and even then people often had tears in their eyes, including several men," she recalls on her website. The organisers then applied to the Kennel Club to put on a "special event" at Crufts, and got a distinctly sniffy reaction. The Kennel Club could not, they said, give permission for an event that contained a sport it did not recognise. But they did agree to reconsider "if the sport became more popular".

It did, indeed, become more popular. By 1999, there was a special club, called "Paw-n-Music" dedicated to the new sport. In 2002, the Kennel Club formally recognised it.

Even Mary Ray worries that the emphasis which the sport puts on a dog's agility might overshadow the more traditional skill of teaching a dog to obey. "When it comes to television coverage, agility is far more spectacular and, taking Crufts Dog Show as an example, the BBC put more and more agility events on. It has to be said, this is at the direct expense of obedience – because whether we like it or not, obedience is not really a spectator sport but an enthusiast's sport.

"Have a look around a show and just note how many of the handlers that you see have been in obedience for years. And there just aren't the people there to replace them when they retire or just give up, not unless something is done."

She also points out that a lot of what is on display in Crufts is not strictly heelwork, as the dogs leave their owner's heel to dance about on their back legs or do other acrobatics.

Alternative names for it, which she does not like, are "Doggy Dancing" or the slightly less twee "Canine Dancing". "This is one terminology guaranteed to alienate everybody," she said. "It certainly will not promote Heelwork to Music as a sport and there are too many connotations of circus acts for it to be taken seriously."

Some people do, in fact, think it is not much more than a circus act – which brings us back to Paul Keevil, still biting his lip after speaking out of turn just over a week ago. At the time he spoke, he was a member of the British and Irish Dog Breeds Preservation Trust. Now, if you log into the trust website, the first thing you see is a notice pronouncing that "Mr Paul Keevil is no longer press officer of the British and Irish Dog Breeds Preservation Trust and is in fact no longer connected to the Trust at all."

Trust secretary Sue Breeze, confirmed that this was retribution for Mr Keevil for dragging the organisation into a controversy over an increasing popular sport and affecting relations with the all-powerful Kennel Club, the masters of Crufts. "We have absolutely no objection to heelwork. In fact, it just shows what you can do with your dog," she said.

A contrite Mr Keevil confirmed: "They decided it was possibly best if we parted company. It's a great shame, but I fully understand why they did it. Perhaps I said more than I should have done.

"I love Crufts. I have been to every show for 30 years, and I'm looking forward to another 30 years. In a show that lasts over five days, you have to have variety and cater for a huge variety of people, and heelwork gets a great cheer from the audience.

"But it just doesn't press my button. It's a Hollywood style of presentation. If you look at how they do the Oscar awards and then look at the British girls at the Bafta ceremony, they are more demure.

"But I'm not calling for these events to be banned. When I spoke to the Telegraph I was a little bit off-guard. I am in deep shit at the moment, so I have to stop digging. If you're writing anything, please be gentle with me."