Crufts has outgrown all its previous homes, and is now held at the National Exhibition Centre in Birmingham. In five vast halls laid with lurid carpets, smelling of dog and hairspray – two smells I will never again untangle – the best dog in Britain waits. He may be on a lead, or standing on a table, or evacuating on a pile of sawdust surrounded by iron bars and security guards. The press office is full of dog journalists, who are kindly and stare at dogs professionally, and see things I don’t. A German shepherd sits behind the press desk. “He’s having a rest,” says a human.
Crufts is not really for dogs, even if there are 21,000 here – invited after victory at lesser dog shows. Dogs take what comes. They blow with the wind. Instead, Crufts is for humans, and it speaks to their infinite ways of consoling and amusing themselves. I have a dog now myself. He is called Virgil (Thunderbird, not Roman poet ) and I bought him from a man I met in Carphone Warehouse. He may be part jack russell and part dachshund or – my fantasy – rottweiler. I don’t know, but it is soothing to live with a creature who thinks I am a god; a child who will never grow up. At Crufts, Virgil is eligible only for Scruffts, the tactlessly named consolation prize for crossbreeds. But Virgil has made me curious about dog shows. How obsessed can you be with dogs and stay sane?
There are many prizes to be won at Crufts , in obedience, agility and flyball (a relay with balls), but it’s best in show that counts: the winner is a dog as close to perfect as there is, photographed amid the sponsor’s dog food, not knowing what the hell is going on.
To get to best in show, you first have to win a best of breed competition, held in one of several rings within the halls. I come upon these almost by surprise and am enchanted: a parliament of chow chows; a conclave of basset hounds; a confederation of labradors all looking in the same direction, like a party filled with benign willingness. The dogs go from wooden bench (the grooming perch) to sawdust cage to ring. If they win (a complex drama in itself, for there are age- and sex-dependent rounds first), they go to the main arena to compete in best of group, which provides the seven finalists for best in show. It is essentially the plot of the musical 42nd Street , in which a girl steps out of the chorus line to stardom. But dogs are eager; that is their charm and their fatal flaw. There is almost no barking at Crufts. It is days before I notice this.
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The first best in group is gundog, and the numbers are testament to the British obsession with labradors. The arena is blackish and vast, and Crufts is written in diamanté sparkles on the curtain, which faces a red dais for senior Kennel Club officials. They are almost all male and suited and, loving dogs as they do, they are very keen on hand gestures; they seem in constant danger of giving high fives. The women, meanwhile, are dressed for a garden party. Security is tight; at the presentation for best in show last year, screened live on the BBC, two P eta activists invaded the arena to protest against extreme breeding, which no one talks about here. They were rugby-tackled as the winning owner gathered her whippet Tease into her arms like a baby.
The dogs process into the arena and are welcomed by a man who sounds like Graham from Blind Date. They run across the room (styles of doing this vary from merry to angst-ridden to wild) and gather in a horseshoe shape while a judge stares at them with the fervent seriousness of a priest. Owners arrange dog feet. They produce combs – sometimes from their own hair – and groom coats, often surreptitiously. They hold the tail out, to make the dog seem longer.
Behind the ring, the contestants wait with their dogs in a circle of chairs that resembles an AA meeting. They don’t speak before a competition. They are busy combing, and wave me away. The winners are interviewed, the press photographers growling and clucking, making insane whirring noises with their tongues to get the dogs to look at the cameras. The most important dogs are removed to be interviewed by Clare Balding behind a curtain.
The Irish water spaniel Gloi Donn All or Nothing at Stanegate, also known as Luther, for the actor Idris Elba , wins best gundog. Most dogs have two names: a fantastical Kennel Club name that tells normal dogs and owners that Crufts dogs are nobility; and a home name, which is pronounceable in public without the presumption, in onlookers, of madness. Luther’s grandfather, Whistlestop’s Elements of Magic, or Merlin, won best of breed at Crufts in 2012.
I wait behind Balding’s curtain with Luther’s owner (or “Dad”), who is pushing a wheeled dog cage containing a bottle of champagne. Most dogs are transported by cage; some are veiled, as if the dog is an aristocratic matron. Luther’s “Mum” arrives. “Irish water spaniels are known as the clown of the gundog breed, and he’s no exception,” she says. “He just loves everything and everybody.” All owners say this. Dogs are an inexhaustible font of validation.
