Britain's bewildering love affair with dogs

I've had 10 times as many coos and cries of admiration for my dog as for the infants
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The Independent Online

On Saturday evening, thousands of happy punters streamed away from the National Exhibition Centre in Birmingham. Some of them - including my wife, my 10-year-old daughter, and two of my daughter's friends - were discussing the cute one with the spiky haircut. They had been to a concert by the boy band Busted. Others were discussing the cute one with the spiky haircut.

On Saturday evening, thousands of happy punters streamed away from the National Exhibition Centre in Birmingham. Some of them - including my wife, my 10-year-old daughter, and two of my daughter's friends - were discussing the cute one with the spiky haircut. They had been to a concert by the boy band Busted. Others were discussing the cute one with the spiky haircut.

They had been to Crufts.

It says a lot for the NEC that it was able to mount two such spectaculars at the same time, and one can only hope that nobody with tickets for Busted ended up in the wrong arena, although they might scarcely have noticed, such is the noisy razzmatazz of Crufts these days.

In the nine years that I was a television critic, Crufts was always a must-review. There was nothing much to say by way of actual criticism, but plenty of cheap gags to scatter at the expense of the carefully blow-dried dogs and their usually rather peculiar owners.

Dogs and dog-lovers have always been meat and drink to telly critics. Clive James, still unsurpassed in the genre, was like a red setter with a bone in his fascination with the late Barbara Woodhouse. He couldn't leave her alone. In the index of Clive James On Television, a collection of his newspaper columns from 1972 to 1982, there are more references to Barbara Woodhouse than to almost anyone else.

Being Australian, James could not get over Woodhouse's affinity with dogs in particular, and the British affinity with dogs in general. Although British, I share his bewilderment. About 18 months ago, I became a dog-owner for the first time in my life, so I write from the inside track. I have spent many hours wheeling gorgeous, gurgling babies along English high streets in prams, and rather fewer hours with a golden retriever on a lead, yet I have had 10 times as many coos and cries of admiration for the dog as for the infants.

In Mediterranean countries, of course, this preoccupation is very healthily reversed. In Italy once, while my wife breast-fed our three- month-old son in a roadside café, a wizened old man crouched down so close to her, making rapturous noises, that we fleetingly wondered whether he was about to latch on to the other breast. Moments later, the same man let fly with his boot at a passing pooch.

What would such a man make of Crufts? He would think he was in a madhouse, or at least the cathedral of a strange, canine-venerating religion. A friend of mine was there on Sunday, and reported that many people left clutching poo bags bearing the Kennel Club logo, which were distributed free. She was reminded of small children going home clutching party bags, after a hard afternoon's pass-the-parcel. Yet, while fully able to recognise the mad hilarity of it all, she also admits to dithering over a £55 diamanté collar for her border terrier.

The grand final, with 21,600 four-legged contestants whittled down to seven, was shown live on telly on Sunday evening, and I found myself unable to kick the habit formed in my reviewing years. The commentary was by Peter Purves, revered by my generation as one of Blue Peter's holy trinity of Pete, John and Val, yet reborn as the dog world's answer to John Motson.

"I don't think she can leave out the schnauzer," he murmured, as the female judge pondered which creature should be runner-up to the Supreme Champion, a whippet from Stockport called Deedee. And then, startled: "Oh! She's gone for the Scottie!"

Deedee's show name was Cobyco Call The Tune. To the dog-show agnostic, these names are mystifying. Another finalist, an Old English sheepdog, was called Barkshire Born In The USA With Brinkley.

How do they arrive at such names? Is it like establishing an e-mail address?

"Can I have Born In The USA?"

"Sorry, taken."

"Okay, how about Born In The USA With Brinkley?"

"That's taken too."

"You're kidding. Let's try Barkshire Born In The USA With Brinkley."

"Yeah, you can have that."

At the end of the show, Deedee and Deedee's owner - no whippet herself - did a lap of honour round the arena. Deedee's owner then admitted that she shares a bed with Deedee, which tells you pretty much all you need to know about the British and their dogs, although a quick look through the Sunday papers yielded yet more.

One paper had a double-page spread about the puppies - Porgy and Bess - that Jude Law and his girlfriend Sienna Miller have "adopted", while dogs even loomed large in the disturbing story about death threats made to the TV presenter Sue Barker. She is protected at home by three rottweilers.

I suppose it is because I am British that my response, on Sue Barker's behalf, was "that's alright, then".

Death threats, blindness, deafness, loneliness, corpulence ... we are conditioned to believe that the answer to most of our woes has four legs and a woof.

Paw us.

b.viner@independent.co.uk

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