A dog's day without Crufts

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The distributors of Best In Show, a comedy about the world of the dog show, must have imagined they had planned the film's release schedule perfectly. If everything had gone well it would have opened in the cinemas at the one moment in the year when the usually submerged universe of canine excellence breaks surface into the general consciousness. It would open simultaneously with Crufts, and which feature editor could resist the coincidence of that peculiarly English celebration of good breeding with a doggy version of Spinal Tap?

The distributors of Best In Show, a comedy about the world of the dog show, must have imagined they had planned the film's release schedule perfectly. If everything had gone well it would have opened in the cinemas at the one moment in the year when the usually submerged universe of canine excellence breaks surface into the general consciousness. It would open simultaneously with Crufts, and which feature editor could resist the coincidence of that peculiarly English celebration of good breeding with a doggy version of Spinal Tap?

Unfortunately, the schedulers had reckoned without foot-and-mouth - which can now number this year's Crufts among its growing list of casualties. The reddest of red letter days on the Our Dogs year-at-a-glance calendar has had to be postponed to May. If you want to see a tension racked stand-off between a shih-tzu and a Norwich Terrier this weekend you'll have to go to the movies.

This can hardly be claimed as the gravest consequence of the recent outbreak - as several breeders are at pains to point out when I ring to ask them about the consequences of the postponement - but it's no small matter either for those lives that revolve around the fixture list of championships and shows. This year, a staggering 21,554 dogs had been entered for the various categories of competition at Crufts, every one of which - even the spindliest Toy - carry a certain weight of anticipation and forward planning.

Postponing the show itself was a major enterprise - though fortunately a blank space in the National Exhibition Centre diary happened to coincide with the Bath Canine Society's Annual Show. One act of selfless sacrifice later, and Crufts had been shifted to late May, when it's hoped that the foot-and-mouth crisis will have subsided and dog and owner can move freely again ("I bet the Secretary of Bath will get a seat on the board for this" said one breeder, speculating on the level of gratitude that the Kennel Club might be expected to show in return for this graceful retirement).

There are knock-ons elsewhere, too. Professional dog handlers - hired by the more prosperous owners for their skills in framing a dog's virtues - will have to go back to their diaries. Judges, who are only allowed to give verdicts in the same category once every 12 months, will have to check their schedules for potential infringements of Kennel Club regulations.

Biology, though, is not as amenable as hotel booking clerks and canine society secretaries, as Tracy Wall, a top breeder of German shepherd's, explained to me at the Norwulf Kennels in Charlwood, Surrey. She brought out her bitch Norwulf June Rose at Ravenway to show me the current state of her coat - an important part of a dog's potential for success or failure. At the moment, June Rose's coat is impeccable - complete with the thickly ruffed "trousers" that German shepherds sport on their back legs. But that perfection can't be guaranteed to hold until May. The coat of June Rose's kennel companion, Norwulf Kimbo, is, Tracy explained, "just on the point of blowing". She shows what she means with a curry comb - a couple of brisk runs through the coat pulling out a surprisingly dense mat of hair (get a few big dogs in moult like this, you realise, and you could start an organic loft insulation firm). This needn't rule a dog out entirely, but it doesn't help; it's not uncommon, Tracy explains, to hear a judge say "Lovely dog - shame it's out of coat."

As it happens, the German shepherd is relatively undemanding in terms of pre-show preparation. Exhibit Airedales competitively, on the other hand, and you are looking at a three-week build up of "hand-stripping" in which different sections of the dog are plucked by hand to different lengths so that they will be perfect on show day. Now that calculations of growth rate have been rendered obsolete by the postponement, the whole process will have to start again.

I have to admit I'm left baffled by Tracy's brisk explanation of the Byzantine complexity of shows and regulations. I never quite grasp the subtler aesthetic disputes over German shepherd styling either, though the slogan for another kennel - "Promoting the Breed without Exaggeration" - clearly hints at sectarian undercurrents. Even I can understand Tracy's current anxiety about Norwulf June Rose at Ravenway's narrowed prospects for May, though. "Unfortunately, she comes into season every four or five months," she explains, and, while there are no rules forbidding bitches in season to take part in a competition, the hormonal chaos that might ensue means that no respectable breeder would do it. Every dog has its day, in other words, but they also have their off days too.

 

Seized by a spasm of self-improvement I logged on to Boxmind the other day - a new website intended to supply intellectual property direct to universities and colleges. In about a month this will be a subscription-only service but for the moment anybody with an internet connection can download a lecture from a leading thinker in the field. Richard Dawkins is there talking about Evolutionary Biology, and Daniel Dennett about theories of consciousness. I thought I would test the site's boast that it offers a "revolution in education" with a slightly more forbidding subject - economic history, which is tackled here by the historian Niall Ferguson.

He turns in the form of a small postage stamp image, which, as is the way with streamed pictures, often slips out of synch with his voice (it is a bit like receiving instruction from the man in the Grecian 2000 advert). On the right side of the screen, slides and graphs pop up at the relevant moment and a transcript of the lecture slowly unrolls. The user can pause and rewind at any moment.

Professor Ferguson's lecture is very interesting. I now know much more about "intertemporal budget constraint" and the "euthanasia of the rentiers" than I did before. But after a while the frustrating tension between reading speed and speaking speed starts to have an effect. You read ahead of the lecturer, and while you're waiting for him to catch up find yourself doing the technological equivalent of staring out of the windows. Is a picture of Al Gore really necessary to illustrate the concept "Al Gore", you wonder, and surely "buffering" is the very last thing an Oxford don needs? Finally, a fatal thought occurs - instantly accessible footnotes, charts and graphs linked to the relevant text, the ability to turn back to an earlier section to recapitulate. What Boxmind appears to have invented is the book - though it's one you can't keep, and have to read to the tick of a taximeter.

sutcliff@globalnet.co.uk

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