Fri, 03/29/2024 - 12:43pm

An American in Birmingham

Crufts fans cross the pond for Britain's biggest dog show

An American invasion?


But a beachhead? You could definitely say a beachhead.

I’m talking, of course, about this year’s Crufts, that most British of British dog shows, held at the sprawling National Exhibition Centre, or NEC, in Birmingham, two-plus hours north of London.

To be sure, over the decades there has always been a dedicated knot of fanciers who made the trip across the pond every March, barely recovered — physically, financially and not least of all mentally — from the February rigors of Westminster, which is America’s answer to this high-profile British extravaganza. But visitors from the ex-colony on the other side of the Atlantic were at best a trickle: The United Kingdom’s then-notoriously arduous quarantine requirements essentially made exhibiting impossible for all but the most forward-thinking foreigner. Instead, Americans contented themselves with shopping for stud dogs and promising puppies, catching up with old friends, and just generally immersing themselves in a serious dog culture that gave rise to our own — and, frankly, everyone else in the world’s, too.

It’s difficult to gauge American attendance at this U.K. event, as Crufts, like any major dog show, only tracks the nationalities of its four-leggers. This year the United States, with a total of 65 entries, was number 17 out of 50 countries represented, and was the nation with the highest non-European representation, even if it only accounted for .34 percent of the 19,171 dogs entered. (The next highest was Japan, with 17.)



Vince Hogan of Our Dogs, who covers the show for Dog News, thinks the attendance was pretty much comparable to previous years.

Sue Sampson is the indefatigable Kennel Club representative stationed in the lobby of the Hilton Metropole, flanked by two huge bouquets of sweet-smelling lilies, to answer any questions a Crufts visitor might have. When I walked over to say hello, Sue was deep in conversation with — surprise! — another American, Karen Justin of Great Pyrenees fame.

Well, the proof was in that pudding.

“There do seem to be a good number of Americans this year,” Sue mused with characteristic charm. She wondered if the more favorable exchange rate might have something to do with it.

As with most things in our modern world, if there was a respectable Yank presence at this year’s Crufts — held March 7 through 10 — it was probably a convergence of multiple factors, not least of all a post-Covid itch: Time to shake off concerns about everything from viral loads to looming recessions, and get back out in the world.

The fact that Westminster has become unmoored from its traditional mid-February date — thank you, Covid — might also be prompting more Americans to head abroad and inaugurate the new show year with a pint instead of a pretzel.

Then there is the relative — that’s the key word, relative — ease of bringing a dog to Crufts. Thanks to Britain’s Pet Passport scheme, there is no longer a six-month quarantine. But entry rules are still quite strict: This year a friend from Slovakia couldn’t cross the U.K. border because her dog’s rabies vaccination was not correctly timed. (She cooled her heels in a French hotel while the rest of the van headed to the Chunnel, promising to scoop her back up on their return trip on Monday.) And rabies isn’t the only potential snafu: The biggest problem at the border is reportedly incorrect timing of the required tapeworm pill.

To help navigate these minefields, there is at least one popular Facebook page, Crufts Planning for Americans, devoted in large part to helping figure out how to get there from here. (The consensus if you have a dog in tow? Fly into Paris.)

Prior to this year’s trip, I hadn’t been to Crufts since 2016, when my main reason for going was a book promotion. I went this year when a friend asked if I’d like to tag along. I looked at my schedule, my airline points, and the U.K. weather forecast (fairly temperate, given the season), and thought, “Hey, why not?”

(My travel companion then had to cancel, leaving me with his hotel-point-booked room — gratis — and my eternal gratitude. Looks like I’ll be buying him Starbucks for life …)

If there was no actual American bump at this year’s Crufts, then I’ll just chalk it up to my good luck in running into so many familiar faces so far from home.

After arriving mid-morning on Thursday (Toys and Utility, or what we call Non-Sporting), I took the barely 10-minute stroll to the NEC, pleased to have remembered the Metropole’s labyrinthine back-door route to a wooded path that leads to the convention center. En route to Toy Poodles — where Chris Manelopoulos won the variety — I spotted Floridians Susan Shephard and Lorna Menaker at the Peke ring, deep in conversation with some British friends, including John Shaw. (Even that early in the week, the scuttlebutt was that his top-ranked Aussie, “Viking,” would win the whole enchilada — or is that shepherd’s pie? — a prediction that indeed came true Sunday night under esteemed Irish Best in Show judge Ann Ingram.)


From left Susan Shephard with fellow Peke fanciers Winifred Mee, Jordan Ransome and Brooke Patterson.


Susan, who is an old hand at Crufts — she co-owns and co-breeds with both John and Winifred Mee of Pekehius, the oldest Peke kennel in England — actually thought Americans were less numerous this year. Around the Toy rings, at least.

“I do love Crufts,” she says. “It's not just another show — it's the show where I generally can see quality dogs, have amazing conversations with breeders, and just feel immersed in a culture I've grown to love. We bring two thermoses of hot tea and sandwiches, and we sit on the bench watching dogs and discussing their parentage and virtues. It's truly an amazing day.

“And the shopping ain't bad, either,” she says, tongue planted firmly in cheek. “I brought a puppy home.”


