I spent most of the morning trying to fathom out how the judging system works and how a dog can progress from the first round through to ‘Best of Breed’ and, ultimately, ‘Best in Group’. I chose Greyhounds as the subject for my research as there were quite a few of them around and they are quite easy to see from a distance. Some of the minature-minature hounds don’t present themselves well to anybody who isn’t sitting in the front row; in row three, all you see is somebody walking round with a lead in their hand.
I said earlier that the dogs in Crufts are ‘special’. I stand by that statement although, walking through one of the holding shanty-towns of dog compartments it rapidly became clear to me that some dogs are more special than others. The dog shanty-towns are themselves a site to behold. They cover almost half of each of the arena halls and are made up of row-upon-row of little cubby-holes in which you can fit your dog:
The size of the cubby-hole varies depending on the size of the breed. Some are shoebox-sized and, even then, you still may need a search party to locate your Minature Bolognese (it is a real dog – I checked). The majority of the cubby-holes are the size of those pictured above: comfortable for a Boarder Collie but about three sizes too small for a Great Dame. As you walk through the dog shanty-town you start to get an idea which dogs you should be keeping an eye on. Some dogs simply sit on a blanket in their cubby-hole with their owner / handler perched on the edge. These are the dogs that will go out in the first round.
The important dogs have a whole crew with them (and plenty of bling too). They’ll have their own embroidered matting and blankets and several crates-worth of accessories. If they are of the ‘small’ variety they will have a grooming table set up next to their hole complete with battery-operated hair-dryer. Chairs will be set out in front of the hole and, in some cases, wind-breakers to keep the crowds away. A couple of dogs in the Terrier section had a two rather heavy-set bald gentlemen in dark suits stood either side of their turf.
It became clear that dog-showing is an industry; an obsession. Everybody in a particular breed group seemed to know everybody else. As the crowds gather round the judging ring you can overhear hushed conversations about the background of the person judging the breed today – what they like and what they don’t like and how owners have picked out particular dogs to show based on who the judge was going to be.
At first the judging process seemed a bit bewildering. I picked a seat in the front row next to the judges main table. This turned out to be quite a good choice as each dog would be examined by the judge no less than a metre away from me. For the first couple of rounds I had no idea what was going on: A large number of Greyhounds would appear, there’d be clapping, the dogs would run around and walk back and forth (more clapping) then they’d be a series of gesticulations from the judge, even more clapping, and all the dogs would leave. Much conversation would then erupt between the masses sat round the ring and people would furiously start scribbling down notes in their copies of the breed-listing book.
I think what I saw first up were the preliminary ‘first-cut’ rounds, where dogs are brutally dismissed with the wave of a hand to try and get the numbers down to something more manageable. As the process went on the judging rounds slipped into a familiar pattern. First, fifteen or so dogs would be called out into the ring. They’d be asked to all walk round twice before stopping in a long line around the side of the arena. They’d each in turn be called up by the judge who would poke, probe and prod them for a bit, look at their teeth, and then ask them to walk away from them and back and then around the ring a couple of times. Once this had been done for every dog a shortlist of five or six would be made, parts of the process repeated, and then finally a first, second, third, forth and fifth place awarded.
This judging was repeated for different age-ranges of Greyhounds, both male and female before, eventually, a best of breed was decided upon. The top three Greyhounds of the day are shown below, first place being on the right:
I quickly learned that I knew nothing about what the judges are actually looking for. As someone who owned a dog for over a decade I thought I might – but no. As evidence of how clueless I am: the dog I thought would win in each group was either eliminated in the initial cut or placed last. Every single time.
Example: Take the Greyhound below. Lovely dog, lovely coat, lovely frame and lovely character:
There’s obviously a ‘type’, or some characteristics that I’m blind to. As the rounds go on this becomes more evident as the dogs start to look more and more similar to each other. In the final round for Greyhounds five of the dogs looked identical to the two which eventually placed first and second, so much so that I wonder if the owners ever take home the wrong ones. The other strange correlation I noticed is that, as the rounds go on, the handlers also seem to converge towards a common type. This is not the same across breeds but, for Greyhounds seemed to be women in their thirties in quite smart business suits. For Irish Wolfhounds it seemed to be men in their forties with very dramatic beards (I kid you not).
In fact, if you ever wanted confirmation of the old adage that ‘dogs look like their owners’, or indeed that certain dogs will have a certain type of owner – come to Crufts. The Irish Wolfhound was an extreme example (I do wonder if they orchestrated the whole thing – for those of you who don’t know, Irish Wolfhounds generally have quite impressive beards too – they were even colour-coordinated with their owners) but it was evident across the breeds. If the owners didn’t look like the dogs then there was, at least, a sharp correlation between the owners themselves. Perhaps the most bizarre correlation was that the Deerhounds, themselves huge dogs, seemed to be owned exclusively by very petite people in their twenties. I got the impression that if the dog decided, when out for a walk, that it wanted to go a particular route the owner would have very little say over the matter.
The Greyhound judging took around three hours to complete. The comedy award has to go to the dog that decided to relieve itself whole it was being examined – it managed to miss the judges shoes but not by much!
After the Greyhound judging I had a wander further afield around some of the other halls. In one hall, there is a section where you can go and see an example of every single breed entered in Crufts this year. To entertain myself after lunch I decided to undertake a challenge to find the dog that most looked like a mop. Here is the winner:
No plaiting – that’s its natural look!
Anyway, I must go now and find my way to the main arena. Best in show beckons and I’m hoping that this may be the Boarder Collie’s year!