A woman in a Robin Cousins tuxedo dances with a dog wearing a flashing LED collar to a James Bond medley. They’ve got moves that combine Saturday Night Fever with police dog about to take down a suspect. Spotlights spin around with a heady visual reel. The crowd gets into it. The camera swoops around the performers. It’s as complicated as Busby Berkley taking his dog for a walk. Mary Way, Roxy and Levi are not part of my horrific subconscious – they are the entertainment before the Crufts grand final. If dancing is the vertical expression of a horizontal desire, then Nancy Friday has suddenly got a lot more on her plate.
More than 25,000 dogs from around the world travel to Birmingham to compete at Crufts, the World Cup of dog-showing. During the four-day event dogs compete, first within their own breed. Best of Breeds go on to compete for the titles Best in Show and Reserve Best in Show. Other Crufts competitions include dog agility, a time trialed assault course, and the Obedience World Cup.
These competitions aren’t really about dogs. Out in the arena, it’s the human/canine relationship that’s under the spotlight. And it’s a relationship that leads back to the beginnings of human culture. In throwing a stick for a dog, you’re reaching back into the misty history to the point where humans felt different from the rest of nature and dog-ancestors betrayed their animal brethren for an occasional bone and a place at the hearth.
All dogs are descended from wild nature, from wolves domesticated around 100 000 years ago. As human populations and structures shifted, their wolf-dogs shifted too. From war through farming to companionship, dogs were warped through selective breeding. The canine genus encompasses a diverse morphology that holds a record of human needs.
The agricultural revolution and subsequent urban revolution led to an increase in the dog population and a demand for specialization. These circumstances – and the changes in the ideas of science and nature – helped formalise selective breeding.
Breeding and codification is policed in the UK by the Kennel Club. The birth of a litter of purebred puppies is recorded on a breed registry. It combines the aristocratic obsession with pedigree and bloodlines, with the sinister pseudo-science of the 19th century eugenics movement. Breeding protocols have driven pedigrees in to dangerously shallow gene pools.
Breeds are classified into groups, which in tern are used to catagorise entrants at Crufts: gundog, working and pastoral, terrier and hound, toy and utility. In these names one can read an attitude towards nature and landscape that sweeps up the picturesque, the sentimental, the aristocratic. They speak not so much of the animal characteristics, but of the animals role. And they describe a relationship to landscape. Breeds within the ‘gun dogs’ category describe roles that are part of hunting ritual: Pointer, Retriever and so on.
Crufts grand narrative is the cultural uses and meanings of dogs. It’s certainly a strange event – a mix of overgrown village hall enthusiasm, trade show, convention, entertainment and sport. Its spotlight exaggerates the foibles of canine culture, turning something – to the outsider at least – strange into something bizarre.
Dogs are now, for the most part, a redundant technology. However, like many kinds of devices whose primary use has vanished (Qwerty keyboards, cobbled streets, stockings) they still survive, sometimes as everyday convention at other times as fetishistic totem.
Dogs extended human control and experience over the landscape: dogs run better, see better, hear better and have a far more acute sense of smell than man. In Mcluhan-esque manner, the wet nose pushing through the bracken sniffing out is an extension of your own proboscis; the hunting packs sharp teeth tearing a hound apart are yours. This sense- extension is most keenly appreciated with guide dogs. Dogs are devices set out into the landscape, programmed with particular behavioural patterns.
Though international in origin, there is a particularly English relationship with dogs. In fact, dogs are perhaps Britains most sophisticated design product, created over thousands of years. One only has to look at some of the contenders for Best in Show to appreciate a level of aestheticisation that British art and design can but dream of. Ive, Hirst and Foster would struggle to turn out this kind of sleek perfection: glistening black eyes within fountains of soft white hair. They are sickeningly, frighteningly beautiful, like mutations of pornography, confectionary, and cartoon mascots.
One explanation as to dogs importance within English culture is that they occur at the intersection of aristocratic interests: hunting, landscape, bloodline and animals. They are imbedded into the English landscape and as much part of its history as Capability Brown, ha has, follies, hunting, enclosure, strip farming.
You can see them in paintings by artists such as Gainsborough, Reynolds, Stubbs, Hogarth, and later Landseer. Portraits of animals with their owners, in landscapes often recently sculpted into fake Arcadias. Dogs here are sometimes ornaments like the sculptures brought back from the Grand Tour. They are both exotic and domesticated. The dog, like these aristocratic landscapes are cultivated nature.
Crufts is the democratised resolution of aristo-dogography. Its cultural slippage from country pile to suburban cul-de-sac which ends up in the Crufts ring – a terrain formed by an area of light green carpet framed with a darker green border (part field, part lounge). The judging involves the handler who adopts a strange loping run with their lead hand held high, walking the dog in a lap of the arena. The dog is then presented to the judge, who fondles, strokes and other wise privately assesses the specimen. After examining all contestants the judge suddenly points to the winner.
This years champion is Fabulous Willy, a wire fox terrier that looked like Jennifer Anistons hair running backwards. Willys handler might well have been the role model for Christopher Guests ‘Best in Show’.
Pedigree breeding has side effects of genetic and behavioral disorders. They are animals pushed to the limit of viability. Amongst the tension of competition, the nerves of the handlers, and dogs with their DNA double helixes overwound there is a suggestion that the event could tip: domestication unravelling like overwound clock and that Crufts will one day end with a howling pack running amok at the NEC.