Arno Gasteiger

Best in Show

New Zealanders boast one of the highest dog ownership rates in the world—one third of households own at least one dog and 300 kennel clubs across the country run hundreds of dog shows a year. The competition will always be fierce, but there can only be one Best in Show.

Written by       Photographed by Arno Gasteiger

The first of them, in a van full of Poodles, arrive at 5.00am. The fog’s heavy—it’s the last weekend in May, the coldest day of the year so far—but the Point Reserve is easy enough to find. On State Highway One, just over the bridge where the trucks change down as they rumble into Ngaruawahia.

They set their stall on the far side of the field, over by the Waikato River. The gazebo goes up first, its metal poles so cold they sear the fingers, then the kennels come out, a kettle, and directors’ chairs from Briscoes. Blankets; clippers; a gas cooker—everything has its place. Poodle people are very particular.

Over the next two hours, the competition arrives. Some come from afar—there’s a Lagotto Romagnolo from Kaiapoi, a Labrador from Porangahau and a Tervuren Belgium Shepherd from Kawakawa—and some hundreds are down from Auckland. Many declare their allegiance on their licence plates—BOXER, HUSKIE, SEALYM (Sealyham Terrier), 4K9, 4K9LUV. By 7.30am, most of the 635 dogs entered in the Huntly and District Kennel Association Championship Dog Show—entry fee $13—are on the ground.

They’re quieter than you might think, much quieter. There’s the odd muffled bark, a snort from a Basset Hound snuffling through mouldering leaves, but the competitors and their handlers know it’s nearly time. They’ve got to focus. Get in the zone.

Some last-minute prep.

A Bichon Frise, more sheep than dog, is combed, the Poodles shaved and scissored. A Giant Schnauzer has his moustache trimmed, his coat conditioned, his legs chalked.

His owner decides against using shine spray—there’ll be no sun—and finishes him off with Thick N Thicker, a canine hairspray.

A loudspeaker interrupts. “Please make your way to the ring. The Gundogs, Non-Sporting and Working will start in two minutes.” It’s 8.28am.

That’s the voice of show manager Pam Douglas. I’d talked to Pam a few days before. “We’re a country show,” she’d told me. “It’s more relaxed down our way; people seem to mix better. We treasure that. But it’s still very competitive: people still want to be Best in Show at the end of the day.

“If you’re not here to win,” Pam growled, “don’t waste your money.”

She’s assembled a strong field. Fifteen of New Zealand’s Top 50 dogs have entered: the nation’s top-ranked Husky, Staffie, Rottweiler, Toy Poodle, Labrador, Pekingese, Newfoundland, Bulldog, Border Collie and Basset Hound are all here.

New Zealand’s leading Lhasa Apso, Timmy, owes much of his success to a pH-balanced invisible hold gel, the brand of which owner Debbie Bielby resolutely refuses to reveal (see sidebar).
New Zealand’s leading Lhasa Apso, Timmy, owes much of his success to a pH-balanced invisible hold gel, the brand of which owner Debbie Bielby resolutely refuses to reveal (see sidebar).

And there are some dangerous underdogs in the pack. Four Grand Champions lurk outside the Top 50, their rankings reflecting recent inactivity rather than form. Someone says to keep an eye on the Japanese import, New Beginnings, the nation’s leading long-coated Chihuahua last year. “Never underestimate the Chihuahuas,” I’m told.

Then there’s Debbie Bielby’s impeccably coiffed Lhasa Apso, Shiva Ma Timba, who’s on a roll. ‘Timmy’ took out the Asian Breeds Speciality Champ Show at Easter and is ranked No.1 in Auckland’s Non-Sporting group. But first he has to get past the flamboyant Sean Walton’s troika of Lhasa Apso pups. You can’t miss Sean. He boasts the best duds in the business—he has yellow, crimson, royal purple and cyan suits in his wardrobe. Today, he’s wearing lawn green.