I ask the judge why she chose Luther. She has a vast bun and wise eyes. “Every dog has its blueprint, so as you are going over the dog, you are thinking of that blueprint in your head,” she replies. “I know exactly what they should be looking like. Have they got the correct eye shape, all this sort of thing.” She gives me a slightly pitying look. “It’s not as hard as it looks.”
As I leave, I meet a beautiful dog. I will not reveal his name or breed, as this was off the record, but he puts his paws on my shoulders and holds me close while his human companion says: “This is the dog show we love to hate. It’s so hard on the dogs. There’s so much security.” So why do they come?
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The following morning, I meet Natasha Wise and her border collie Nedlo Flipping Shiny Pebble, or Pebbles the agility dog. Pebbles is smooth and lithe; she exudes intelligence. Agility courses, which look like playgrounds dropped on to showjumping arenas, are tough. I stared at one for an hour, and I did not understand it. That is why videos of dogs refusing to leave tunnels, or happily going the wrong way, go viral on Twitter. Pebbles has a vet physio and, when I meet her, she is lying down on a hot-water bottle receiving a massage. The plan is to relax her, and then fire her, like a gun, into the ring. If I was laughing inwardly at the hot-water bottle, I stop when Pebbles burns up the course.
I meet Lynn Pallatina and her Swedish vallhund Starvon All Eyes on Me At Valltineya, or Loki. To her shock, he won best of breed last year. “As a small person in a big sea of people,” she says, her eyes still amazed, “it’s a massive achievement. It’s the kind of thing you only expect big breeders to achieve. But for somebody like me, who just fell into the show world very recently, it’s amazing. He was out on the magical green carpet last year. That is what I call it.”
Pallatina suffers from fibromyalgia, she adds, and anxiety. “I’m a lot more comfortable around my dogs and my old dog was getting a little bit old. I wanted something small and compact that I could have a go at doing things with, trying to overcome my problems.”
Today, Loki wins best ofbreed again. When I hear the news, I beat my way through dogs and men to find her. “I don’t think there’s a sentence I could say that explains how I feel,” she says. “I am very much in shock. I think I need a lot of drink now.” I ask the judge for feedback. “He had the correct wedge-shaped head,” she says, because Crufts judges are impervious to cuteness.
That night at the pastoral group, the owners seem to fly across the ring, holding their dogs’ leads up toward the ceiling. The dogs are projected on to screens, so you can see only the owners’ feet. I wonder if they spend a lot of time thinking about their shoes, and decide they don’t. Pallatina, though, walks very slowly and deliberately across the magical green carpet, as if she is dreaming, but must not make mistakes in her dreamland. Despite this, Loki is beaten by a samoyed called Dorian Spring Charleen Lumiere de la Vie, who looks like an overly delighted blob of cotton wool.
On Saturday, thousands of people shuffle around the halls filling dog-themed wheeling baskets with dog paraphernalia. Moving is almost impossible. People with multiple vast dogs greet each other at intersections and chat, and no one can move until they part. So I abandon my fantasy of meeting every best of breed and meet Marie Burns, whose west highland white terrier Berneze Georgie Girl, or Devon, won best in show in 2016 . She is drying the feet of Devon’s daughter, Burneze Maid to Order, or Becky. Around her, people are brushing their dogs on what look like ironing boards. Mostly, dog people look like committed hairdressers with very small clients.
“You don’t win any prize money showing dogs,” Burns says. “It is purely for the passion. People pick a breed they really care about, and it’s just safeguarding this breed – breeding the next good-quality generation.” This breed used to hunt rats in the Scottish Highlands. They don’t do that now, Burns says, but they could if they had to. Becky wins best puppy. Burns is “over the moon”.
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I watch the Irish wolfhound competition, some of it with Chris Amoo, who used to be a member of the soul group the Real Thing , who had a hit with You To Me Are Everything, which is my favourite song of the 70s. “It was always my dream that, when we had our first hit record, I was going to buy an open-top sports car with an Afghan [hound] in the back,” he says. So he did, and won best in show in 1987 with Viscount Grant. Today, Amoo wins junior dog with Sade Paris and junior bitch with Sade Rainbow. He is not concerned that they progress no further. “They’re only young,” he says happily. “Normally it’s more mature dogs that win.” For Amoo, dog-showing is socialising, but with dogs. He introduces me to the judge. “I have had an absolute ball,” the judge says. “I have been in charge of this enormous ring full of wonderful hounds, all watching me. If that doesn’t inflate your ego, I don’t know what does.”