Lorna Menaker and Linda Clark.


Lorna — who may live in the U.S. but has her roots in the U.K. — said she saw “a number of American visitors and exhibitors in the distance,” but due to the huge crowds couldn’t visit with them all. She describes Crufts as “such a well-oiled machine, and quite British, but with an international flair,” which just about says it all.

Any description of the show, Lorna continues, must contain the word “massiveness”: With five cavernous halls filled with rings and endless vendor booths, and more than 159,000 visitors — but thankfully no fleets of motorized scooters, as has become the norm in equally tundra-sized Orlando — navigating between rings can be challenging at best.


Barbara Miller and Amy Rutherford.


Despite those logistical hurdles, everywhere I went, it seemed, there were Americans aplenty. Here was longtime Crufts attendee Barbara Miller, accompanied by Amy Rutherford, heading — where else? — to the Terrier rings. Speaking of those earthdogs, Beth Sweigart was the only American judge on the panel, accompanied on her assignment by Peter and Andrew Green (who was celebrating a birthday) and Amy Kiell-Green. Fresh from a trip to Africa, Dog News editor Eugene Zaphiris was also in attendance, as he is every year as a member of the now Royal Kennel Club.

I had a brief Bruce Schwartz sighting, and a shimmer in the corner of my eye inevitably led to Linda Clark, and her high-wattage smile.



Monique Mastrapasqua.


En route to the Dogue ring, I did a double take at the Boxer benches, where professional handler Monique Mastrapasqua was chatting with British friends. Inexplicably, no one conscripted her to present a dog — their loss!


Wirehair girls Lisa Ramirez, George Laura Reeves and Kelly Shupp.


After settling in with Pure Dog Talk doyenne Laura Reeves, Lisa Ramirez George and repro vet extraordinaire Marty Greer at the German Wirehaired Pointer ring, we headed over to Bracchi Italiani. There we spotted Bitte Ahrens chatting with Claire Wisch Abraham while Claire’s daughter Kelly Shupp readied their Sobers-bred Bracco for the ring.

(Bitte, born in Sweden but married to Rome-based Pierluigi Primavera — who gives my Italian a workout every time I see him — is world famous for her Greyhounds, Whippets and Italian Greyhounds. In fact, on the show’s last day she took third with her Greyhound in a quality-packed Hound Group under fellow breeder Espen Engh, an honor indeed. As for Bitte’s Bracco creds, she owned the famous Axel, who so captivated American fanciers when he won the Eukanuba Challenge in 2009.)


Kelly Shupp and Bradley Phifer.


And — bonus! — here was Bradley Phifer, who, like me, just decided to come along for the ride with his Bracco-loving buddies.


AKC in the house: From left, Dennis Sprung, Gina DiNardo and Mark Dunn.


Also sitting at the Bracco ring was enough AKC brass to mint a medallion: president Dennis Sprung, secretary Gina DiNardo and executive vice president Mark Dunn. Despite the tight timing — the AKC’s annual meeting convened in our Jersey the morning after Best in Show was awarded on Cruft’s emerald-green carpet — AKC always has a presence at Crufts, and has successfully transported some of its innovative ideas — including Discover Dogs, rebranded as Meet the Breeds — to American shores.

Sunday, the last day, was for Hounds and Terriers, and I found myself a prime spot in between the Ridgeback and Afghan rings. At the latter, all eyes were on the dramatic showdown between the two CC winners for Best of Breed: the Australian male and the Chilean-bred bitch based in Florida. It didn’t take long before I spotted my Long Island neighbor, breeder-judge Honi Reisman, and not a few familiar faces from back home, including fellow Queens chick and Pharaoh Hound fancier Bonnie Folz.


Honi Reisman.


I did sneak away from those rings for a look at the Azawakh, where I found fellow East Coasters Deirdre Petrie and Joe Buchanan. Like me, they were initially bewildered to see these ethereal Sighthounds competing side by side in the same classes with Black and Tan Coonhounds and Griffon Fauve De Bretagne (the bigger version of those adorable Basset Fauves that are getting so popular here). It turns out that the so-called Any Variety Imported Register breeds — sort of equivalent to our Miscellaneous — compete at the class level together with the other not-yet-recognized breeds in their group; only one goes on to the group competition. And — ding, ding, ding — there was another American in the ring, Tricia Snedegar from Michigan with her B&T.


The Flat Coats are coming! From left Poodle fancier Debbie West with Flat Coat friends Marla Doheny_Tracey Fudge and Judy Gladson.


There is something to be said for ritual — for the familiar look and feel of a place. That certainly has become the case in Orlando, where the red-carpeted rings, repeat vendors and palm-tree-inflected holiday décor impart a sense of familiarity, year in and out. And it was always there at Westminster in spades. What I would give to again see the inside of Madison Square Garden’s cinderblock-walled press room, the Jumbotron hovering over the green carpet like some alien craft, that crazy catalog vendor navigating the nosebleed seats, shouting, “Get your Bible of Beagles, your Torah of Terriers …”

Dog shows are more than competitions; the special ones are the places where you weave your tapestry of memories. As our sport continues to become more global, Crufts — for some Americans, at least — is providing just that sort of touchstone.



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