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Woof woof - Clare goes to Crufts
By Martin "Not allowed on the couch" Kelner on Feb 16, 2011 - 5:26:53 PM

The Crufts dog show - or DFS Crufts, as it now likes to be called - has been kicked, sad-eyed and yelping, to More 4. Either it has fallen out with the BBC because it made a mess on the living-room carpet or the branding barks a little too loudly for a public-service broadcaster. The slogan "think sofas, think DFS" around the arena at Birmingham's NEC certainly had me thinking sofas, and not before time, what with the DFS winter sale ending in just three days. Fortunately, in a bizarre twist of fate, the spring sale started two days ago.

Sponsorship or not, More 4 has wisely maintained a link with Crufts' BBC days by retaining the puppy-dog enthusiasm, bright eyes and glossy coat of the indefatigable presenter Clare Balding, who I believe may have travelled all the way to the assignment with her head sticking out of the car window.

She bounded into the NEC at the end of a strange week for dogs. It began with news footage of toddlers' scarred legs and man's best friend being rapped on the snout, told to sit and have microchips fitted, like a tin of Tesco beans. It ended with some positive PR for the species at their annual shindig, where they were cooed over, petted, praised wildly and generally given a level of care and attention rarely lavished on a human outside of a barmitzvah in Los Angeles.

Not that Clare, who can be quite a tenacious newshound, was unaware of the controversy surrounding dog breeding. She was eager to stress this was now a politically correct Crufts where the emphasis would be on "happy, healthy" dogs rather than the pompadoured freaks of nature that have sometimes won in the past.

She raised the issue of micro-chipping with her guest, the vet Marc Abrahams, who was very much in favour, and said the dogs mostly did not mind it either. This recalled for me one of my favourite jokes, probably unsuitable for quoting family website like this, the punchline of which runs: "Well, give him a dog biscuit and he might let you."

For those of us who remain neutral about dogs - dognostics, if you will - Crufts is as strange and foreign a ritual as the Khangai Mountains Yak Festival (an annual event in Mongolia which I expect to see on Transworld Sport soon), and is difficult to view without an ironically raised eyebrow. As Christopher Guest underlined in Best in Show, his very funny spoof documentary - dogumentary, if you will - for us it is more about the humans than the animals.

When it comes to that richly comic sequence where the dogs run round the parade ring to be judged, with their owners holding the lead, trying to keep up, often wearing clothing entirely unsuitable for a vigorous jog, and the commentator Frank Kane says, "Beautiful substance, strong shoulders, lovely outline, slight slope from the withers," there is very little chance I will be looking at the dog.

What is it, you wonder, about these doggy types that they will buy their pet the latest protective clothing, whatever the cost, to keep it from catching a chill, and make sure it eats only the finest nutrients, yet not invest in a sports bra for themselves (and the women are just as bad)? As Jerry Seinfeld says, if a visitor from outer space were to observe a dog walking round a park with its human attendant following behind, scooping, it would report back that this planet is under canine control.

The dogs do sport too, taking part in a game called flyball, a relay race contested by teams with names like Wilmslow Wagtails and Warrington Woofers, and proving themselves rather easier to drill than the 20 young unemployed men whom Scott Quinnell and Will Greenwood are trying to mould into a rugby union team in the Sky Sports reality show School of Hard Knocks.

As a confidence-building exercise, the team members were taken to mock job interviews this week. If you have ever lain awake at night wondering what happened to the Apprentice winner Lee McQueen, who did the so-called "reverse pterodactyl" impression (no, me neither), here he was - he is a "development director" now - quizzing the lads. One was asked about his poor timekeeping and said he was only ever late when he had a valid excuse, "like when the police break down your door and are all over the place looking for drugs".

Lee and his colleagues reckoned the mention of police raids and drugs at the first interview stage might have been something of an own goal, the kind of strategic error your well-bred pomeranian sheepdog would never make.

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