Should Crufts be in the doghouse?
By Stanley Johnson. Published on the Telegraph website: Sunday 8th March 2009
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The BBC has refused to screen the 118-year-old show, so Stanley Johnson went walkies among the gundogs.
"Tell me," I asked, "is this the happiest day of your life?" The lady I was talking to was out of breath. She had just done a lap of honour, bounding along behind her gorgeous Italian spinone. It was hard to say which of them was the more excited. As the judge came forward with the gold Best of Breed certificate, the dog jumped up and licked its mistress's face.
"Well, actually," replied Barbara Abbishaw, from County Durham, "it probably is the happiest day of my life." Then she corrected herself, reluctantly. "I suppose I had better say it's the happiest day of my dog-showing life, otherwise my husband might have something to say. But, really, winning a Best of Breed at Crufts you can't do better than that!"
I left her alone in her glory, knowing that this was a moment she would savour for the rest of her life. As a matter of fact, I felt fairly emotional myself. There is something special about Crufts on Gundog Day. The finest specimens of the nation's favourite breeds the retrievers, the spaniels, the setters were on display yesterday at the Birmingham NEC. This was my first ever visit to Crufts and nothing prepared me for the sheer scale of the event.
The arena setting may not be idyllic, but as you walk around the rings you get a sense that these are dogs who know how to perform in the field. Barbara's own dog, Louise, the new champion, had to have the mud washed off her before they set off for the competition.
However, the dog-breeders I meet concur that, despite the excitable yapping, there is something of a pall over proceedings this year. For the first time in 43 years, the BBC has refused to broadcast the four-day event, after it screened a documentary last year highlighting concerns about the diseases and deformities suffered by some of Britain's five million pedigree dogs. The programme, Pedigree Dogs Exposed, suggested that some breeders were using cruel practices to produce certain apparently desirable canine characteristics, and that decades of inbreeding have resulted in dogs developing a number of life-threatening illnesses, from epilepsy to cancer. Soon after it aired, Pedigree dog food withdrew its sponsorship while the Kennel Club, which organises the annual jamboree, lost the support of the RSPCA and PDSA.
The organisers have ploughed on, turning to the internet and arranging for the heats to be broadcast on YouTube. About 30,000 people have clicked on but it's small beer indeed compared with the 12 million viewers the BBC's showcase used to attract.
I found Norman Bromwell, an agricultural engineer from Okehampton in Devon, sitting forlornly on the sidelines of a ring in Hall 4, his weimaraner beside him. "My granddaughter got me interested in showing," he said, patting the animal. "This one didn't win, but I've another one still to show." I asked him about the controversy which has overshadowed this year's Crufts. Mr Bromwell shook his head. "I can't imagine any reputable breeder setting out deliberately to harm an animal."
There lies the rub, of course. While there may be cowboy breeders out there and cowgirl breeders, too who are indeed guilty of breeding practices, Caroline Kisko, secretary of the Kennel Club, told me that the BBC documentary was "highly biased".
"They made it sound as though we haven't done anything to improve standards," said Mrs Kisko. "In fact, we had work in hand long before the film was made." In January the Kennel Club announced a new set of breeding requirements aimed at improving dog welfare.
Under the rules, owners of clumber Spaniels are banned from "exaggerating substance" the size of a dog's body and muscle so that they are fit for their original purpose of working in the field. The standards for shar pei dogs no longer include exaggerated folds of loose skin across its neck, skull and legs, and breeders must stop encouraging "excessive weight" in labradors.
"We check up on our judges, too," said Mrs Kisko. "When the judges award a prize, we ask them to sign a certificate to say 'In my opinion, this dog is healthy'." The Kennel Club has since lodged an official complaint about the documentary with Ofcom.
As a Crufts first-timer, I couldn't tell whether the bulldogs now sport fewer wrinkles on their heads and longer legs, as the new rules require. But, then, the new breeding requirements are expected to take three generations around 10 years to take effect.
What was immediately apparent was that a real effort has been on the animal welfare side partly, it must be said, as a result of the BBC's intervention. So there seems to be no good reason why next year's show should not be back on our screens in all its glory. If it isn't, it's the BBC, not Crufts, that will be in the doghouse.
Stanley Johnson's memoir, Stanley I Presume, is published on 19 March (Fourth Estate, £18.99)
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