In just under 2 weeks’ time, the halls of the NEC Birmingham will echo with the sound of barking as almost 22,000 dogs compete in obedience and agility championships and battle for the title of Best in Show. Crufts has been a major event in the canine enthusiast’s calendar for 126 years, and although it rarely passes without some form of Kennel Club controversy, those four days towards the beginning of March are always a great excuse to talk non-stop about all things dog (although when do us dog lovers ever need an excuse?)
Whether you’re thinking about visiting the world’s biggest dog show for the first time or already have your tickets sorted and are looking for a few tips on how to make the most out of your day, here is a selection of ideas based on my past experiences of being a visitor to the show. Enjoy Crufts!
It’s not all about the judging! Watching a line-up of dogs being carefully inspected by a judge may be the first thing that springs to mind when someone mentions a dog show, but there is so much more to Crufts than the rings. Five halls of the NEC are transformed into doggy shopping heaven, with hundreds of trade stands selling everything from grooming equipment to KONGs, clothing for both dogs and humans, dog beds and collars and everything in between. There will also be the opportunity to support charities such as Birmingham Dogs Home and Guide Dogs. Fans of canine cartoons will be excited to hear that Rupert Fawcett (‘Off the Leash’) will have his own trade stand (Hall 5, stand 23) and will be available to sign books between 11am and 3pm on every day of the show. Don’t forget to nab as many free dog food samples as possible! When the exhaustion sets in from plodding round the enormous halls, there is the Main Arena (otherwise known as the Genting Arena) with a programme packed full of dog sports and displays for you to enjoy while you take a break. If you fancy something more ‘hands on’ there is the Discover Dogs area where you can talk to the owners of over 200 different breeds, pick up some information leaflets and of course have a bit of a cuddle with some friendly pooches. Discover Dogs is always a hit and can become quite crowded, particularly around the popular breeds, but it’s a great opportunity to get some advice from the people who really know their dogs.
Plan your day carefully – you don’t want to miss any great displays or competitions. Timetables for the Main Arena, Good Citizen Dog Scheme Ring and Young Kennel Club Ring are all available on the official Crufts website now, so head on over there and plan your other activities around anything that you want to catch (printing off your own timetable is also a cheaper alternative to buying a programme on the day). My personal favourite is flyball – the atmosphere of the finals is incredible! The display from the dog unit at West Midlands Police is another highlight, and the team return year after year to give a demonstration of their amazing canine crime fighters. You don’t need an extra ticket to watch the group judging at the end of each day (apart from Best in Show on Sunday), so if you’re still around in the evening be sure to head to the Main Arena to see which breed wins the title of best in group.
‘Human food’ at Crufts is quite expensive, so you may want to take a packed lunch (although I can thoroughly recommend the hot pork baps on sale!). Don’t expect to easily find a comfortable and dog-free place to sit down as seats within the food area are limited – be prepared to sit on the floor or take your food into the arena with you. There are food outlets such as Subway within the NEC, but if you fancy something a little more classy there are various restaurants at the nearby Resorts World complex. Talking of expense, don’t forget that Crufts offers a discount off the entry price for students so make sure that you take your student ID with you!
Be respectful of any dogs that you encounter. Be mindful that they may be tired, and the show dogs on their benches are likely to be enjoying a well-earned rest. Talk to owners before you make a beeline for their dogs. You might come across flustered entrants rushing through the halls – they might be hurrying to their class or to get their dogs back to their benches so try not to obstruct them. As already mentioned, Discover Dogs is the best opportunity for photo opportunities and cuddles, with all of those dogs just waiting to be fussed over!
Crufts is very child friendly, with free admission for children under 12. Check out the Young Kennel Club (YKC), open to dog lovers between the ages of 6 and 24. The group has its own dedicated ring in Hall 3, where you can watch top young handlers compete. The ‘Safe and Sound’ display held in the Good Citizen Dog Scheme Ring is also a great way of teaching children how to interact safely with dogs. Finally, no Crufts visit would be complete without attempting to win a giant dog! There is usually a stand within the halls where you can either buy a toy dog or try to find a winning ticket and take one home for a couple of pounds. Speaking from experience, carrying a (remarkably realistic) giant Great Dane on your back around five halls is not much fun, so it’s probably best to leave that bit until nearer the end of the day…
If you’re a champion for Staffies then be sure to catch the East Anglian Staffordshire Bull Terrier Display Team – their agility antics take place this year in the Main Arena on Thursday morning. It’s always great fun and very rewarding to watch these dogs and their passionate owners laugh in the face of stereotypes as they have an absolute blast, hurtling around the agility course at top speed. Paul O’ Grady joined the display as a special guest a few years back – who knows whether another celebrity will put in an appearance this time? Either way, it’s a fantastic endorsement for the breed and is not to be missed.
