From pets to potential champions

Popeye the Chihuahua
Popeye the Chihuahua
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Crufts is the most prestigious event in the dog world - and owners are busy preparing for this year’s show. Rachel Jones reports.

As Rose Emeney walks nervously towards the judges in the hushed atmosphere of a dog show, her feisty Chihuahua Taloula begins to wriggle violently.

Neil Hood from the South Coast Ringcraft Club helps Rose Emeney to prepare Popeye

Neil Hood from the South Coast Ringcraft Club helps Rose Emeney to prepare Popeye

A moment later the spirited little dog, unfazed by her solemn surroundings, has leaped from her arms and is scuttling around the show ring floor.

It could be a mortifying moment, but Rose is used to salvaging small dogs. She once had to do a sort of rugby tackle to catch her other Chihuahua, Popeye, after he slipped his lead.

‘I was in the ring sprawled on the floor trying to grab him,‘ she laughs. ‘It was quite embarrassing.’

While she might be used to the pitfalls of appearing at prestigious pooch events, these memories are now making the Waterlooville dog lover nervous.

Rose, Taloula and Popeye have qualified for their first Crufts and will be heading to Birmingham NEC in March for the most prestigious event in the UK canine calendar.

The one-year-old dogs must have been doing something right at the shows they’ve attended so far – they needed to win prizes to be accepted for Crufts. But as Rose, 53, initially bought the dogs as pets and had no thoughts of showing them, the event is a nerve-racking prospect.

‘I couldn’t believe it when I found out we were going. I mean this is something I never thought would happen when I bought them,’ says Rose.

‘I just stood there with my mouth open, I was so surprised. And then I was in tears.’

She may have been crying with a mixture of joy and terror. Rose, who also has several rescue dogs, bought the Chihuahuas as part of her big canine family but decided on a life of preening and prancing in the ring after going to dog shows with friends and family. Training them has taken a year of dedication, and she says they still have a lot of work to do.

But she is receiving plenty of help with preparing for the confusing and sometimes elitist dog show world at Portsmouth club South Coast Ringcraft.

Neil Hood, who set up the club with several other dog handlers, explains its aim.

‘We have people of all levels of experience, but we like to help newcomers with things like etiquette, procedure, what to do in the ring, that kind of thing.’

So Rose has had to learn not to chatter with the judges. Answering questions is fine, commenting on the weather is definitely out. And owners and their dogs must walk in a certain way at a certain pace with the dog just in front and to the left.

Neil, who lives in Portsmouth, warns that there’s plenty of bad behaviour at the biggest star-studded events – from the owners, not the dogs.

‘Yeah, it can be really snobby and bitchy. You’ll hear people moaning about the fact that your dog has won thinking you can’t hear them. And there are bad losers – I’ve seen people storm off.

‘I also stopped showing one breed because it was so cliquey. Numerically it was a very small breed and they didn’t really speak to me because I was a newcomer.’

But he says there’s plenty of goodwill, lots of nice people too and judges and spectators are pretty forgiving if the unexpected happens – the stars of the show may be canine celebrities but they’re dogs after all.

Still, it’s an environment where everything should be just so, although Neil says the club primarily sees it as fun.

‘Of course we take it seriously, we want our dogs to win. But we’re very supportive of each other and the aim for us is to enjoy ourselves and spend time with our dogs and each other.’

Dog shows have become controversial in recent years with broadcasters and animal welfare charities concerned that they promote looks at the expense of health in certain breeds.

Neil says: ‘All I can say from my point of view is that our animals are healthy and happy. First and foremost they are pets. As a club that’s what we try to promote.

‘I say to people ‘‘if there were no dog shows would you still be loving and caring for your animal’’ and the answer is always yes.’

It’s certainly true of Taloula and Popeye. They sleep in Rose’s bedroom and display the fun, feisty natures with which any Chihuahua owner will be familiar.

‘They think they’re much bigger than they are,’ says Rose, as the pair gallantly bark at Neil’s 10-times-bigger Norwegian buhund who bounds into the room.

‘When we turn up at the shows everyone says ‘‘the Chihuahuas have arrived’’. They’re quite vocal,’ she adds, laughing.

Thankfully judges take into account the natural temperament of certain breeds, although they won’t tolerate terrible behaviour. And Rose says the dogs – who are excellent with people and dogs they know – are usually pretty obedient in the ring, if a little spirited.

But it has taken plenty of dedication to turn an ordinary dog into a potential champion.

‘South Coast Ringcraft meet once a week and I’m usually doing dog shows at the weekends. You have to put a lot of time and effort into it,’ says Sue.

But there are still plenty of things to work on before March.

‘Taloula has just started to walk properly in the ring, she used to sometimes refuse. There’s nothing more embarrassing than have a dog that won’t move,’ says Sue.

‘I’m hoping we won’t make fools of ourselves. But you never know.’