Steve Greer’s another to watch. Steve’s from a famed Rottweiler-breeding family and his handling, honed by a stint in the United States, is sharp and muscular. He’s entered four Rotties, but his best chance is three-year-old Maximillion, the third-ranked dog in the field. ‘Max’ has won two Best in Shows in recent months: if he wins one more, he’ll become a Grand Champion.

And keep an eye on Marley in the Working Dogs group. The Bouvier des Flandres is currently ranked 38th in the country—13th here—but his handler’s heartened by the news an American will be judging his group (apparently, they understand these great Wookie-like dogs better). Marley’s also just one more Best in Show off becoming become a Grand Champion, but three days ago was diagnosed with lymphoma. He has just a few weeks left. This will be his last show.

“Three. Five. Eight. German Shepherd. Open Dog. 358.”

The gruff bark of Keith Simmons calls Av Quantos to the ring. Sheet and clipboard in hand, the laconic local in the cowboy hat is Working Dogs steward, assisting Sophia Kaluzniacki, the 70-something vet from Arizona whom everyone reverently calls ‘The Judge from America’.

What a magnificent beast. Av Quantos hauls his handler around the ring. Straining against the leash, his breathing hoarse, you can feel his power. You can see why this four-year-old is a Norwegian, Swedish and New Zealand champion. “He’s a nice specimen,” Keith drawls. “A big boy.” Clearly the biggest and strongest of the 13 Shepherds here. None of the others stand a chance.

“Not necessarily,” Keith continues. “You see, there’s a standard laid down by the kennel club and she has to judge to that standard. It’s not just about size.”

The New Zealand Kennel Club Standards are too abstruse to get into here—the club’s 209 recognised breeds warrant 156,000 words—but they aim to measure each dog against the exemplar of its breed. “No dog is perfect” is a phrase you’ll hear often, but perfection is what the judges want.

“The characteristic expression of the German Shepherd Dog,” the breed standard avers, “gives the impression of perpetual vigilance, fidelity, liveliness and watchfulness. Three of the most outstanding traits are incorruptibility, discernment and ability to reason.

“The general appearance… is a well-proportioned dog showing great suppleness of limb, neither massive nor heavy, but at the same time free from any suggestion of weediness.”

There’s certainly no suggestion of that with Av Quantos. He’s settled into his work now, and circles the ring, his head up, eyes blazing, always looking out. “She’s watchin’ the dog’s gait,” Keith explains. “Does it move true? She’s lookin’ for ‘single-track’ in the front—in other words, she wants the front and the rear paws to kinda merge. And you want the front legs to come in a bit when they move, but you want ’em straight up and down in the back.”

Local hero Izak, the top-ranked Afghan Hound in the country, pipped his son, Nicco, for Best of Breed at Huntly. Nevertheless, Afghan aficionados are predicting big things for the blond nine-month old. The breed rose to prominence in 2005 when rogue Korean scientist Hwang Woo-Suk cloned an Afghan, Snuppy, the first cloned dog in history.
Local hero Izak, the top-ranked Afghan Hound in the country, pipped his son, Nicco, for Best of Breed at Huntly. Nevertheless, Afghan aficionados are predicting big things for the blond nine-month old. The breed rose to prominence in 2005 when rogue Korean scientist Hwang Woo-Suk cloned an Afghan, Snuppy, the first cloned dog in history.

The judge calls the dog in. She runs her hands down its back, then under its chest. Seems to frisk it. “Now she’s checkin’ the dog’s construction,” Keith continues. “Has it got a nice layback of shoulders?”

Hand on the muzzle, the judge levers open Av Quantos’ mouth. “She’s lookin’ for a good bite—she wants a scissor-bite, where the top teeth are just over but still touching the lower ones.”

Every breed standard ends the same way: “Male animals should have two apparently normal testicles fully descended into the scrotum.” Ten per cent of dogs suffer from cryptorchidism—undescended testes—and are ruled out at once. Av Quantos passes muster.

It’s hard to see any dog stopping him now—he will be Best in Show, I reckon—but Keith laughs at the prediction. It’s far too early in the day. First Av Quantos must win his class—Open Dog—then beat the other male dogs in their respective classes (Baby Puppy; Puppy; Junior; Intermediate). Then he must re-enter the ring and take on the best female German Shepherd.

