The nearest I have ever got to Crufts in the 25 years I have been in Parliament is presenting the prizes at a local constituency dog show. But as this is the week of Crufts, I hope the Kennel Club will forgive me for saying that the dog I like best is not one of the purebreds so admired at the world’s best-known dog show, but Cosby, my curly coat retriever/Labrador cross.
He’s my sixth guide dog and a very handsome mutt he is too, weighing almost 43kg (95lb), long of leg, gentle of temperament and very lovable. While the skills of guide dogs are not recognised at Crufts, never mind crossbreeds, all dog owners share a common responsibility – namely teaching obedience.
I believe that it is entirely down to the owner how a dog behaves, and over the past 14 weeks, Cosby and I have been engaged in something of a duel of wills. The challenge is simple – who is boss?
He is proving somewhat wilful – I believe partly because he is much younger than my previous two guide dogs, Sadie and Lucy, were when they were handed over to me, and partly because he was allowed to get away with too much when he was a puppy.
Dogs are creatures of habit. If they think they can get away with something, they will. One of my first challenges in the first week of Cosby and I getting to know each other was to deal with his little expedition early one morning to eat my porridge, which I had rather foolishly left on the worktop while I nipped upstairs.
I now confess that I fell into the trap of most dog owners and I wasn’t as tough with him then as I ought to have been. There is no doubt in my mind that training a young dog is very much like bringing up young children. The messages you send and the consistency you display make all the difference as to whether they feel they can get away with being naughty!
There is, by necessity, a very great difference between a dog trained for exhibition or competition and a working dog. But both need to enjoy what they are being asked to do, and both need to bond with the owner, as this develops respect and a genuine desire to please.
In the case of Cosby, the sheer amount of travelling and the variation in venues and experiences, create the interest that keeps him alert and wanting to work. As he is still a young dog, off the harness Cosby loves to play and fortunately when I am out of London it is possible to give him plenty of runs in the countryside.
I can now enjoy most Sundays off, which was impossible when I was a Cabinet Minister, and we make the most of it. He loved the recent snow and the slopes of Derbyshire make great sledging territory. It would be a cold heart indeed not lifted by the sight of a joyful dog catching snowballs, chasing sledges and rolling in the snow.
But cold weather brings its hazards and who can forget the man who recently, when out walking with his family, stripped to his underpants and crawled over a frozen river to rescue his little dog who had gone through the ice. Foolhardy he no doubt was – but what a hero to his wife and family!
Only dog owners would understand that kind of love. A dog is a combination of a demanding child and a loyal friend, sometimes needing to be scolded and sometimes just being there when you need an ear into which you can pour your troubles. A dog is part of the family – but of course, they never answer you back!
Crufts 2012 will be broadcast tonight on More4 at 6:30pm.