Not enough "proper" working gundogs and too many people, says David Tomlinson

Gundog day at Crufts 2018 is on the Sunday, the last and inevitably the most busy of the four-day event.

This year’s show will host around 22,000 dogs and about 160,000 people will view them. To put that figure in perspective, last year’s Game Fair at Hatfield House drew 116,000.

Trophies at Crufts

Trophies that are up for grabs in the gamekeepers’ classes

Few proper working gundogs

However the main reason I’m not going is because only a tiny percentage of the so-called gundogs that will be competing on Sunday will be proper working gundogs. I’ve always thought that a shotgun should be fired in the ring at the start of each gundog class; those dogs that show a desire to bolt should be excluded. Several of the breeds do have classes for working gundogs but these are generally poorly supported.

Equal chances?

I used to think (perhaps naively) that any of the 22,000 entries stood an equal chance of winning the coveted Best in Show title, but in truth the chances of an unknown animal carrying off the top prize are as remote as a village football club winning the FA Cup. Though gundogs have featured strongly in the roll call of top dog, an English springer has never won it and it is 81 years since 
a Labrador was victorious. However, cockers have triumphed seven times, or eight if you include last year’s champion, an American cocker.

Crufts best gundog winner

This American cocker spaniel won best gundog at Crufts in 2017

Proper working gundogs

If you want to see proper working gundogs, you have to make your 
way to the gamekeepers’ classes. 
BASC has been running these 
classes since 1990, taking over from the Gamekeepers’ Association. It would be more appropriate today to drop the word gamekeeper and replace it with BASC, but everyone knows what a gamekeeper is and it is doubtful whether many Crufts visitors have heard of BASC. Entry 
to the classes is supposedly restricted to gundogs that have worked on shoots throughout the season on 
a regular basis. In practice there 
are always a few dogs that manage 
to sneak in that look as if they have never done a day’s work in their 
lives, but they are in a minority.

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I believe that the three BASC judges have the hardest task of any at Crufts, as every dog is judged according to its breed standard. However, according to BASC, “major consideration is given to its appearance, looks and conformation as a working gundog which has just finished a hard shooting season”. I’ve seen some unlikely but worthy winners in the past that certainly didn’t fit the breed standard. There are three judges: this year they are Jon Kean, a pointer enthusiast and A-panel pointer and setter judge; Dawn Rose, who beats and picks-up with her mixed team of dogs — mainly golden retrievers, plus a Labrador and a spaniel — and John Stubbs, former headkeeper at Windsor and an A-panel retriever judge.

Docked dogs

Due to the English ban on showing docked dogs at shows where there is a paying audience, there will be an almost complete absence of spaniels in the gamekeepers’ rings. The only docked dogs that can compete are those that were docked before 6 April 2007 and there are not many of that vintage still around.

Controversy at Crufts

Crufts is seldom without controversy. The BBC withdrew its coverage after the screening of Pedigree Dogs Exposed in 2008. This year Channel 4 and More4 are providing 14 hours of coverage, with Clare Balding leading the team. The gamekeepers’ rings are almost never shown, while the commentators rarely, if ever, criticise a dog. It was only two years ago that the best-in-breed German shepherd, a dog with 
a deformed sloping back, was edited out of Channel 4’s coverage, leading to a storm of outrage. The Kennel Club later admitted having censored it.

I will be watching this Sunday to see which dog is declared Best in Show. I promise to try not to laugh.