“And some judges like bitches more than dogs,” Keith says. “I’m one. Bitches are important because they’re the backbone of the breed. If you’ve got a good bitch you can use any dog you like. And then you can improve. The strength of any top kennel is in the female line.

“But, hey, that’s just my opinion. It’s only ever one judge’s opinion. You pay your money, you take your chances. “And it also depends how your dog performs. Some days, dogs have off-days. It’s a bit like humans. Rugby players have their off-days. They can’t kick, they drop the ball. And dogs are the same.”

“Dog on the day.” Everyone here says this. It’s subtly different from the old trope, and probably more profound. You may have the best dog, but it can’t always be at its best.

[Chapter Break]

They say you hear Steve Meredith before you see him. “Watch out for the Welshman,” I’m warned. “He’ll talk the leg off an iron pot.”

His shaved head, goatee and ear stud splendidly confirm the adage that dogs look like their owners. A mechanical engineer at Glenbrook steel mill and president of the Auckland Kennel Council, Steve has been showing dogs with his wife, Gay, since they moved to New Zealand in 1979. They have no children, except for the four-legged variety. For the past 15 years, the Merediths have specialised in breeding Staffordshire Bull Terriers. Grand Champion Rojeme Pop Gun, aka Eddie, is their greatest.

Eddie’s the star of this show, no question. Ranked seventh in the national standings—the leading Staffie by miles—he was arguably New Zealand’s top dog in 2011. He won seven Best in Shows, picked up another seven Reserves (second places) and was Best of Breed in 49 of the 57 shows he attended. At the end of the year, he was selected as New Zealand’s representative to the Eukanuba World Challenge (more on that later).

The chocolate-coloured three-year-old has his own Facebook page. He’s charming, exuberant, he commands your attention—and you could probably say the same of Steve.

Pat Lovell applies the finishing touches to her Grand Champion toy poodle, Rainbow, at the Huntly competition. The seven-year-old veteran is enjoying a late career resurgence, rising to 17th in the New Zealand All Breeds Show Dog standings, and taking out Best of Show at the Horowhenua Kennel Association Champs in February.

It’s strange, then, that the dog’s been given such a modest moniker. Pop Gun. Eddie. In this game, your name is a statement of intent. Some dogs stress their cerebral side, like the baby Bulldog brothers Archimedes and Aristotle from the Canute kennel in Cambridge. Some—like the Kumeu Cocker Spaniels, Man of Steel and God of War—are content to intimidate.

Some, like the Griffon Bruxellois Paris Booty of the Night and the young Whippet Ronndal Night of Passion, play fast and loose. Some are proudly Gen-Y, such as the Bernese Mountain Dog, OMG Girlfriend.

But such is Eddie’s supremacy that the very ordinariness of his name is part of his armoury. (The greatest tennis player in the world is called Roger. True champions don’t hide behind names.)

Eddie’s due in the ring in 10 minutes. But Steve, holding court in his deck-chair, isn’t stressed. He’ll talk all day about Eddie.

“This dog is pretty special,” he tells me. “Even as a baby pup he was a stand-out. My wife saw it at once. There was just something about him.”

He opens Eddie’s kennel and lifts his wildly wagging ‘son’ on to his lap. Cops a nose lick.

“Look at him,” Steve says. “To win Best of Breed, you have to look like a Stafford, you have to act like a Stafford, you have to have everything right.

“Look at him!” he says again. “This dog’s got a typical Stafford head—nice and broad. His muzzle’s about a third the length of his head—just right.

“The head should be as wide as it is long,” he says. It is. “Though you don’t want the head to be too big.” It’s not. “He should have a short, muscular neck and—because he’s a fighting dog originally—he should have a shape like a boxer. Broad in the shoulders, skinny in the waist. If you look at him from behind, you see he’s shaped like a wedge. And his back legs are nice and muscly.

“This dog is almost perfect.”

