Wednesday, March 11, 2009
Full disclosure: I used to show dogs.
It's not big secret; if you know me well or have known me for a while, it will come up in conversation (usually in February, when Westminster takes place each year in New York). How I got started in the sport (yes it is a sport) is a long story, but let's just say that it has been a girlhood dream of mine to attend, and eventually show at, Crufts.
Crufts is the largest and oldest dog show in the world. Held by The Kennel Club in England, this year it drew an entry of over 22,000 dogs – compared with the limited entry of 2,500 at Westminster in New York. The show was for many years held in London at the Olympia Exhibition Centre in Earls Court, but moved up to Birmingham a few years ago. Since Crufts is always held in the beginning of March, when I looked into going this year and saw it was my birthday weekend I knew I had to go.
Luckily the Irishman is a tolerant and supportive chap, and Birmingham's finest boutique hotel and balti definitely gave him incentive to tag along with me to the show. We went on the Sunday, the final day of judging, so I could see the breeds I used to show (Herding dogs, which The Kennel Club calls Pastoral dogs) and Best in Show. Crufts doesn't come cheap; the tickets were £15 each for the general admission ticket, and £17.50 for the seats for Groups and Best-in-Show.
I was adamant that we arrive early in the morning on Sunday, as the judging commenced at 9am and I was unclear how many entries there were or how long it would go on. In the US, if a breed is on at 9, one gets there at 9 because the judging will be done by noon (even earlier depending in entries). But Crufts is not a champions-only or limited entry show, and since it is so prestigious the entries for each breed were huge. My breeds were still being judged into the afternoon, so apologies were made for dragging the Irishman out to the show so early on a Sunday.
Besides the odd times and length of judging, The Kennel Club does a completely different type of judging system. It seems similar enough in how the judging goes, males then females, picking the best of each class and then the best of the winners, but I'm not quite sure how Challenge Certificates work or how one finishes a Championship on a dog. But no matter. Crufts is a benched show, which means that even when the judging for a breed was complete the dogs were there until 4pm for us to coo over. The Kennel Club recognizes tons more breeds than the American Kennel Club, so I saw a lot of dogs I'd only heard of but never seen in person and I learned about so many amazing breeds that I'd never even known about. There was also a Hall of Breeds, where each breed of dog shown at Crufts had a stand with representatives and dogs for the public to meet. This is where I took most of my pictures.
Unfortunately Crufts was in the midst of PR push after the BBC aired a documentary in 2008 called Pedigree Dogs Exposed that supposedly showed how purebred dogs are inbred and highly susceptible to genetic abnormalities that preclude them from living long, healthy lives. I didn't watch the documentary, because I've seen this thing before; it centers on dogs with shorter, compressed muzzles (Bulldogs, Pugs) and German Shepherds with their notoriously sloping hips. As a result of the controversy around the documentary, the BBC refused to broadcast Crufts this year, The Royal SPCA and Dogs Trust did not have booths at the show, and Pedigree pulled its sponsorship; meanwhile, every other sign and pamphlet and commentator's speech was centered around "Fit for Function" and a "long healthy happy active dog's life." It was hard to see The Kennel Club trying to prove the worth of these dogs and damage control the problems created by relatively few breeders of relatively few breeds.
On a similar note, possibly the oddest thing about Crufts were the strict rules about cropping and docking. Seeing Dobermans with both drop ears and tails, Australian Shepherds with tails, etc, was disconcerting. The Kennel Club passed these rules a few years ago in answer to public outcry about the "harmful practices" that subjected animals to unnecessary pain. It seems like a particularly British sentiment to regulate and protect and create rules around issues that the public is up in arms about - even if the public doesn't quite understand the complete issue. Arguing whether dogs should have cropped ears is a non-issue; people in England enjoy taking a stand and fighting for what they believe in, and it is easy to vilify a practice that doesn't affect a person but seems to be cruel. There is a point to be made that a civilized society doesn't need to crop the ears of dogs that aren't working, but one could also argue that one doesn't need to preserve cultural heritage because we don't use chamber pots or mulecarts anymore. It's a complicated subject, with a lot of deep-running emotion on both sides, and it just seems like The Kennel Club hasn't quite figured out how to defend itself – or better yet, deflect the argument.
All of this controversy didn't damper my enthusiasm for the show, and the Irishman and I really had a great time. My one main disappointment, though, was the Best in Show (BIS) winner. I was excited to see that the BIS judge was a Welshman who has been a professional handler in the US for nearly 50 years. He recently retired and is now a well respected judge who made his name in terriers. So imagine my surprise when the BIS lineup appears and at the front from the terrier group is an American dog, a Sealyham terrier. A gorgeous dog, no doubt about it; the dog won the terrier group at Westminster last year and is really a great little showdog. But I did not travel all the way to Birmingham from New York, really, to see an American dog I've seen win before win the biggest international dog show. It smacked of typical dog show politics and I for one was annoyed.
Overall, however, going to Crufts was a childhood dream come true. I'm glad I went, glad to see so many cool and fun dogs, and glad to see the International Junior Handling Finals (which I once qualified for the preliminary), and even glad to see the dog dancing with his owner to Riverdance (complete with Irish dancing girls). It was a spectacle, alright, and me in my dog-patterned scarf absolutely loved it.