The dog-eat-dog world of Crufts

The world's biggest canine event opens on Thursday. And, from poison to plastic surgery, some owners will stop at nothing to win. Julia Stuart reports
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The Independent Online

For a single poison-pen letter, it certainly had a devastating effect. It sparked an international scandal and two resignations. It unleashed enough gossip to keep tongues wagging for years. And it also afforded the public a rare glimpse into the red-in-tooth-and-claw rivalry that goes on behind the scenes in the seemingly genteel world of dog shows.

Copies of the carefully typed anonymous missive were sent to the canine press both in Britain and America in January, accusing Joyce Mann, who was due to judge Best in Show at Crufts this week, of being a puppy farmer in the 1970s. At the time the letters were sent, her husband, Peter, was chairman of the Kennel Club, which runs the self-billed "Greatest Dog Show in the World".

The letter enclosed photocopies of Kennel Club records, which are publicly available, showing that in 1971 alone Mrs Mann bred 126 Yorkshire terrier puppies, or 23 litters. "Surely, not an attempt to produce a special little dog for the show ring!" the letter said. "Records again prove sales to traders not private homes. What an example of an element of the dog world being validated by the establishment body. Another blow to genuine dog people who may have to watch the fiasco unfold at Crufts, March 2004."

The couple, who were also said to have been subjected to abusive calls and hate mail at home, resigned two weeks later. In a statement, Mrs Mann admitted to having had "medical attention" because of the stress and announced that she was retiring from judging completely.

The Manns were not, however, pushed out by the Kennel Club, which was unconcerned by the revelations. While such commercial breeding of dogs is now illegal, it was not considered unethical at the time. "She didn't do anything wrong. Back in the Sixties it was very different," says spokeswoman Sara Ward. "Say it was last year, then it definitely would have concerned us. Unfortunately, some people didn't take that view and were just not very pleasant to them. We would have preferred them to stay." But clearly the couple felt they could not face a future of snipes, carping and whisperings in a world where jealousies are rife.

The question being asked in doggy circles is, who sent the letter and why? Beverley Cuddy, who received this malevolent missive as editor of the magazine Dogs Today, says: "The word on the street in the dog-show world is that there is a suspect list that could go on for pages. The pair have been extremely ambitious and very focused on getting to the top. To get there, they will have rubbed a few backs up the wrong way. Maybe over the years Joyce hadn't given their dog the prizes they would have liked and if she judges at Crufts that's a year when they can't win Best in Show. Some will spend the whole year cursing if they know the judge at Crufts isn't favourable towards them because it makes the year pointless."

Another theory is that the culprit may be someone who didn't take too kindly to punishment meted out by Mr Mann, who at one stage chaired the Kennel Club's disciplinary committee, which can impose bans on showing and judging.

But such anonymous tip-offs are nothing new in the dog equivalent of Miss World, now in its 101st year and the biggest event of its kind in the world. After last year's competition, an informant whispered to the Kennel Club and the dog press that the winner of Best in Show, a fluffy-haired, caramel-white coloured Pekinese called Danny, had had cosmetic surgery, which is banned under the contest's rules. It was, of course, nonsense. The dog, otherwise known as Yakee, a Dangerous Liaison, had had an exploratory operation because of persistent tonsillitis. Bert Easdon, the dog's co-owner, still bristles at the memory. "I don't want to discuss what happened to me last year," he says.

While it may not feel like it, Mr Easdon got off lightly. In canine circles, dastardly tales of dog-nobbling are legion. In 1992, for instance, the late Natalka Czartoryska claimed that Maral, her prize Anatolian shepherd bitch, had been fatally poisoned at Crufts. Rachel Ancell, who will be showing the breed at this year's event, says: "Since that time, Anatolians are never left unattended because of fears of their being tampered with." The following year, a champion Maremma bitch called Abby, who had starred in Pedigree Chum adverts, was said to have been drugged with beef spiked with Mogadon.

Even at the less prestigious regional competitions, things can turn nasty. Carol Brampton, a leading Chihuahua breeder, was banned from all Kennel Club events for five years in 1996 after knocking out Chizzy the Chihuahua with a Valium tablet at a show in Lytham St Annes, Lancashire. Mrs Brampton insisted at the disciplinary hearing that she was the victim of malicious rumours and that she had given the dog - full name Deltramer Secret Showburst - a herbal remedy for its travel sickness, with its owner's permission. "Rumours have gone around about me for years because some of my rivals can't believe I achieve what I achieve through skill and hard work," she said. "If people were not saying I was sleeping with the judges they were saying I was drugging my dogs."