Of course, it’s not only aesthetics. “Why did I fall in love with this breed?” Steve asks. “Well, because of everything. Their loyalty, their fidelity, their strength.” He’s warming up: I realise I’m about to get the whole Staffie story.

They came out of the English Midlands in the 1700s. Were first used as bed-warmers for the poor. Granny Dogs, they called them. But they were also tough. Tenacious. Perhaps too tenacious. “People realised they could make a dollar fighting their dogs,” Steve says, “and so they put them in the pit. And they tried to make these bed-warmers, and people-lovers, into man-eaters.”

New Zealand Champion Ciccalone Leonidas, aka Leo the Neo (left) checks out Christchurch pup Andromeda at the Auckland Kennel Council’s Easter Championship Show. The mighty 90 kg Neapolitan Mastiff has won Best of Breed at the last two New Zealand Nationals.
New Zealand Champion Ciccalone Leonidas, aka Leo the Neo (left) checks out Christchurch pup Andromeda at the Auckland Kennel Council’s Easter Championship Show. The mighty 90 kg Neapolitan Mastiff has won Best of Breed at the last two New Zealand Nationals.

Certainly, there’s no doubting their doggedness. In 1825, a Staffie called Sammy was pitted against Nero, a lion, in a cage fight in Warwick, England. Both animals fought to a standstill, the fight ending after 20 minutes with Nero too bloodied to continue.

“Staffies have a bad rep because of their look,” Steve concedes. “Because they have a similar head to a pit bull, similar shoulders, people think, ‘Oh my God, they’re nasty dogs.’ But they’re not.”

Eddie, who doesn’t live with Steve, is officially owned by Steve’s friend Shirley New, who lives around the corner. But Eddie’s mother and half-sisters live with Steve, and Eddie pops over all the time.

“You sit in your chair and there are three of them in the room and all three need to sit on you, or lean against you. They’re almost cat-like. They like to sit between your legs, looking away.

“I’m watching TV—and they’re watching TV as well. I’ll get up and go to the loo and they’ll follow. I’m sitting there and they press up against me. I’ve got to shut them out: I can’t go to the loo with all these dogs. I shower and they’ll just sit there on the mat and watch me. It’s quite disconcerting, sometimes.”

He and Gay have had Pomeranians. They’ve had Springer Spaniels and Whippets. A West Highland White Terrier. But Staffies are different, Steve says. “It seemed—and maybe I’m imagining this—that if you were sad, they were sad with you. But the West Highland White Terrier didn’t care. It’d go off and do its own thing. The Pomeranians didn’t care. The Springer Spaniels didn’t care. But these Staffords—if you’re sad, they’re sad.”

They’re there for you in the worst of times, he says. And the best. Like the aforementioned 2011 Eukanuba Challenge in the United States. Eddie was selected as New Zealand’s representative. He, Steve and Eddie’s ‘mum’, Shirley, were flown to Orlando, Florida, all expenses paid, to contend for the $50,000 Best in Show prize. Owen Dance, the president of the New Zealand Kennel Club, went over to support them.

“We were up against 42 dogs from around the world—they take just one dog per country,” says Steve. “There was a Newfoundland from Ireland, a Scottish Terrier from Russia, a Siberian Husky from Taiwan; there were dogs from every country you could think of.

“There were 10,000 people in the auditorium. Black tie. And young Ed walked in with the president of the NZKC and me with our tuxedos on and the New Zealand flag flyin’ and it was just… just… out of this world.

“People were going crazy. These Americans. Huge screens. Massive. Music. We came in to Usher. Without You.”

Steve, in a state of some excitement, breaks into song. “I can’t win. I can’t reign. I will never win this game without you.”

He grins, relives the moment. “It was just fab… fantastic,” he says. “We were there!”

They didn’t win, but it didn’t matter. “We were representing New Zealand. And the breed. We were just the second Staffie to make the Eukanubas. Ever.” And they had the consolation of placing second in the American Staffordshire Nationals a couple of days earlier. Not bad for a pup from Drury.

Getting to the Top. That’s what it’s all about, Steve says—the culmination of 35 years of striving. But now he has to stay there.

