Crufts: The World’s Greatest Dog Show?

This weekend sees the 132nd edition of Crufts, known as ‘The World’s Greatest Dog Show’. Crufts first began waaay back in 1891 when it was created by its founder, Charles Cruft, a travelling dog biscuit salesman. No doubt at the time it was some kind of marketing technique … little did he know, it would still be going strong 132 years later! I wonder what he would have made of the televised global phenomenon that it has become today? I’m sure he never had plans for anything on quite this scale. Crufts is organised by The Kennel Club and is said to “celebrate every aspect of the role that dogs play in our lives.” It’s a huge annual four-day celebration of our four-legged friends, held at the NEC in Birmingham, attracting over 18,000 competitors and up to 160,000 visitors! There’s a vast array of displays and competitions, including flyball, agility, ‘Freestyle Heelwork to Music’ (essentially dog dancing!), police and medical assistance dog displays and, of course, the breed judging that the show is probably best known for. More recently, they have introduced a parallel competition, affectionately known as ‘Scruffts’ for cross-breeds, as the main event categories are strictly for pedigree dogs. With Scruffts, the emphasis is said to be on fun but also “important messages relating to responsible dog ownership.”

Last year, a flat-coated retriever, Baxer, was crowned Crufts ‘Best in Show’ and the winner of Scruffts’ ‘Family Crossbreed of the Year’ was Questa, a five-year-old Golden Retriever / Labrador cross and assistance dog to Hazel French. The most successful breed in the show’s history is an English Cocker Spaniel, with these dogs earning the ‘Best in Show’ title at total of 7 times throughout the course of the competition, leaving other breeds trailing in their wake. While ‘Best in Show’ is a hugely coveted prize, the prize money is pretty modest (around £100) although winners do also receive a replica of the solid silver Crufts Keddall Memorial Trophy and, of course, as well as the accolade, there’s a huge amount of money to be made in sponsorship deals and stud and breeding fees … and therein lies the controversy surrounding Crufts.

Many people claim that dogs shows, with Crufts at the forefront, are cruel as they pursue physical ‘perfection’ and encourage selective breeding for certain traits. These ‘standards’ vary from breed to breed but they are generally what the judges are looking for when they select a dog as the best example of their particular breed. Dogs in each category aren’t judged against each other, but rather against their specific breed ‘ideals’.

The problem is that, in some cases, these ‘standards’ can have a detrimental effect on the dog’s health.

The pursuit of these can sometimes lead to irresponsible breeding – something that The Kennel Club claims to strongly discourage – but, for this reason, the show has been boycotted since 2008 by charities such as the RSPCA and Dogs Trust. There are queries over how ethical these so-called ‘canine beauty pageants’ are. The Kennel Club does have a code of ethics for breeders and is ultimately responsible for the breed standards they set and their judging practises. However, the RSPCA claim that “the welfare and quality of life of many pedigree and purebred dogs are seriously compromised as a result of selective breeding practices” with the charity calling to “stop the most popular ‘flat-faced’ breeds of French bulldogs, pugs and British bulldogs competing at the annual dog show.” When the same features that are said to be desirable in a breed (such as a short nose) also cause the dogs daily discomfort (due to breathing difficulties), it certainly rings alarm bells. Surely the health, happiness and wellbeing of the dogs should always be the top priority? As a vet and an animal lover, I would definitely say so.

That said, there are also wonderful moments at Crufts so it’s a real marmite affair. Many of the dogs there (even some of the ones that are being pampered and preened) are undeniably very happy and enjoy a close bond with their owners. The ‘Young Handlers’ is a pleasure to watch – there’s something so special about seeing a relationship between a young person and their faithful friend. The flyball competition is astounding – the speed and fitness of these canines is something to behold! The creativity of the freestyle ‘dance’, the amazing agility, and the obedience are all fantastic, too. Many dogs thrive on being kept physically and mentally busy so having a mutual hobby that they can enjoy with their owner can bring joy to both parties and strengthen that special bond between them. Watching the Police Dogs and Medical Dogs on display is awe-inspiring, too – these amazing animals save human lives every day in the line of duty; we owe them so much. I also love the relatively recent addition of the Scruffts competition (introduced in 2000), which has a totally different emphasis from the main pedigree competition. Instead of looking primarily at breed characteristics and traits, judges here are looking for qualities that make a special family dog or pet.

So, love it or hate it, there are definitely pros and cons to the self-proclaimed ‘World’s Greatest Dog Show’ … but will you be tuning in? I’ll certainly be taking a look at some of it, as there’s irrefutable joy to be seen on some of the dogs’ faces that never fails to makes me smile. Should rules be tightened up and judging standards altered – across all dog shows, not just Crufts – to once and for all put a stop to irresponsible breeding in pursuit of a false objective of ‘perfection’? Without a doubt. We owe it to our four-legged friends. After all, look what they do for us.