Tentatively we inch, man and whippet, along a three-foot-wide corridor, between banks of caged rottweilers, feeling a bit like Agent Starling approaching Hannibal Lecter's cell.
There are a hundred of them, at least. If you were scared of dogs, Crufts would be a troublesome place. One barks and rushes forward, rattling its cage. I react with mild terror. Its owner doesn't seem to care. My whippet, Bayda, inches backwards.
About 28,000 dogs and their owners will come the the NEC in Birmingham this weekend for the greatest dog show on earth. This year, for the first time, my diminutive whippet and I are among them. Show dogs, for the most part, are objects of a lifetime's devotion: of breeding, training, feeding, walking, grooming and showing off at the hands of their obsessive owners. Bayda and I are different. She is a three-year-old white-and-brindle whippet from Pennsylvania, rejected by her owners after she developed "tulip ears" (more on that later). She was rescued by my flatmate. Six weeks ago, I moved in and we became unlikely companions. Now, my four-legged friend is going to be judged alongside the finest whippets in the land.
The problem is, whippets are not the cleverest of breeds, and Bayda is not the cleverest of whippets. Tall, leggy, fair-haired and, perhaps like many retired models, lacking a bit upstairs.
Robert Becquet, the resident whippet expert at the Crufts "Discover Dogs" area, where Lyla and Clarissa, his champion whippets, are scampering about, doesn't think much of her. "She's been over-exercised when she was young. She's muscled up too quickly. She's overdone. Feel these." Lyla's thighs are thrust towards me. "See her muscle is still soft." It undoubtedly is. "Yours has done too much running at too young an age."
"Look at Clarissa's ears," he goes on. "You see these are rose ears, they're rounded. Bayda has tulips. The fleshy part is too saggy." Busted.
Her tulip ears are not the only difference between the dogs. Lyla and Clarissa start their days at half past seven with an hour of running. They have one meal of dry biscuits a day, at midday. Bayda, like her owner, prefers a lie-in, before being frantically rushed to the Vauxhall Park dog run for her morning movements. She, too, eats dry biscuits, as well as the occasional bourbon, and once, an entire pesto-stuffed roast chicken.
Mr Becquet is a tougher task master than I, which does not bode well for Bayda's first challenge: trying to bag the bronze medal of the Kennel Club's Good Citizen Dog Scheme. To begin with, she doesn't have her address on her collar – only an email. An instant fail. Thus we don't get to find out if she is capable of walking under control, passing through a gate, and staying put for a full minute after I retreat five paces. In all cases, she likely would have failed anyway – so we move on, unruffled.
The agility course is more intriguing. Bayda looks on as Hattie, a flat-coated retriever, jinks in and out of the "weaves", bounds over the jumps, scampers through the tunnel and darts up and down the steep sides of the A-frame in a little under 10 seconds. It is hard to know what Bayda is thinking. This is usually the time that her surrogate father from the flat upstairs takes her for a lunchtime stroll then settles her down in front of Diagnosis Murder for a bit of a nap. That she is about to be made to go round the course herself doesn't appear to have crossed her mind.
There is an embarrassed silence from the assembled crowd as I drag her round the poles, clamber halfway up the wrong end of the tunnel to encourage her out then grab hold of her behind and shove her over the A-frame before darting round the other side to catch her as she accelerates down. At the jumps, however, she is a natural, leaping over the centre at some speed, and receiving a smattering of applause, for which she appears as grateful as a losing FA Cup finalist.
"She was brilliant," says Jan Grayson, flatteringly, as she feeds a gleeful Hattie another biscuit. "She's never done it before? She took to those jumps straight away. She didn't try and run round them. She went straight over them. She went round the whole course on her first time. If she was mine, I'd be very proud of her. You should think about training her properly." Bayda 1, Crufts 0.
Outside the 6,000-seat main arena, which we have been expressly told Bayda's grubby paws will not be getting anywhere near, Crufts is rather is more trade fair than celebration of the finest dogs in the country. Specialist hairdryers retail for £489. The K9surf hydrotherapy treadmill, with all additional extras, retails at £31,550. The Ministry of Defence might be scrapping its Harrier jets, but it has recently bought one. "Regular exercise in one of these increases lung capacity," boasts its maker David Brooks. "That makes dogs better sniffers. Plus, it increases muscle mass. Those army dogs are for personal protection. They want them to look big and tough and mean."
Back at the "Discover Dogs" exhibit some 204 of the 210 breeds recognised by the UK Kennel club are on display. Tiny papillons like little hippy chihuahuas, great gangling Italian spinones, Neapolitan mastiffs, Hungarian vizslas, wirehaired vizslas, cocker spaniels, clumber spaniels, Sussex spaniels – every kind of spaniel. Bayda proceeds with suspicion. Her interaction with other dogs is usually limited to intimidation at the hands of unruly Staffordshire terriers on the estates that surround her south London home.
In the show pens, the working and pastoral dogs are being exhibited. The double decker-high great Danes and St Bernards with their great dangling jowels look like they could devour Bayda in a single bite. But most intriguingly of all, in the far corner is what, from even close proximity, appears to be a pride of lions.
"They were bred to look like lions," says Susie Jump, all the while petting Fozzy Bear, the Leonberger who was just won the Best in Breed. Fozzy Bear is huge. His attempts to strike up a friendship with Bayda, who can barely incline her neck far enough to meet his intrigued gaze, fall way before the first hurdle. He is just too big and, well, Bayda doesn't have the anecdotes. An average day for Fozzy Bear's involves hours of walking, pulling carts, swimming, and terrorising the parrots, chickens and ducks that Susie keeps at her home near Chester. And he eats raw steak. Bayda just sleeps. Fozzy will now advance to the Best in Category competition, of which there are seven. Then the overall Best in Show will be awarded on Sunday. Whippets have won the coveted prize before – Pencloe Dutch Gold in 1992 and in 2004, Cobyco Call the Tune. But 2011 isn't going to be Bayda's year.
"She's very elegant. Nice head and eyes, and a marvellous temperament. Nice rear angulation," says Frank Kane, an internationally-renowned judge and, for many, the face of Crufts. He will judge Best in Show category next year. "She has a good rise over the loin, but she could be deeper in the chest for her age, and her shoulders could have more slope." Didn't spot the ears though, did you.
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