Crufts introduces new dogs, retains old tricks

On its 125th anniversary, Britain's favourite dog show celebrates its history while introducing a new set of canines

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When dog biscuit salesman Charles Cruft launched the show that now bears his name in 1891, just 36 different breeds were entered. Today, 125 years on, that list runs to 200, including many that will have you scratching your head. The Lagotto Romagnolo or the Cirneco Dell’Etna, anyone? Both breeds, Italian in origin, are being put through their paces for the first time at this year’s show and their attendance demonstrates just how international it’s become.

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“The fact that people travel far and wide to enter this prestigious event is testament to the place it continues to hold in people’s hearts,” says Gerald King, the chairman of Crufts.

Hearts and wallets. “When a dog wins Best in Show, everybody wants one,” said one exhibitor. “It’s always good news for the breeders.”

This year, breeders from Venezuela, Peru and the Philippines will be taking part for the first time, part of an international contingent of dogs totalling 3,396 from 47 different overseas countries. And just one more figure to underline its significance… The total number of dogs taking part is 21,929. That’s an awful lot of pooping and scooping, though apparently only once has a dog pooped live on TV!

Plenty of things have changed about Crufts in the past 125 years – perhaps most significantly the name itself. In 1974, 36 years after the death of Charles Cruft, the show underwent a rebrand, ending its direct, more personal association with him. The deletion of an apostrophe turned it from Cruft’s to Crufts.

My sensory teddy bear

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Little Cohen looks like any other cheeky, mischievous seven- year-old. But the sparkle in his eyes and his chirpy demeanour weren’t always present – not until a very special dog entered his life, who this week is competing for a prize at Crufts. Cohen suffers from a complex set of conditions including autism, hearing impairment and epilepsy. According to mum Sarah, it left him trapped in a solitary world characterised by fear and anxiety.

“We first noticed it when he was 18 months old. He just didn’t understand the world around him and started to close down. Things like lights and noises would make him extremely worried and if strangers made eye contact with him, he would become very upset. When he became anxious, he would bite himself. It was so upsetting for us to watch.”

It also affected family life in South Yorkshire. “We couldn’t go out as a family, because he’d try to run away or simply throw himself down on the pavement,” says Sarah. “The world was such a scary place for him and he couldn’t cope with it.”

Then someone suggested an autism support dog. Golden retriever cross Azerley arrived in August 2014 when Cohen was five. The transformation in his behaviour was, says mum Sarah, extraordinary. “Until that moment he had shown no interest in animals. But his anxiety levels dropped so dramatically. He has not bitten himself once since Azerley arrived. Suddenly, he started to engage and to play. His school said that the world had opened up for him.”

She describes the dog as a “sensory teddy bear” – but he isn’t just a plaything: “Azerley can sense when Cohen is becoming anxious and will rest his head on his knee to calm him down. Cohen responds by kissing his head. He’ll go up to bed with Cohen and then come downstairs once he’s settled. He’s part of every routine that Cohen has and has given him so much confidence because of that. When we’re getting Cohen ready, Azerley will help pull his clothes from the drawer, which he loves.” Sarah adds: “We’ve got a family life back again, which we didn’t think possible. And it’s all down to Azerley. It’s overwhelming.”

What can’t my Scooby do…!

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Teenager Sophie owes her life to her labrador retriever, Scooby. Not courtesy of a one-off act of canine heroism, but almost on a daily basis.

The 13-year-old, who against all the odds battled through life-threatening neurological conditions as a child, was diagnosed with Type 1 diabetes in 2011. The legacy of those early medical scares means that she has no awareness of when her blood sugar levels are rising or falling.

“It changed her life totally,” says police officer mum Jane from Kent. “She was really bubbly and outgoing but then, because of the diabetes, she would just collapse without warning. It meant that whatever she did, she always had to have someone with her, which she hated. So she went into a shell and became really depressed.”

But then, in 2014, Scooby came into Sophie’s life. Jane and her husband Rob, a police dog handler, noticed the puppy had a particularly acute sense of smell. So they trained him to spot the signs of Sophie’s changing blood sugar levels. “Sophie gives off a smell, a bit like alcohol, when her levels start to fluctuate. We can’t detect it, but Scooby can.

“As soon as he notices, he’ll nudge her and lick her. She knows then to sit down and Scooby goes to get her kit to correct the imbalance. If she doesn’t respond, he’ll bark for our attention.”

Scooby sleeps on Sophie’s bed and twice has roused her from a deep sleep after noticing something was wrong. “If he hadn’t woken us, she would have slipped into a potentially fatal diabetic coma,” says Jane.

But his diagnostic skills go much further. He’s also detected that Sophie has an abnormal heart rhythm, which is now being investigated by hospital doctors.

Jane says that they’re inseparable. “They go everywhere together. He even watches her play netball. He’s like a little guardian angel.”

For Sophie, the attention of her beloved Scooby means life itself. “Now I feel really independent because I know I’m safe. He’s made me have more trust in myself and feel a lot better about myself than I did before.”

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Coverage of Crufts starts Thursday 10th March at 7:30pm on Channel 4