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The furiously competitive world of dog shows

Generic picture of a poodle Image copyright Thinkstock

The competitive world of dog shows is under the spotlight after the death - apparently through poisoning - of an Irish setter at Crufts.

The dog, known as Jagger, died after leaving the NEC in Birmingham where the show took place. His owners say he had eaten poisoned beef.

There is no suggestion at this stage that the dog was poisoned by a rival exhibitor. Jagger's co-owner Jeremy Bott said the poisoner may have been acting on a grudge against dogs or dog shows.

Crufts says it has never had a poisoning case before. And poodle owner Mike Gadsby says owners would never go that far. "We are competitive in the ring. People don't all get on but there is a lot of camaraderie."

Crufts has been the subject of intense criticism before. A 2008 BBC documentary said some dogs were suffering acute problems because looks are emphasised over health when breeding dogs for shows. The row led to a complaint from the Kennel Club.

But despite that controversy, dog owners are adamant that nothing untoward regularly occurs at shows.

Most owners have a sense of "fair play", says Liz Jay, who owns a grooming parlour near York and goes to Crufts every year. They take pride in a dog's exploits and want to win. Jay likens it to the feeling a parent has when their child paints a picture at school and enters it into a competition.

The "competitive streak has been enhanced" in recent years, she says, and sometimes things go too far. A few owners from outside the UK are more pushy, she argues. "Occasionally we see it at the big shows where exhibitors from the continent barge your dog with theirs. If your dog is not happy, theirs will look better," Jay says.

Wendy Hines, a dog show judge, says one owner makes sure to stand in front of rivals' dogs to obscure the judge's view. She recalls a fellow judge, who was known to favour black and white dogs, overseeing a show in America. The judge gave a prize to a black and white dog. Then a few days later the judge saw the same dog win at another show, only this time as grey and white. A dye had been used to win the first show - something that doesn't happen in the UK, Hines says.

Image copyright Getty Images

The stakes are higher today with more dogs coming to Crufts from abroad, many say. Sandy Vincent, secretary of the Standard Poodle Club, points to the dog that won best of breed in the standard poodle category. "The dog comes from Australia. It's like a race horse - it takes a lot of time and effort and money to keep so you make damn sure yours is going to look stunning."

The Kennel Club, which organises Crufts, has rules banning certain substances. For instance, a dog's coat cannot be made shiny with hairspray or whitened with chalk, which could also be used to dry wet fur.

Despite reports over the past few years that the Kennel Club has relaxed its rules and stopped random testing, club secretary Caroline Kisko says this has never been the case.

"The Kennel Club views using products to alter the dog coat's colour as, in essence, cheating. If a breed's coat colour should be black and someone has dyed it or used chalk to make it whiter that is not fair on the other dogs."

But Gadsby says there is nothing wrong with using product on a dog and that many people do it. "If you wash a dog you change the natural texture of the coat." He fails to see how "innocuous" products like sprays, talcum powder or chalk are cheating.

There are no rules to prevent this at US dog shows. "The whole dog showing game is very different in America - they pay professional handlers there. We are showing family pets. In America there is more money involved," says Kisko.

There is some gamesmanship, Kisko concedes. "It's inevitable you do get some people who don't quite play the game [fairly]." However the vast majority of exhibitors are committed to ensuring that cheating doesn't happen and that no dog is harmed, she says.

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