Toy dog day at Crufts - but it's not fur everyone
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Friday at Crufts is toy dog day, which for the uninitiated means a lot of fur. Pomeranians, chihuahuas, pekingese and Chinese crested may not be everyone’s juicy bone, but in a jam-packed NEC in Birmingham, it was clear they were not short of fans.

“I can’t believe how busy it is!” said Caroline Kisko, who as secretary of the Kennel Club has been top dog at the world’s biggest canine show for almost 20 years. Advance ticket sales are well up on last year, she said, and entry numbers for Thursday, the first day of this year’s show, were also higher than anticipated. More than 160,000 visitors are expected at the four-day event.

Crufts may never be far from controversy, but it doesn’t seem to have dented its popularity. Two years after it was hit by a poisoning scandal, when it was (wrongly) thought that a red setter was fed pesticide at the show, and a year after an outcry over the decision to name a German shepherd that appeared to have difficulty walking as best in breed, this huge canine carnival is more popular than ever.

For Louise Stafford Roberts from Swansea, brushing and trimming her champion bichon frise Trouble in one of the six vast exhibition halls, the attraction was clear. “It’s the buzz of it. I just love it. You meet people, make new friends.”

Trouble, a walking pompom of the foamiest white, was named best in breed last year, and Stafford Roberts and her family wore customised diamante jackets in tribute. Did things ever get a little bitchy or over-competitive? “Oh god, yeah. People can make snide remarks, that kind of thing, but it doesn’t bother me. To be honest, bichon people are very friendly. We all go camping together.”

Chihuahua people, by contrast, “always love a bit of glamour”, according to Paula Hunter from Hemsby, Norfolk, who was waiting to show her long-haired two-year-old bitch Poppy, after Bling, one of her male chihuahuas (she has 13) had failed to hit the mark in his category.

“He’s a little bit big if I’m being honest, and her head isn’t as good as I would like, but you’re always going to be picky about your own dogs.”

Poppy sported a diamante collar and Hunter wore a sparkling headband and shoes. So it’s true that dog owners grow to resemble their dogs? “Oh yes. We both love a bit of bling.”

For those who like dogs, particularly the pedigree variety, the 126-year-old Crufts certainly strives to be a slice of doggy paradise. Dozens of rings across the site stage breed competitions all day, every day. The main arena has a similarly packed programme of agility shows and dog-and-owner dance contests (“heelwork to music”) that on Friday, among other performances, featured a woman dressed as a native American contorting in tribal dance while her border terrier twisted between her legs, the dance concluding with the dog bowing before a metre-high totem pole.

And everywhere are stalls, flogging a brain-boggling array of canine accoutrements: chains, collars, leashes and toys, of course, but also grooming harnesses, scissors and finishing sprays, and clothing for owners and pooches alike.

It’s not all heavenly, however. Alex Croft from Huyton in Liverpool had been talking about his English bulldog Missy for only a few moments when another breeder interrupted to demand why he was talking to the press. “It’s just that we have a lot of people trying to make trouble for us,” she explained, without apology.

“It’s the health thing,” explained Croft – bulldogs have been among the breeds singled out for concern over dangerous selective breeding, which he thought was unfair. “I think the breeders who come to shows have always bred healthy dogs. It’s more the backyard breeders.”

Which does not quite explain why Tori the German shepherd, bred with such a sloping back and short legs that she was described as “half dog, half frog”, was named the best of its breed last year. Kisko admits that “the dog did not look happy in the ring”, but Crufts declined to reverse the result.

Was she really confident that the Kennel Club, which sets the “ideal” standards for each breed in the UK, was doing enough to tackle dangerous breeding? “There are so many things we have brought in, but it’s hard to expect everything to be effective overnight,” she said. Crufts has introduced new checks before all dogs enter an arena, and health plans formulated by a vet-geneticist for every breed are gradually being rolled out.

The biggest problem, Kisko said, were unscrupulous puppy farmers, particularly those importing “really enormous numbers” of puppies from eastern Europe to fuel demand for the most fashionable dogs – many of which are the flat-faced breeds which can have the most problems.

She said: “One thing that is a plus of Brexit is that we start to return to having some control over our borders in terms of our dogs.