Campaigner with a bone to pick about inbreeding

Jemima Harrison is persona non grata in canine circles after her film, Pedigree Dogs Exposed, highlighted the problems of inbreeding. Undaunted, she smuggled herself into the first day of the annual show to find out whether the issue has been confronted. Jerome Taylor joined her

As the Basset Hounds made their way onto the green carpet at Crufts yesterday afternoon, a tangible air of excitement swept across the crowd of spectators who had gathered to watch. With their floppy ears, droopy eyes and trademark baggy trouser legs they bounded across the room impeccably behaved, their paws padding in perfect synchronisation with their proud owners.

One by one they were slowly whittled down by Siegfried Peter, a stern-looking judge from Germany who dismissed the hapless losers with a flick of his wrist. As the forlorn owners traipsed back to their benches, an animated buzz rose from the crowd as fans and experts alike furiously debated who should have won.

One woman stood alone in the crowd. "The Bassets are a desperately controversial breed," she said, her arms tightly folded. "They're meant to be working dogs, trained to hunt rabbits, but look at all those folds of skin. Those droopy eyelids can get very easily infected and it can't be comfortable to have so much spare skin. This year's batch looks a little better but there is still so much work to be done."

The fact that Jemima Harrison had even dared to show her face at Crufts this year is testament to how determined she is to force Britain's pedigree-dog breeders to reform their ways. Among breeders she is, by and large, public enemy number one.

Two years ago her film Pedigree Dogs Exposed aired on the BBC and sent shockwaves through the dog-breeding world. Her undercover exposé shone an uncomfortably bright light on dog shows, and as a result the BBC and the RSPCA pulled out of supporting Crufts altogether.

A passionate lover of dogs who has her own rescue centre, she had grown increasingly worried at how some breeders would happily inbreed their dogs to levels where horrendous health problems were all but guaranteed – all in the pursuit of an aesthetic ideal that is lauded on the dog show circuit. Boxers with epilepsy and spaniels with brains too large for their heads were just two of the more shocking examples she uncovered.

The film prompted three independent reviews, one of which was commissioned by Crufts' owners, the Kennel Club. All of them recommended that large-scale genetic diversification of Britain's pedigree dog breeds was badly needed.

It also sparked a raging debate within the dog world over how shows are conducted. Breeders have claimed their reputations are being besmirched by a small number who resort to dodgy practices. Reformists say the entire pedigree breeding system needs root and branch reform.

The Kennel Club says it has now put a series of safety guards in place, including a doggy dating website designed to increase the gene pool and a complete reform of the breed standard, the "picture in words" that is used by judges to choose winners in the show ring.

Another positive step was the recent arrival of two "outcrossed" Dalmatians from America. Dalmatians are notoriously inbred, which means they often suffer from shockingly high rates of ill health, including deafness and a urinary problem that leads to the formation of crystals in the bladder and causes excruciating pain. To widen the gene pool, experts in the US have learned how to breed Dalmatians with pointers. The result is a dog that looks just like a Dalmatian but has none of the urinary defects. The Kennel Club will now allow the offspring of those dogs to compete in the Dalmatian category.

But reformers like Harrison believe breeders across the UK still need to confront genetic problems in other dogs, and yesterday she was back to continue forcing that debate. She went straight to the Bassets to try and gauge whether judges were still opting for the extra droopy dogs.

Fans of Bassets love their characteristic hangdog expression, which comes from their naturally loose skin. Judges at dog shows historically prefer exaggerations of a canine's typical features, which is why those that compete at a professional level tend to be even more droopy than their working cousins. Fans find it endearing, but campaigners say it creates a Frankenstein dog that is prone to a whole host of illnesses.

It wasn't long before the controversial filmmaker is clocked by the Basset brigade. Dave Darley, a breeder who has had five champions under his belt, approached and politely engaged us in animated debate.

"Yes, there is a problem with the breed but we are trying to solve it," he said in the measured but passionate tones of a man who has dedicated his life to Bassets. "It's the big puppy farmers that are at fault and they give everyone else a bad name. The key to breeding is to find a happy medium."

Among competitors at Crufts this year – which is now being broadcast on More 4 rather than the BBC – there is a palpable feeling that they have been unfairly targeted by animal rights campaigners.