Best in Show requires a separate ticket to general entry, so unless you are lucky enough to have one of these, you won’t be able to gain access to the arena on Sunday after 3:30pm, when the Working and Pastoral groups will be judged before the stage is set for the crowning of Best in Show. Not to worry – you will be able to watch Best in Show live on television. The coverage starts at 6pm on Channel 4. The rest of Crufts is also televised on both Channel 4 and More4. For full TV schedules please click here.
If you’re unable to visit Crufts this time, don’t forget that you can catch the events from the Main Arena live in your living room! The livestream will run throughout the four days and can be accessed via the official Crufts website and YouTube channel. This is also handy if you want to watch something which takes place on a different day to the one you attend. All of the events are then usually loaded separately onto YouTube.
Crufts takes place between the 9th and 12th March at the National Exhibition Centre in Birmingham. For official information, please visit the Crufts website.
Channel 4’s latest canine offering came in the form of Dogs on the Dole, shown last night (23rd July). Seemingly the doggy answer to Benefits Street, the show featured a host of pets who lead a life not too unlike that of their owners, many of whom in receipt of benefits. From a Staffordshire Bull Terrier fed on chocolate and toffee sponge cake, to a Chihuahua transported around in the basket of its owner’s mobility scooter, it became clear relatively early on that this wasn’t going to be a heart-warming documentary about the balanced lives of our nation’s pets.
The work of DogsTrust was the main focus throughout, with the programme demonstrating their welfare schemes such as neutering events and vaccination packages for those who “can’t afford the vets but love their animals”. Sadly many of those unable to afford costly veterinary care were also those looking to make money from their dogs by breeding, much to the dismay of DogsTrust, who noted that cutting down on litters would help to solve the over-flowing crisis plaguing rescue centres throughout the country. Boomer the English Bulldog’s owners were one such couple who wanted to have a litter in order to make some cash, despite being told that their dog had too much skin around his right eye, a genetic defect which would almost certainly be passed on to any puppies the dog sired. Thankfully it seemed that Boomer was not producing enough sperm and so he wouldn’t be used for breeding in the near future.
Boomer’s owners also took their dog to have the operation he needed for his eye defect, which, like when Bowie the chocolate-eating Staffie’s owner had her dog neutered, was a rare moment of solace amongst the otherwise depressing tide of dogs being treated like a money-making tool or being provided with poor care. Bowie’s owner said that she was proud that she had rescued a Staffie, and claims that she gives him a good life. Whilst she clearly does care for Bowie, feeding him a dark chocolate yoghurt on camera after being advised by vets that chocolate is highly poisonous was not an act of love. What Bowie really needs is a diet of dog food, and it is a shame that, despite “the need for a suitable diet” being one of the five welfare needs outlined in the Animal Welfare Act 2007, the staff at DogsTrust could only provide advice, something which one member of staff admitted usually goes straight over the heads of those using their treatment schemes.
Although the trend for ‘dinky dogs’ was highlighted, with one Chihuahua breeder attempting to sell her puppies via Facebook, it was clear from the programme that it is still the Staffordshire Bull Terrier which fills the most kennel spaces within rescue centres. Mark, the owner of the Chihuahua in the mobility scooter, said that he bred Staffies eight years ago but had to give it up because he wasn’t able to get a high price for his puppies – there were simply too many of them around. DogsTrust predicted that rescue centres in the future will be full of both Staffies and the so-called dinky dogs.
Far from ‘warming’, as a Telegraph review described the show, I found the programme quite unsettling. Is it acceptable to treat our dogs as little more than a money-making exercise? Is it entertaining to see a Staffie being fed a dangerously unsuitable diet of human food? What we can learn from the programme is not that dogs are great companions for those on benefits, but that these owners desperately need an education in dog ownership. Yet what hope is there for someone who still intends to breed from a dog with poor genetic makeup? Or those who dump their pet at the nearest rescue centre because they simply “fancied a change”? We can only hope that, at least on some occasions, DogsTrust’s advice will be followed.
‘Dogs on the Dole’ is currently available to watch online on 4 On Demand.
Click here for details about DogsTrust’s neutering scheme.
Screenshots copyright Channel 4
Channel 4’s ‘Going to the Dogs’ documentary was causing controversy long before it aired. Created by award-winning filmmaker Penny Woolcock and featuring actor Dylan Duffus, the programme’s subject was one that stirs up emotions few other topics can: dog fighting. An online petition aiming to prevent the programme from being aired reached 20,000 signatures in just one week. Despite this and the numerous complaints received by Ofcom, Going to the Dogs and its stomach-churning content was still shown last night (Thursday 12th June).