The emotional bonds are explicit. I pass a hound and ask her owner: why this breed? “Wolfhounds sort of lean against you,” she says softly, meditating on it. I feel intense love for the best of breed miniature smooth-haired dachshund Picollo Teckel Never Say Never at Royalmaple, or Nellie. She is black and shiny as coal, soft as velvet. Dachshunds can barely climb stairs, and some people advise them not to try to jump on sofas, for fear of spinal injuries. “She’s very special because she’s like a cat,” her owner says. “She paws your face with affection, she sleeps in the bed.” Does she know she won, I ask. “She knows too much,” he says.
In the arena, I watch the terriers, in tribute to my Virgil. I show his photograph to a breed expert and ask if he has some rottweiler; he stares at me and says simply, “Welsh terrier.” The Norfolk terrier takes ages to cross the floor. The Bedlington looks like an alien. The Scottish appears to have no legs. In the hound group, the Finnish spitz barks at the judge, a rare act of defiance. The dogs are tired. Some lie down, defeated by their own charisma. If the owners dare to sit down with them, they are rebuked with hand gestures from officials, as if they, too, were dogs. I overhear a woman say, sighing: “I have to get up at 7am to collect a whippet’s semen.” Her companion nods kindly, as if she understands.
On the final day, I interview a man who paints dog sculptures. He is adding brown and gold to a dog’s coat with a tiny brush. I am from the Guardian, I say. He puts down his tiny paintbrush and asks me why the Guardian has been so unkind to Bashar al-Assad . He tries to show me a violent video on his smartphone as evidence of crimes against Assad, but his wife berates him. This being Crufts, there is another dog sculptor a few booths away and he is not a conspiracist. He makes dog sculptures using a 3D printer, so that people don’t have to pay thousands of pounds. He says the biggest 3D printers can do a full-sized horse in two parts, but there isn’t a need for it here.
It is the toy and utility finals today, and then best in show. I am told that if I want to find “snooty” owners – my source stuck her nose in the air as she said it, like an Afghan hound – I will find them today. I lurk in the ring trying to interview the winner of best poodle (standard), an extraordinary creature called Afterglow Poppa Don’t Preach who looks like an angry ballerina, but I am too early and the judge snaps at me to get off his carpet. I interview the poodle’s groomer instead. She wears an apron that has a pocket carrying hairspray and a comb. “She is quite the princess,” she says. “She likes to sit on her big fluffy dog bed and have us give her a spa day, all day, before she goes in the ring.”
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Crufts rolls towards its climax. Before best in show, I go into the arena to watch the West Midlands police dog display. Among a tough crowd, this is the most insane thing I see at Crufts. Actors dressed as “criminals” enter the ring, wearing hoodies and thick arm pads, shuffling like Frankenstein’s monsters. They throw handbags at each other to the sound of We Will Rock You. The police unleash dogs and they attack the hoodies to jeers. One particularly dangerous criminal – the narrator calls him “Mr Smug Angry” – gets two dogs on him, one on each arm. And two policemen with what I think are automatic rifles. And a Jeep, which rolls in with flashing lights. Then dogs search the stands for contraband, presumably heroin and explosives. There is a brief flash of alarm when this is announced, then we realise they are only searching the Kennel Club stands. There will be no drugs there. The dogs are the drugs.
We return to the relative sanity of best toy dog, a papillon called Dylan the Villain. He doesn’t look particularly villainous – not like, say, Jacob Rees-Mogg . He looks like mogwai from Gremlins after a lifetime of being married to Cristiano Ronaldo . I position myself nearby and Dylan the Villain licks my face. He smells wonderful, as if he were at least two-thirds beauty product, and I believe he is aware, on some mysterious dog level, of his importance.
Dylan the Villain goes on to win best in show; the tension, as Joan Didion says, breaks here. His owner is styled to match him; they are both in black and white. She talks about joy, and holds Dylan upside down for the cameras. The photographers make their dog noises at him – how I wish they would do that to politicians! – but at Crufts, at least partially, dogs become human and humans become dogs. It is the logical endpoint of our relationship with them, and our tribute to their shining acceptance of slavery. If it looks completely mad from the outside, after four days here, I understand it
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