Page last updated at 01:07 GMT, Friday, 6 March 2009

Who's in the dog house?

By Marie Jackson
BBC News, Birmingham

Ronnie Jones and her dog Jester at Crufts
Jester is one of thousands of dogs taking part in Crufts 2009

Three-year-old Jester is attracting a lot of attention.

He's 78kg of excitable harlequin great Dane and, at full stretch, towers over Ronnie Jones, his slight 5ft 1in owner.

But even with his powerful tail whipping to and fro and his mouth drooling, onlookers are not deterred.

It's Crufts - elderly women, young men, teenage girls and camera-laden tourists gather round to have a stroke.

"People like his size. They like to see a bit of substance," explains Ronnie, who will be showing Jester off later in the Discovering Dogs hall.

The world's biggest dog show is hosted in the vast spaces of Birmingham's NEC.

On day one, terriers yap, snooze and growl in their allocated areas along rows of benches with good luck cards perched above them.

There are small puddles of wee, a faint smell of dog food in the air and a third-in-class rosette left on a pampering bench.

It is a hive of activity from the breeding competitions - which to a novice can look like an elaborate game of spot the difference - to exercises in agility and obedience, and heelwork to music.

Dog at Crufts

There are dogs of all breeds on display, as well as police dog demonstrations, veterinary advice and grooming guidance.

The event though is as much a trade show as a dog show.

For dog devotees, there's nothing to stop you wearing a T-shirt ("The more people I meet, the more I like my dog"), while supping from a Chihuahua mug, slumped against a Rhodesian ridgeback-embroidered cushion.

Meanwhile, your four-legged friend could be napping under his dog duvet in a 25 diamante-encrusted collar after feasting on roast beef and Yorkshire pudding bones, followed by liver and cheese cake (free from salt, sugar and additives).

And nothing here gets marketed without the mandatory pooch pun.

The Canine Cookie Company stole the show with pupcorn, pupcakes and pawfiteroles after some tough competition from a dog accessory stall and their little suits for Terrier(ists).

Controversy

For many traders, Crufts is the most lucrative event in the calendar.

"It's the biggest show because it's the serious owners. People come here with a view to spend," said Peter Meadows, of The Dogs Products website, who is hoping for a roaring trade in dog beds, squeaky toys and leads this year.

His success may be at the mercy of two factors outside his control though - the recession and the reaction to a recent furore over breeding standards.

A BBC programme broadcast last summer reported that many pedigrees suffered from genetic diseases because owners bred them for looks.

The documentary, Pedigree Dogs Exposed, showed cavalier King Charles spaniels with brains too big for their skulls, boxers with epilepsy and German shepherds and Neapolitan mastiffs with hip problems.

Nicci Hindson and dog Murphy at Crufts
Nicci Hindson says dogs' happiness and health should come before looks

The programme divided the dog world.

The RSPCA appeared on media outlets denouncing dog shows as "parades of mutants," the BBC announced it would not televise Crufts 2009 and the event's major sponsor, Pedigree, pulled out, saying only that its brand had "evolved".

The Kennel Club, host of Crufts, initially defended the practices and complained to watchdog Ofcom of "unfair editing".

In January it introduced new standards for 209 dog breeds, but the fury has yet to die down and emotions were still running high at the NEC.

Breeders accused the BBC of painting a biased picture of their business.

Others, who have less to do with pedigrees, were torn between their concern for the dogs' welfare and the ruining of the reputation of a world they love.

Nicci Hindson, 19, is competing with three-year-old Murphy, a serene black spaniel-collie cross, for the first time.


People who know too little about dogs are trying to interfere

Patricia Keegan, breeder

"Crufts is the one time of the year when people take an interest in my little world," she said.

But this year, friends reacted to news of Murphy's qualification by saying she should not be supporting Crufts and warning there may be trouble.

"I'm not supporting Crufts, I'm supporting dog lovers," she said.

"Dogs are solely dependent on us, so we owe it to them to make them as happy and as healthy as possible.

"I would hate to see Crufts scrapped, but you cannot carry on breeding dogs for looks. The new standards need to be implemented in the ring."

She said it was now up to breeders, dog owners, show judges and the Kennel Club to work together to put a stop to this problem.

Crufts FM

Breeder Patricia Keegan, from Walthamstow, east London, points the finger solely at the BBC and is "incensed" with the broadcaster.

"Look at them. Do they look unfit or unhealthy?" she asks, watching from the sidelines as her Irish terrier, Dolly, is judged in the ring.

Dog at Crufts
The BBC decided not to broadcast this year's Crufts

"The BBC has tarred all breeders with the same brush. People who know too little about dogs are trying to interfere. The BBC should never have taken sides."

It is too early to say just how the controversy will take its toll on Crufts, which will have weathered many a storm in its 118-year history.

But there has been some talk of threatening e-mails sent to Crufts visitors warning them dogs may be removed from cages.

The Kennel Club says it does not foresee any negative impact on this year's show.

It is optimistic attendance will be close to the 150,000 mark of previous years and is aiming to fill the holes left by the BBC with live streams of all the shows over the Crufts website as well as Crufts FM recording from a purpose-built studio in the heart of the show.

Ms Keegan is convinced the controversy shouldn't make any difference.

"The entries were the same, the car park is packed. In fact, I think people are more determined to come than ever to show their support," she said.

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SEE ALSO
Crufts under way without sponsor
05 Mar 09 |  West Midlands
In pictures: Crufts 2009
05 Mar 09 |  In Pictures

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