He gets the call. It’s time. He slips Eddie a steak-bite (doesn’t sneak one himself this time), then leads him out to the ring. There are 12 Staffies in the field, including Eddie’s highly rated half-brother, Westwood Amarilla Moonshine, aka Jonesy, who’s in the Puppy class.


Though there are five rings running simultaneously, most of the spectators are here. Eddie always pulls a crowd. Even Pam Douglas, who never stands still, has stopped for a squiz. I ask her what makes Eddie a champion.

“He’s a very good example of the breed. Obviously. But there’s something else.” She purses her lips. “It’s hard to put in words. The X-factor. When they walk into the ring, it’s like they own it. Eddie rules that ring. And he has such a rapport with Steve. They’re a very good team.”

But the judge, judging terriers for the first time, seems taken with Jonesy. I can see why. He’s awfully cute.

“Cute and correct are two different things,” Pam admonishes. “There are a lot of things that put a dog at number one. Cuteness is not one of them.

“Yes, babies are cute. But you’re judging by the standard. Not potential. You’re not deciding what’s going to be a Grand Champion in two years’ time; you’re judging it on the day.”

But it seems Eddie may have bigger problems than an uppity sibling. Duncan McAllister, a Staffordshire breeder over from Brisbane, isn’t sold on the great champion. Duncan, who has that peculiarly Australian combination of intensity and affability, reckons Eddie’s flawed.

“His tail’s up. I don’t like it. The breed standard for a Stafford is a level top line. Level doesn’t mean three or four points at the same height—it means level right through. The tail should come off like an old-fashioned pump handle. So if the top line’s got bumps and the tail sticks up in the air, you’re not right. It’s not right.”

I see what you mean, I lie. “But he’s a beautiful dog other than that?

“I haven’t handled the dog; I can’t comment.”

“You just noticed that tail straight away?”

“Straight away. And I said to myself, ‘To have that as the pinnacle of dogs in this country is a crying shame. Because those are glaring faults. Glaring.’

“I try to breed to the breed standard. It’s not about what I think or what I like, it’s about what the standard says. It’s like you’ve got a blueprint to a house and you say, ‘Nah, I think I’ll move this wall over here.’ You’re not building what they’ve asked for, are you, and that’s what they’re doing.”

It’s a troubling thought, but we should get back to the ring, where Eddie finds himself going mano-a-mano with his half-brother. The judge is paying particular attention to Jonesy’s shoulder. It is, Duncan says, squarer than Eddie’s. More correct. Even so, after some overt and, frankly, hammy deliberation, she goes with the champion.

“There you go,” Duncan grumps. “Everyone’s got their tail in the air and the judges don’t care. They keep awarding them. I hate it.”

He looks across towards to the Gundogs ring at the Golden Retrievers. “I dunno,” he says, slowly shaking his head. “Maybe I just have a fetish about tails.”

[Chapter Break]

Things move quickly at a dog show. By 9.30am, just an hour in, half the dogs in the field have been eliminated.

There have been some upsets. Some shocks. The nation’s top Labrador, Court Judge, has fallen. Debbie Bielby’s Lhasa Apso is gone. And Little Miss Perfect, the Siberian Husky that’s ranked 13th on the New Zealand All Breeds list—and second of all the dogs here—has been beaten by a nine-month-old puppy from Morrinsville.

Perhaps the most remarkable result is in Non-Sporting, where New Zealand’s greatest Dane—and 23rd-ranked dog—Congistador Rufus Bear, has been beaten by his younger brother, Shelby Cobra. I’d watched this contest and, for the first time, understood what the devotees were on about. The 14-month-old Shelby was big, but there were bigger dogs in the ring. His chest was broad, but no broader than his brother’s. But he just had something about him. He moved like a lion. His head up. He commanded the ring.

And then news comes through that Marley, the cancer-stricken Bouvier, has taken out the Working Group (beating, among others, Av Quantos, the seemingly unstoppable German Shepherd). I’d wondered what the cheering was about.