Over in the terrier section, where the smell of hairspray was so strong it overwhelms any scent of dog, John Tritton was standing next to his Irish Terrier Aisling, a nine-year-old bitch who could never compete at show level because her ears stick up (the breed standard for Irish Terriers prefers ears that bend over). The two dogs he was putting into the show ring waited patiently to one side. Their beardy faces had been meticulously coiffured by his wife, who is a professional dog groomer.

"Some people tape the ears down and I could have done that with Aisling but I don't think you should change a dog's blueprint," the 49-year-old said. Too much of the media's coverage of dog shows, he argued, concentrated on the negative.

"Everyone in this room is united by the fact that they love their dogs," he said. "Yet all we hear is the bad stuff. I work for the AA and it's the same. The only stories you hear about are when a rescue vehicle takes four hours to reach a customer. You never hear about the thousands of rescues that are done in 10 minutes every day."

Veterans like Ann Gayford and Barry Rimell, who have competed in Crufts for more than two decades, are more concerned with winning their next round than engaging in a deep debate about genetics. It helps that their favourite dog, the Borzoi, an enormous wolfhound from Russia, is not a particularly controversial breed.

"There are only a few hundred Borzoi owners in Britain," Mr Rimmel explained. "If a puppy farm started churning them out we'd pounce on them."

As a new batch of Borzois paraded up and down, Mrs Gayford spotted one with its tail up high. "That's a major fault," she said, "They'll mark them down for that."

Instead the dog went on to win.

"That's the fun of Crufts," she chuckled afterwards. "If you can't stand to lose you probably shouldn't enter. If you lose, it's still a wonderful place to be."

Even its sharpest critic agreed. "I love dogs so much that I can't help but enjoy myself," Harrison admitted. "Dog shows could become an enormous force for good. But we need strong leadership from the top if things are to change. We will have to wait and see whether that change will come."

It's a dog's life: Dealing with the waste

*With 28,000 preening pooches on show at Crufts this weekend, the National Exhibition Centre's cleaning staff, aka the poop-a-scoop squad, will be kept particularly busy over the coming days. These may be some of the finest canines in Britain, but they have to answer the call of nature like any other hound.

To deal with the enormous levels of waste, a team of 20 cleaners are on hand with more than 500 litres of industrial disinfectant. Wheeling large green dustbins, they silently go about their thankless job picking up what owners and competitors have failed to spot. Most people come armed with their own supply of doggy bags but with so many animals it is inevitable that not every mishap will be spotted.

"You just have to get your head down and get on with it," says Pete, above, one of the cleaners as he mops up a stain in the next to a row of bloodhounds. Because of the unusual nature of the task, the NEC insists that none of the contracted cleaners are assigned poop duty. Instead they ask for volunteers. If anything, the venue's organisers are more than used to dealing with animals. On top of Crufts, this year they have another large dog show, two horse events and an enormous cattle exhibition still to go.

The black and grey carpets underneath will be taken off to be cleaned at the end of the show and stored for the next year. They are only ever used for Crufts.

Steve Cartmell, the man in overall charge of the cleaning operation, says: "Once the dogs go we launch a massive 24-hour cleaning operation where we'll have to sanitise at least 2m up every wall."

Discover more property articles at Homes and Property
Suggested Topics
Sport
German supporters (left) and Argentina fans
world cup 2014Final gives England fans a choice between to old enemies
Arts and Entertainment
Armando Iannucci, the creator of 'The Thick of It' says he has
tvArmando Iannucci to concentrate on US show Veep
Life and Style
Pepper, the 3ft 11in shiny box of circuits who can tell jokes and respond to human emotions
techDavid McNeill tests the mettle of one of the new generation of androids being developed in Tokyo
Arts and Entertainment
A still from the worldwide Dawn of the Planet of the Apes trailer debut
film
PROMOTED VIDEO
Sport
Four ski officials in Slovenia have been suspended following allegations of results rigging
sportFour Slovenian officials suspended after allegations they helped violinist get slalom place
News
14 March 2011: George Clooney testifies before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee during a hearing titled 'Sudan and South Sudan: Independence and Insecurity.' Clooney is co-founder of the Satellite Sentinel Project which uses private satellites to collect evidence of crimes against civilian populations in Sudan
people
Arts and Entertainment
Balaban is indirectly responsible for the existence of Downton Abbey, having first discovered Julian Fellowes' talents as a screenwriter
tvCast members told to lose weight after snacking on set
Life and Style
More than half of young adults have engaged in 'unwanted but consensual sexting with a committed partner,' according to research
tech
Life and Style
A binge is classed as four or more alcoholic drinks for women and five or more for men, consumed over a roughly two-hour period
tech
Property search
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

BC2

£50000 - £70000 per annum: Harrington Starr: Business Analyst Consultant (Fina...

