Hertfordshire dogs have their day at Crufts show
PUBLISHED: 11:38 06 March 2017 | UPDATED: 13:16 07 March 2017
With Crufts this month, Heather Harris investigates the biggest dog show in the world and discovers that any dog can have its day, including a dedicated pack in Herts
When it comes to dog shows, Britain has long taken the lead. And it all started with a dog biscuit.
Aged 14, Charles Cruft worked as a post boy at Spratt’s Patent Ltd, home of the Spratt’s Meal Fibrine Dog Cake – a name that was as hard to swallow as the product itself. Seeing a business opportunity, Charles was soon a travelling salesman, marketing these tasty treats to an enthusiastic canine-friendly audience.
As his career blossomed at Spratt’s and his reputation for marketing spread he decided a great ploy would be to set up a dog show. He ran six annual terrier shows at London’s Royal Aquarium. But the seventh was more ambitious. Some thought he was barking up the wrong tree but Charles proved them wrong when in 1891 the first Cruft’s Dog Show opened to all breeds at the Royal Agricultural Hall in Islington. A whopping 2,437 entries came from all over the country and the event even gained royal approval with a visit from Queen Victoria.
Scamper on 125 years and last year’s anniversary show (held at NEC Birmingham after outgrowing London) attracted an enormous 24,000 dogs and their owners over four days. Almost 160,000 people came through the turnstiles – 15,000 more than Glastonbury Festival.
What’s on in the arena is now matched in size by the trade stands selling more varieties of dog biscuits (and everything you could ever possibly need for a pooch) than young Charles could have ever imagined.
Channel 4 with top dog presenter, Clare Balding, presents daily coverage of the event and the Best in Show champion still makes headlines around the world (and is quickly snapped up by dog food advertisers).
For years, a bone of contention was the omission of overseas entries, a show rule that was changed in 2000. This was a development that pleased one of Hertfordshire’s top breeders and judges.
‘I’ve been going to Crufts for 50 years and the biggest change was when dogs from abroad could enter,’ says Vivien Hepner Phillips of Ringshall near Berkhamsted.
Vivien announced she wanted to be a dog breeder at five-years-old, and now, almost 70 years later, she is renowned for her Basset Griffon Vendéen and has been showing at Crufts since 1985.
‘My top dog Champion Debucher Le Barbu won Best in Breed five times.’
She has been an eminent dog show judge for 30 years and still travels the world sharing her expertise.
But not all waggy winners come from such gilded backgrounds. Linda Palmer of Watford is keen to dispel the image that Crufts is dominated by professional breeders, borne out by the story of her Dalmatian, Cleo.
‘She was a rescue dog. I took her in and the next thing we knew she was giving birth on our upside-down coffee table!’
Cleo was such a good mum that Linda tracked down her breeder and a few months later she was the proud owner of a puppy. This was Lily.
‘In 2001, much to everyone’s amazement we found her winning Best Dalmatian Dog on the green carpet at Crufts – beating all the other far more experienced dogs,’ Linda laughs, adding, ‘This did mean there were a few sour grapes with fellow competitors not talking to us!’
Was she presented with a year’s supply of dog food or a diamond encrusted collar?
‘We won £10 and a rosette,’ she says, adding sheepishly that she has no chance of even winning that this year as she forgot to enter.
I was surprised – and rather disappointed to discover – that a Dalmatian isn’t just judged on its spots but more on its movement and muscle structure. These same criteria are even more important in the working dog classes. Crufts is not just about judges looking at pristine pooches blow-dried to perfection. The event also celebrates working dogs, such as those in the gamekeeper classes and the Police Dog Team. It also hails ‘hero dogs’ through its Friends for Life competition, while rescue dogs compete in their own agility classes and the fun Flyball and Heelwork to Music competitions always draw a big crowd. There’s even an award for Young Groomer of The Year.
It was the ‘Obreedience’ classes that attracted Afghan hound enthusiast, Krysia Wilenczyc from Wiggington near Tring.
‘This is a competition for dogs not normally associated with obedience and I was determined to prove that Afghans aren’t stupid!’
Which her winning team of long-haired hounds successfully did.
Karen McCullum, who runs training classes in Great Gaddesden Village Hall, also entered her dog in a working category.
‘The biggest challenge was teaching my Labrador to stand in front of the judges, as gundogs are trained to sit! And I had to spend hours prancing around a muddy field pretending it was the show ring.’
The pair’s hard work paid off when Tia came fifth out of 35 in the 2015 show.
‘It was such a perfect experience. But I will never do it again – nothing can match it. I would recommend it to everyone.’
Karen adds that this was the year when Jagger the Irish Setter died a few days after competing in the event. The ‘murderous poisoning plot’ alleged by the owners was later discovered to be unfounded, but in its 125-year history, Crufts has not been a stranger to controversy.
In 2014, 70,000 people signed a petition calling for the owner of the Best in Show to be stripped of her title for alleged cruelty after her handler picked up her Scottish Terrier, Knopa, by the tail. The Kennel Club had warned the handler from the US, where it is customary to pick up terriers in this way, not to do so. The award stood.
An owner whose dog won an award for obedience ended up in court after her pet bit another owner’s knee at the show. And in 2012, five-year-old cross-breed Libby was racing alongside her owner in the agility test when the dog stopped to do a number two. Incredibly, this is the only entrant ever to do this!
In 2010 an unusual breed sped into the hallowed arena – a cat-faced posing pouch his only item of clothing. Security made a dash for the not-too-well-groomed gentleman after he showed a surprising turn of speed across the hall.
But overall, few can argue that entrepreneur Charlie Cruft would not be delighted with the evolution of his show. When it comes to all things canine, it really does take the biscuit.
It even launches new sports. George Humphreys, chairman of the Ashridge Canicross Club has been demonstrating this unusual sport since 2008. Owners wear a harness around their waists attached to the centre of the dog’s back allowing the two of them to run freely. An ever-increasing sight in the Herts countryside, Canicross owes much of its popularity to Crufts.
This year, the demonstration will involve dogs from various Canicross clubs running in a staged race in the main arena. In the early days the race went outside around the lake. It was quick, fun and chaotic. ‘I actually broke a rib on a post because I was going so fast,’ George reveals.
George may have won a Bronze and Silver at the event but the family bragging rights truly go to his wife, Sarah. She had the huge main arena all to herself and her Jack Russell, Smurf. For 15 minutes, they paraded around the ring after winning Channel 4’s Superstar Dogs and Smurf has entered the 2017 Guinness Book of Records for the most number of tricks performed in a minute.
Another local star will receive recognition on March 11 as Kirsty Tod of Hemel Hempstead brings her nine-year-old Shih Tzu, Monty to Crufts. She is picking up Monty’s Bronze in the Good Citizen Dog Scheme earned at classes with the Best Paw Forward training club in Hayes. The scheme encourages owners to train their dog for everyday life situations and socialisation skills and Monty has passed the first level at a sprint.
‘It will be very nerve-racking on the day but we’re determined to have fun and enjoy ourselves,’ Kirsty says.
Monty is the perfect example that at Crufts every dog can have its day.
Crufts takes place at NEC Birmingham from March 9-12. For tickets, go to crufts.org.uk
For Herts’ own only slightly less world-renowned dog show, head to Hatfield House on March 26 (Mother’s Day) from 10am-4pm. Supported by Hertfordshire Life and in aid of Digswell Place Group Riding for the Disabled Association, it’s a day of doggy fun that last year drew in hundreds of entrants vying for titles ranging from Dog Most Like Its Owner to Best Rescue Dog and the ultimate Best in Show