Word’s got around about Marley. “I know Janet,” people say, referring to the dog’s breeder, Janet Wade. “Is it one of hers? How awful.”

“What’s special about Marley?” asks co-owner and handler Len Thomson. He holds his hands out, palms up, like a Southern Baptist preacher. “C’mon. Isn’t it obvious? I mean… just look at him!”

He clasps the five-year-old’s head in his hands, rubs his ears and makes the cooing noises unsentimental farmers allow themselves to make only once they’ve retired. “Look at that face. Oh. Ho. Come here. Oh, yes. Come here, you beautiful boy.” More snuggling.

“Of course, it’s not only his looks,” Len adds. “It’s his personality. He’s just a wonderful guy.”

“I bred his mother and father,” Janet says, her voice cracking a little. “And Len wanted a puppy. He wanted a little girl, but unfortunately I had a litter of boys. Three boys. But there was something special about Marley.”

“I went over to see the pups,” Len says, “and there he was. He was like, ‘Pick me. Pick me.’ And I thought, ‘Okay. You’ll do. Come on. Let’s have a go.’”

From the Flanders region, the Bouviers were originally farm dogs—cattle drivers, sheep herders and milk-float luggers. In World War I, they were used to sniff out landmines, find the wounded, and tow food and ammunition carts to the front line. Faithful, fearless, the breed suffered an appalling casualty rate and came close to extinction.

But they’re gentle giants, Len’s wife, Janice, says. “When we’re out with him, little children just come rushing up and throw their arms around him. Kids just love him. Absolutely love him.”

The shaved and bouffant style of the standard poodle is one of the most visually arresting at any dog show. Bryony Hurden (right) has shaved her champion with the continental clip, the most popular show clip today.

Len’s knocked up a little buggy so that Marley can take kids for cart rides at pet expos. He used to take him, and Luka his late uncle, to old folks’ homes. Therapy visits.

“It’s so good for people to be able to feel him,” Janice says. “You see their faces light up. Come alive.”

He gets the 45kg Marley in a bear hug and they wrestle. “Okay. That’s it. Okay. Down. Good boy. Oh…. you smart bugger. Oh yeah. Ho ho.” The two roll around in the wet grass, perhaps not the wisest move at this stage of the show. Never mind. Len gets him on his back.

“He works wonderfully with Len,” Janet says. “He does whatever you want with him anytime you want it.”

You need three Best in Shows at All Breeds shows and 50 Challenges (Best in Breed) to become a Grand Champion. Marley’s got 130 Challenges, and two Best in Shows and two Reserves. As a minority breed, Janet explains, they don’t always get a fair crack. “New Zealand judges don’t know what they’re supposed to be.” But ‘The Judge from America’ understood.

“One of the main things they look for in Working,” Janet continues, “is movement. A Working Dog has got to be able to do a day’s work. They’ve got to move and cover the ground. And Marley’s always moved well.”

And now he’s in the top seven. Just one win away.

“And if he does that, he’ll be the first in Australasia to do that,” Len says.

“To become a Grand Champion,” Janet says. Her eyes fill with tears.

“Just one show off,” Len says. “Here we go—a sick dog and he goes out there and does that. It just blew me away. Oh, what a good day this is. A top day.

“If we win—if we got a Reserve in Show—there’ll be a hell of a lot of bottles of French Champagne being bought. And there’ll be a big piss-up at our place. He ruffles Marley’s hair. “One in seven chance, eh boy?”

Now a tired-looking woman comes over to talk to Janet. She’s the owner of an Australian Cattledog, an unfashionable breed also in Working Group (which is not the most fashionable group, either).

“Congratulations on your win.”

“It might be his last show,” Janet says.

“Oh. Why’s that?”

Janet bites her bottom lip. She can’t speak.

“He has cancer,” Len says.

“Oh,” the Cattledog lady says. “Oooh. But you’re so nice. So nice.”

“It’s not fair,” Janet chokes.

The lady kneels in front of Marley. Wraps her arms around his neck. “Oh, Marley. You’re such a dear boy. You really are.” She nuzzles his neck. “Good luck, Marley. Do it for us. Do it for the Working.”