SAP Data Migration Consultant

competitive: Progressive Recruitment: My client, a FTSE 100 organisation are u...

Programme Support, Coms, Bristol, £300-350p/d

£300 - £350 per day + competitive: Orgtel: My client, a leading bank, is curre...

Linux Systems Administrator

£33000 per annum + pension, 25 days holiday: Ashdown Group: A highly successfu...

Day In a Page

A History of the First World War in 100 Moments: Peace without magnanimity - the summit in a railway siding that ended the fighting

A History of the First World War in 100 Moments

Peace without magnanimity - the summit in a railway siding that ended the fighting
Scottish independence: How the Commonwealth Games could swing the vote

Scottish independence: How the Commonwealth Games could swing the vote

In the final part of our series, Chris Green arrives in Glasgow - a host city struggling to keep the politics out of its celebration of sport
Out in the cold: A writer spends a night on the streets and hears the stories of the homeless

A writer spends a night on the streets

Rough sleepers - the homeless, the destitute and the drunk - exist in every city. Will Nicoll meets those whose luck has run out
Striking new stations, high-speed links and (whisper it) better services - the UK's railways are entering a new golden age

UK's railways are entering a new golden age

New stations are opening across the country and our railways appear to be entering an era not seen in Britain since the early 1950s
Conchita Wurst becomes a 'bride' on the Paris catwalk - and proves there is life after Eurovision

Conchita becomes a 'bride' on Paris catwalk

Alexander Fury salutes the Eurovision Song Contest winner's latest triumph
Pétanque World Championship in Marseilles hit by

Pétanque 'world cup' hit by death threats

This year's most acrimonious sporting event took place in France, not Brazil. How did pétanque get so passionate?
Whelks are healthy, versatile and sustainable - so why did we stop eating them in the UK?

Why did we stop eating whelks?

Whelks were the Victorian equivalent of the donor kebab and our stocks are abundant. So why do we now export them all to the Far East?
10 best women's sunglasses

In the shade: 10 best women's sunglasses

From luxury bespoke eyewear to fun festival sunnies, we round up the shades to be seen in this summer
Germany vs Argentina World Cup 2014: Lionel Messi? Javier Mascherano is key for Argentina...

World Cup final: Messi? Mascherano is key for Argentina...

No 10 is always centre of attention but Barça team-mate is just as crucial to finalists’ hopes
Siobhan-Marie O’Connor: Swimmer knows she needs Glasgow joy on road to Rio

Siobhan-Marie O’Connor: Swimmer needs Glasgow joy on road to Rio

18-year-old says this month’s Commonwealth Games are a key staging post in her career before time slips away
The true Gaza back-story that the Israelis aren’t telling this week

The true Gaza back-story that the Israelis aren’t telling this week

A future Palestine state will have no borders and be an enclave within Israel, surrounded on all sides by Israeli-held territory, says Robert Fisk
A History of the First World War in 100 Moments: The German people demand an end to the fighting

A History of the First World War in 100 Moments

The German people demand an end to the fighting
New play by Oscar Wilde's grandson reveals what the Irish wit said at his trials

New play reveals what Oscar Wilde said at trials

For a century, what Wilde actually said at his trials was a mystery. But the recent discovery of shorthand notes changed that. Now his grandson Merlin Holland has turned them into a play
Can scientists save the world's sea life from

Can scientists save our sea life?

By the end of the century, the only living things left in our oceans could be plankton and jellyfish. Alex Renton meets the scientists who are trying to turn the tide
Richard III, Trafalgar Studios, review: Martin Freeman gives highly intelligent performance

Richard III review

Martin Freeman’s psychotic monarch is big on mockery but wanting in malice