I've always wanted to go to Crufts, but somehow every March there was some reason why it was impossible. But this year, I finally made it.
In my imagination, Crufts was one big hall full of a whole load of different dogs - fluffy, sleek, leggy, stumpy, barky, lugubrious - and I could see myself sitting on the floor surrounded by glorious canines, tickling their ears and getting thoroughly covered in dog drool.
It wasn't like that at all. For a start off, the NEC in Birmingham is like five interconnected aircraft hangars and for seconds, the dogs are organised. All the Spaniels over here, the Alsatians over there, the Yorkies down the way... so you get overwhelmed by a single breed. There's something destabilising about finding yourself in a sea of identical Golden Retrievers.
Also, Crufts is exhausting. The doggies and their owners are fresh and sparky on the first day but by the fourth and last, everywhere you look owners and their dogs are flaked out together, their paws twitching as they dream of a quiet basket by the Aga.
You walk miles at Crufts. It's like spending all day hiking - to get coffee, to find a dog loo, to buy more Sunday Roast Lunch Flavour doggy treats, to hunt for sandwiches, or a comb, or a bank machine because you saw a cute collar and lead... you're on your feet all day. The myriad stands sell everything; baskets, beds, duvets, blankets, carrying bags, doggy prams, crates, kennels, runs, dog-proof garden fencing, dog fur hoovers, carpet cleaners, sofa covers, doggy pharmaceuticals, every kind of canine cuisine imaginable (including pup-cakes which are meaty-flavoured, salt-free, organic cup-cakes for your stinky pal), coats, hats, bootees, pyjamas, books on dogs, and things with dogs printed on them (including cups, t-shirts, pens, stickers, books, note-paper, table-cloths, calendars, bags, greetings cards, door bells, jeans, coats, hats, gloves), combs, brushes, hair clips, doggie-jewellery, shampoo and conditioner, towels, blankets... you get physically lost and mentally disorientated, there's so much doggie stuff for sale.
I managed to restrain my purchases to the Sunday Dinner bic-bics, a doggie quilt decorated with dog leads and the word "Walkies!", two window stickers and a box of chocolates (for humans) decorated with the words "Life without dogs? I don't think so." Very modest in the circumstances I'm sure you'll agree.
But the stands are really just a side show. The really doggy stuff is the demonstrations and hands on doggy-worshipping at the Discover Dogs section. This is a display of all the dog breeds in the UK, all of them washed and scrubbed up, ready to be stroked and petted by total strangers all day long while their adoring owners talk about their breed characteristics. It takes forever to discover them all.
And once you've done that, there are the demonstrations and these cover absolutely everything. Some of them are quite earnest, the junior handlers competitions for example in which children get their dogs to come, sit, stay. (Yawn, scratch, lie down with nose between paws.) Others are strictly for fun, like distraction alley in which back-street mongrels have to walk to heel past such divine temptations as bacon sandwiches and turkey trimmings. The British heelwork-to-music champ demonstrated how to teach a dog walk backwards through your legs. I can't remember how he did it now, but I remember thinking how easy he made it look. (I'll try that with my dog once I've taught her to get off to the sofa and give me the remote.)
There was all the other stuff too; police dogs, sniffer dogs, rescue dogs, assistance dogs, sheep dogs, gun dogs, hounds... all of them being impressive in one way or another. I've never seen so many consciously well-behaved dogs. There was absolutely no barking, no growling, no muttering under the breath at dogs in the next door crate...
And then finally, after being lost at Crufts for nearly a week you arrive at the Main Ring: the centre of the universe for many dog-lovers. This is where the judging takes place for the coveted "Best in Show" cup. Out of the 28,000 dogs who visit Crufts over four days, 22,000 of them are there for this competition. Winning it means eternal glory for breeders, owners, handlers and even the dogs themselves and they come from all over the world for a chance at the dog world's top prize.
So how can I possibly have found the endless heats and semi-finals not that interesting? I'm obviously out of my head, that's how. I confess that I found the other displays in the Main Ring more interesting. The international heelwork-to-music competition had me on the edge of my seat, the rescue dogs' showing off their skills was a right old tear-jerker and I'm always a sucker for a soldier cuddling a cute doggy. But there was more, there was flyball and agility. Flyball is a relay race involving teams of dogs catching tennis balls, and agility is basically an obstacle race against the clock.
I was glued. But torn, because of all the other demonstrations going on in the other rings in the other five hangars with the 6,000 other dogs who weren't entered in the Best in Show competition. But I didn't want to miss the formation heelwork or the assistance dogs or the junior heelwork-to-music or the small dogs agility or any of it, really.
On the other hand, I did have those "Life without dogs" chocs to buy and I had to have several cuddles with a large St Bernard. So in the end, the decision was really very simple.
I'll have to go back next year.
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