One in seven. He’s in this. And his chances have just soared with the news that Eddie, the all-conquering Staffie, has been knocked out of his group. Scuttled by a Scott Terrier. It’s anyone’s game now.

[Chapter Break]

There are dogs from every corner of Earth on this frozen Ngaruawahia field: there are Maltese, Pekingese and Havanese in the Toys; there are Irish, Scottish and Welsh Terriers in Terriers. English Setters. Irish Setters. There are Rhodesian Ridgebacks, Hungarian Vizslas, Belgian Shepherds—in four variants—and Swedish Vallhunds. Every country has its dog.

Some have more. There are five recognised Convict breeds—the Australian Terrier, Australian Silky Terrier, Australian Kelpie, Australian Cattledog and Australian Shepherd (which for some reason no one can explain is actually American via Spain). But there are no New Zealand pure breeds.

The dog people you talk to here are fanatically opposed to cross-breeds. It doesn’t seem to make a lot of sense when you consider that all dogs are cross-breeds, descended from wolves less than 15,000 years ago. Many of the breeds have been around for only a hundred years, often less. The German Shepherd, for instance, was ‘invented’ by Captain Max von Stephanitz as recently as 1899, the cavalry officer mixing German herding dogs to make a more wolf-like dog.

Another German crossed Samoyed, Wolfspitz and Chow Chow and developed the rather adorable Eurasier, a breed recognised by the FCI, the international kennel club federation, in 1973.

The quest for purity—and perfection, however arbitrary—does raise the spectre of eugenics. And selective breeding can have unintended consequences.

Len Thompson and Marley
Len Thompson and Marley

A 2008 BBC documentary, Pedigree Dogs Exposed, detailed some of these. A Boxer having an epileptic seizure; a German Shepherd hobbling around the ring with deformed back legs; a King Charles Spaniel with syringomyelia—an agonising condition that afflicts a third of its breed, the skull too small for the brain.

Mark Evans, chief vet of the RSPCA in Britain, denounced Crufts as “a parade of mutants” and “a freakish, garish beauty pageant that has frankly nothing to do with health and welfare”. The BBC dropped its coverage of Crufts, and The Kennel Club hastily revised its breed standards.

It might be too late. A study by Imperial College London investigated inbreeding in 10 breeds of pedigree dogs and found they had lost 90 per cent of the genetic variation they had 35 years ago.

“If the dog breeders insist on going further down that road,” geneticist Steve Jones observed, “I can say with confidence that there is a universe of suffering waiting for many of these breeds. Many, if not most…will not survive. They will get so in-bred that they will be unable to reproduce and their genes will come to a dead end.”

You won’t find more devoted dog lovers than the people standing alongside me at the ring. Most talk candidly about the genetic problems pedigree dogs face, and most are committed to genetic testing and trying to improve the breed. But you can’t help thinking that the problem—part of the problem—is that they love their dogs too much.

[Chapter Break]

It’s 3.00pm. It’s time. The seven group winners—a Smoothcoat Chihuahua, a Scottish Terrier, a Clumber Spaniel, a Beagle, Marley the Bouvier, the champion Rottweiler Maximillion and the Great Dane puppy Shelby—are called.

Best in Show. There can be only one.

There are perhaps 100 people watching, including a very old, very frail woman on oxygen who has been wheeled ringside. When the Chihuahua has a crack at the Great Dane, you’re immediately struck at the utter asymmetry of these breeds. Fortunately, I have Duncan McAllister, the tail-fixated Australian,as expert commentator.“I like the Chihuahua,” he says, as we watch it flit round the ring. “Compact little dog.”

“And the Scottish Terrier?”

“She’s young. Yeah. Nice enough. Not bad for a bitch. But she wouldn’t be in my top three.”

“Why’s that?”

“Your head, your neck, your back should all be equal length for a Scottish Terrier. She’s a bitch and you can forgive it—people do—but at this level, I still want it. But then, I’m a purist.”