Whilst the majority of those expressing their anger at Channel 4 are dog lovers with a genuine interest in animal welfare, I believe that most of those complaining that it glamorised the ‘sport’ are missing the point. Dog fighting and the lifestyle that goes with it is already glamorised amongst those who participate, or wish to participate, in such events. Would a mainstream television programme featuring sloppy interviews and failed dog fights appeal to future ‘dog men’? Maybe it would. But even more likely to appeal to bloodthirsty youths are the thousands of online videos that were briefly mentioned, and of course the gangsta rap music that makes direct references to tough illegal dogs and actively using dogs as weapons. A clip of rapper DMX in his music video for ‘Ruff Ryders’ Anthem’ was briefly shown; DMX, also known as Earl Simmons, was previously charged with animal cruelty in relation to the neglect of several of his own Pit Bulls. Undoubtedly the rise of the internet and the subsequent easy access to such material has contributed to the “400% increase” in dog fighting cases within recent years, but if the makers of Going to the Dogs are to be believed, the inherent need for ‘blood and guts’ is within all of us, and has existed long before the advent of the computer.
Footage of an organised and apparently popular dog fight in Kashmir featuring large Bully Kutta type dogs was shown, demonstrating that the ‘tradition’ of bloodsports is far from restricted to UK soil. In England, sports such as bull baiting and dog fighting, both outlawed in the Cruelty Against Animals Act 1835, have always been associated with the working classes; the interview with the pheasant shooter was an apparent attempt to demonstrate the social divide and worryingly appeared to be suggesting that if the ‘upper classes’ can participate in the shooting of fowl then perhaps the working classes should be able to fight their dogs. “Each to their own”, said dog fighter El Primo towards the end of the programme.
Comparing illegal dog fighting to the meat industry is dangerous territory, and possibly a part of the programme that should have either been expanded upon or left out completely. Mentioning of the use of animals in circuses would have been a far safer alternative and perhaps a more appropriate link, demonstrating our shift in attitude towards using animals for inhumane entertainment purposes. Does tucking into a burger while deploring dog fighting really make someone a hypocrite? Factory farming may generate a lot of debate but it is a debate that doesn’t seem to effectively tie in with a dog fighting programme. Animal rights campaigners would probably say otherwise, and indeed PETA, the controversial animal rights organisation, commented, “Those of us disgusted by this blood sport should take a look at our own relationship with animals”.
A lot of the controversy surrounding the documentary stems from the attitudes and opinions shown by the filmmaker and crew. Towards the end, Dylan Duffus commented, “it’s what dogs do, I don’t think it’s wrong”, while revelling in his experiences of the fighting ring atmosphere; a disappointing comment that made me wonder whether the programme had the power to encourage the next generation of dog fighters after all. Perhaps even more concerning was the comment made by Woolcock herself, who questioned an owner of a Pit Bull type kept as a family pet why he would have a problem with dog fighting “if the training isn’t cruel and the people are kind to their dogs”. Surely the video evidence of forcing a dog to run on a treadmill to the point of exhaustion, men repeatedly hitting their Pit Bulls and talking about drowning “mashed up” dogs is anything but kind. Perhaps the questioning of morals should have been directed towards other people in the programme, although the owner did make reference to his dog being for protection. He also seemed oblivious and unconcerned by his young child clambering over his dog who appeared to run over its tail with a push along Thomas the Tank Engine toy.
Despite the publicity generated by Going to the Dogs, the programme left a lot of unanswered questions for those who didn’t boycott it. What, apart from an alleged ‘bloodthirst’, makes men want to treat their dogs in this way? Is it money-focused or maintained mostly out of tradition and fuelled by the internet? Does the Pit Bull breed truly reflect the nature of their owners or are they just a symbol of the power and status they want to convey? If Pit Bulls could be owned legally and found their way out of the underground scene, what effect would this have on their reputation? Could BSL actually be encouraging the ownership of ‘game’ Pit Bulls rather than eliminating it? Is the seizure and euthanasia of Pit Bulls really the authority ‘marking their territory’ or was this just another statement to show the alienation felt by these people? What about the increasing trend in dog fights taking place away from the organised rings and happening directly on our streets?
Since the airing, there have been calls from both the RSPCA and other animal welfare groups such as Animal Aid for Channel 4 to release the identities of those involved in the programme to the police. The questions raised about ourselves as ‘users’ of animals, together with the anonymity of the dog fighters, their faces hidden by balaclavas, was an apparent attempt to lead viewers to consider whether they could see themselves behind the mask. If the outrage surrounding the programme is anything to go by, I’d say the answer is most likely to be a resounding no.
‘Going to the Dogs’ is currently available on 4oD.