And drugging is not the only form of attack. A Puli belonging to June Newman needed five days of treatment after acid was sprayed on his back at a Midlands show in 1993. In 2001, a champion Cruft's dog trainer was banned from shows for six months and ordered to pay £1,500 for kicking a rival's collie in the jaw. Maureen Edser booted Pixie "like a football" when it lunged and snapped at her own collie Malulana Miracle Magic, the Kennel Club hearing was told.

So why do people go to such lengths over what is often just a piece of cardboard and ribbon? Even those who win the most coveted prize - Best In Show at Crufts - will only walk away with £100, less than they will have spent on preparing for and getting to the event. Dr Deborah Wells, a lecturer in psychology at Queen's University, Belfast, who specialises in the human/animal bond, says: "It's the drive to win. And that's not specific to the dog world, it's specific to these types of people. This is just one route by which some people will be expressing their competitiveness. Winning will mean a huge amount. It's probably likely to be very reinforcing for them and result in escalated levels of self-esteem and self-fulfilment."

The psychologist Keith Evans says that for those with obsessive personalities, dog showing can become addictive. "Just like alcoholics or drug-takers, the desire to win can take over their lives. If one of the dogs doesn't win, or is too old to be bred from, a sufferer will not feel guilty about neglecting that dog or even killing it," he says.

Such obsession can sometimes spill over into violent confrontation. In 2000, James Milligan was banned from competitions for life after he was alleged to have screamed abuse at a judge, drunkenly squared up to her husband and had to be manhandled from the show ring by officials at a bull terrier competition in Leicester. With an unequalled five champions in 10 years, Mr Milligan's newest prospect, Majico Midnight Sun, was given "best pup" award, rather than the show's top prize. "I admit that I got overheated," he said. "I made an off-the-cuff remark about the judging, but I don't know where they get this about shouting and swearing. I had two vodkas, that was it. I never approached the judge or her husband. I walked from one end of the hall towards the exit and someone kneed me in the back."

But the winning urge can also be expressed in more subtle ways on show day. According to Ms Cuddy, some show-dog owners pretend to be gay in order to appeal to "judges of a certain persuasion". "Maybe, if it's a hot day, they will try and change into shorts at the side of the ring very flamboyantly and will affect a boyfriend for the show. On the surface it all looks quite middle-class and jolly, but passions run very high and people just lose the plot," she says. Some women abandon their bras.

Ms Cuddy also claims that there are "cheating cartels" in operation. Often, the judge of one competition will be showing in an event the following week. "You'll find a little cartel of four people who will all give each other the awards. It's almost impossible to prove because it's all down to personal opinion."

Cosmetic tricks are also rife. Illegal use of hairspray, for instance, or more radical measures. According to Cuddy, some terrier owners make their dogs undergo an operation carried out by lay people without the use of anaesthetic to sever a tendon in their tail so that it stands perfectly erect according to the breed standard, or have a crease put in their terrier's ear to make it go over at a certain angle. Some such animals will have been shown at Crufts, she says. "People look the other way and pretend it doesn't happen," asserts Ms Cuddy. "There is no testing being done and nobody has been prosecuted."

One Airedale breeder was famously caught out for having a false testicle inserted into his dog's scrotum. One of the requirements for a male dog being shown is that both its testicles have descended. Unfortunately for the owner, when the dog was being shown the other testicle made an appearance, resulting in one too many. The man was banned from showing and judging for 10 years.

The Kennel Club will be doing what it can to prevent any tampering with dogs at Crufts this year, which will be held at Birmingham's NEC and attended by competitors from 22 countries. A "fleet" of stewards will be patrolling the arenas and coat-testing will be carried out on request if there are suspicions of foul play. "Over the last 40 years, 12 million dogs have taken part in Kennel Club shows. Occasionally we are going to have the odd kind of scandal," says a spokeswoman. "In any world where there is a set of rules, they tend to get broken at times. At Crufts, we want everyone to be on a level playing field and we don't want anything that would be detrimental to the dog's health."

Margaret Everton, who was due to judge Best in Show in 2006, will take Mrs Mann's place on this year's judging panel. She may well need to watch her back. "There are people out there who probably have something on nearly everybody in the dog-show world. There are so many skeletons in closets that if somebody wants to go digging they can probably find one," warns Ms Cuddy. And nor should the winner of the top prize assume it will be the golden moment of their dog-showing career. "Whoever wins, there is always going to be a percentage of people who thought it should have been them, and if they have any dirt on them, God help them," she adds.