The Beagle has insufficient drive, he reckons, and the Rottie’s top line is still bothering him. “He’s front-down a little bit. Not a lot, just a little, but not level.”

He likes the Great Dane—“good sternum, good left shoulder… big bone on him and a brick head”—but the small competition ring will count against him. “You can’t see it move, and you need to see a Dane move to give it Best in Show.”

Steve Greer (second from left) celebrates the elevation of his Rottweiler, Maximillion, to the Grand Champion ranks after winning his third Best in Show at Huntly.

Duncan fair dinkum rhapsodises over the Clumber Spaniel. I confess I’ve never heard of them. “They’re a gundog. One of the most ancient English breeds.

“And this one has strength and substance, as you can clearly see. It’s low to the ground: it’s meant to run around through the little thickets and make the birds fly up so the hunter can shoot them. It’s got to have a nice, easy gait to it. You get the feeling this one could run around all day and work.”

He smiles. “It’s a very nice Clumber. Just gorgeous.”

Now it’s Marley’s turn. He canters around the ring. Pads along. Easily. Effortlessly. I see ‘The Judge from America’, the one who put him up, ringside and get her take.

“He’s a quality dog,” she tells me. A very well-balanced, well-structured dog who moves very soundly. Correctly. He has nice bone, and a proper coat for the breed.

“I think that dog could win almost anywhere.”

Duncan is also effusive by his standards. “Not a bad Bouvier. Not bad at all.”

It’s now I realise that we’re the only ones talking.

As judge Robyn Williams starts frisking—checking each dog’s construction—a hush has settled over the ring. It’s getting very tense.

The dogs are in a line on one side of the ring. Robyn walks to the far side, stares at the ground for a moment, then reviews the dogs again. Ten seconds pass, ten more. “She’s going to put the Rottie up,” Duncan whispers.

There is some theatrical contemplation—these judges are good at this—and she asks Steve Greer to take his Rottie for another trot around the ring. As they near the end, the judge reaches out to Steve with one hand. Maximillion is Best in Show.

There is some muttering ringside, but then silence once more. The show’s not over yet. Reserve in Show must be chosen.

The judge does more overt thinking, and pays particular attention to the Chihuahua. Another ten seconds that seem much longer.

“Can I have the Bouvier around please?”

“She might do this with three or four of the dogs,” Duncan mumbles.

But Marley is only half way around when the judge reaches out. “Yeeees,” cries Len, who permits himself an unfarmerly fist pump.

Toy Judge Julie Clarke awards Best in Group to the Grand Champion Pekingese, Nigel, at the Auckland Kennel Club’s Easter Championship. While this result was received graciously, that’s not always the case: a testy exchange outside the beagle ring later in this show has already entered dog show folklore. “You’re a sore loser,” chided one competitor to a vanquished foe. “No one speaks like that to me in the ring!” was his thunderous riposte.
Toy Judge Julie Clarke awards Best in Group to the Grand Champion Pekingese, Nigel, at the Auckland Kennel Club’s Easter Championship. While this result was received graciously, that’s not always the case: a testy exchange outside the beagle ring later in this show has already entered dog show folklore. “You’re a sore loser,” chided one competitor to a vanquished foe. “No one speaks like that to me in the ring!” was his thunderous riposte.

The crowd cheers. Even Duncan. Pam Douglas announces that they’ve raised more than $8000 for St John. She presents the prizes—slow cookers, rice cookers, crepe makers, an electric frypan and great sacks of Royal Canin dog-food. But that’s not what this is about. Not really.

The mist has finally lifted, the Hakarimata Ranges loom impressively over the ground. It’s late in the day; I can smell coal fires being lit.

And I see Len loading Marley into the car.

“Today’s a super bonus to me,” he says. “It’s probably the best win we’ve ever, ever had.” He gives Marley a ruffle. “It’s hard to believe he’s not well. I think he’ll be like this for a few days and then he’ll just fall in a big heap.”

“Oh, Marley,” he says, sighing. “Such a good boy.”

There could be a tear behind his glasses. Maybe not. “If you’re gonna finish, you can’t do better than that,” he says