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.
Crufts, the world’s biggest dog show, celebrated its 125th anniversary this year. Sadly, as usual the event didn’t pass without controversy, as The Kennel Club once again came under fire for allowing a “deformed” German Shepherd Dog to advance to best of breed. Viewers who witnessed the television footage of the dog in the main arena on Saturday night expressed shock and disbelief at the sight of the visibly distressed animal, and since the dog barely managed a trot around the ring, the majority of the footage was abruptly cut short (the ‘full’ version of the clip can be seen here). But German Shepherds with extreme sloping backs winning at Crufts is nothing new – search on YouTube for any year of pastoral group judging (like this one from 2012, German Shepherd at 21:25 minutes, or this one from 2015, with a more obvious sloping back at 20:01) and you will see how the ‘frog-legged’ German Shepherds never fail to appear.
Compare the two photographs below. The dog on the left is Ramacon Swashbuckler, Crufts Best in Show for 1971. On the right is Cruaghaire Catoria, the dog at the centre of this year’s controversy. Although the 1971 champ’s back isn’t straight, particularly in comparison to most ‘working line’ dogs, it is clearly a different animal to the show line German Shepherd of today.
However, the Crufts team on Channel 4 were quick to address the issue during the following night’s programme. Perhaps in previous years it would have been easier to sweep the negative press under the carpet, but thanks to advances in social media, it seemed like everyone was talking about the German Shepherd, making it impossible to ignore. But the ‘discussion’ on live TV still left us wondering how on Earth the dog managed to achieve the title of best of breed. And talking about one individual dog is not going to change anything, either – there is a much bigger picture here, for it seems that there is major conflict between the views of show judges and the majority of the public as to what constitutes a healthy example of a German Shepherd Dog. Take a look at the breed standard, which emphasises that the dog should be “fit for function” and able to perform “traditional work” – even the tiny illustration of a German Shepherd in the top right corner looks nothing remotely like Catoria. And so arguing over whether one individual animal should be present in the competition is futile when it appears that judges are actively working against the breed standard, and this is clearly something which has been happening for many years. Drastic steps now need to be taken, otherwise the best of breed German Shepherd for next year’s show could well be a Catoria clone – or worse.
From all this, it may seem like I am one of the many people who refuse to visit Crufts over ‘cruelty’ fears. Not so! I adore Crufts. In fact, I jokingly refer to it as the highlight of my year (ok, maybe I’m not even joking). For three days of the show I was glued to the livestream from the main arena, hooked on the various stages of agility and flyball competitions. Since Crufts is local to us, being held in Birmingham since 1991, I’ve been lucky enough to be able to attend the show for almost as long as I can remember, and this year was no exception. Friday was an action-packed day as me and my dog-loving friend exhausted all five halls of the NEC, chowed down on what has now become the ‘traditional’ Crufts pork bap and met lots of breeds at Discover Dogs. As always, though, the arena programme was the highlight and we welcomed the opportunity to rest our aching feet and watch some of the best agility dogs from around the world compete, including the wonderful Ashleigh and Pudsey.
My genuine affection for Crufts is probably one of the reasons why I feel so disappointed that such an odd-looking German Shepherd was presented as the best example of its breed. With such obvious disregard for animal welfare, is it any wonder that the BBC dropped its television coverage of the event back in 2009? It is perhaps also the reason why the RSPCA’s #dogsbeingdogs made my hackles rise. The idea behind the hashtag was for people to share photos of their pets in their natural environment as a ‘true’ celebration of dogs. When I saw the hashtag I couldn’t help but think that I’d seen plenty of examples of ‘dogs being dogs’ at Crufts – from the amazing West Midlands Police Dog Unit display, to the unbridled excitement of the flyball teams, the unmistakable bond between assistance dog and disabled owner, the talent and training abilities shown during heelwork to music routines… The list goes on. The trade stands also provide a great opportunity for canine charities to promote their work, something which the RSPCA now miss out on since withdrawing their support from the show.
During our day at Crufts I didn’t see one dog that looked mistreated. Tired, yes, but abused? Definitely not. And yet there are clearly issues with pedigree dogs and the standards by which they are judged. This is where we have to be careful with the use of the term ‘cruel’. For while the public branded Catoria’s breeder cruel for producing such a deformed looking dog, the general idea of creating a dog like Eric the Pekingese – an animal which, in its ‘show coat’, is about as far removed from the natural wolf-like state as you could possibly get – was seen as some sort of joke. It seems very hypocritical to complain about the state of the German Shepherd while sharing pictures of Eric photoshopped on to Donald Trump’s head.
‘Cruel’ should be a term reserved for dog fighters or people who abandon their pets at the side of the road (or worse still, move house and leave them to starve to death). It seems wrong to refer to such an amazing and enjoyable event as cruel, with no evidence of malnourished or abused dogs. There are undoubtedly many flaws when it comes to The Kennel Club and its breed standards, but there are also positive sides to the organisation too, as pointed out by ‘Supervet’ Noel Fitzpatrick on the show. In my view, the heart of Crufts is a celebration of dogs. There has to be other ways of putting pressure on the Kennel Club to change its ways; boycotting the whole event for fear of ‘supporting cruelty’ really would be barking mad.