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."
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