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Leader of the pack; Get out the canine shampoo and grooming brush - it's the countdown to Crufts, the biggest dog show on earth.

Byline: By RICHARD McCOMB

Billy uses smokers' toothpaste but he does not smoke. He never will.

He has got a sparkling set of teeth and his preferred mintflavoured variety, applied with an electric toothbrush, does the trick nicely.

The toothpaste helps to ensure he has got a winning smile. He is in the kind of game where looks count.

Most people wouldn't want to go near Billy's mouth, let alone stick their hand inside to attend to his oral health. But Billy's worth it.

He is 45 kilograms of solid muscle. He might be short but by golly is he powerful. When he runs at you and jumps up, it is like being hit by a supersonic missile.

Then he goes to work with the tongue, manipulating it at 1,000 licks a minute, just to make sure you don't stay stunned for too long.

Billy is a three-year-old Staffordshire bull terrier - and he is in the running for the biggest dog prize of them all.

Next Saturday, he will take to the show ring at Crufts. As I watch him fly around the living room of his Birmingham master's suburban semi, I find it hard to believe that this pulsating ball of energy will be able to hold it together under the glare of the spotlights.

Throwing a pig's ear on the carpet for Billy to nibble, owner Anthony Williams assures me there is nothing to worry about.

"He knows what's happening as soon as he's in the ring. He transforms," says Anthony. A switch is flicked in his bullet-hard head and he goes to work.

"He knows what he is there to do. When I take him into the ring, he knows when to walk and when to stand still. He doesn't react at all when the judge comes to him," says Anthony.

As he wrestles with two giant chewy balls, one clamped to the left side of his jaw and the other to the right, I find this hard to believe. The thing is, Billy just can't stop playing.

Staffordshire bull terriers have become Public Dog Enemy Number One following a series of high-profile attacks but when I meet Billy he isn't the demon I expect.

He is strong, immensely strong, and needs controlling by an adult. But he is not a devil dog. Billy is possessed, all right - possessed by fun.

"Where's your rope, Billy?" says Anthony, aged 51, a team manager in the utilities market for Accuread.

"Where is it? Where's the rope, Bill?"

The dog tears out of the living room, his claws skidding on the hallway floor, and within a nanosecond he is back in the room with a thick knotted piece of rope in his mouth.

He refuses to let go of it and so begins a protracted game of canine versus human tug 'o war. Billy won't let up, not when Anthony lifts him off the floor and hooks the terrier over his back.

"As soon as you go, he'll go to sleep," says Anthony. "He likes showing off."

Despite his considerable physical attributes - or rather because of them - Billy's breed is under threat.

Reports suggest Staffordshire bull terriers have become the most sought after target of professional dognappers.

The breed made up 56 per cent of all dogs stolen in the Metropolitan Police area last year. The next most stolen dog was the Rottweiler, which comprised just five per cent of the total canine haul.

Staffordshire bull terriers, historically renowned for their ferocity, are thought to be being used by criminals to guard their "assets," be that drugs, counterfeit goods, property or stolen cars.

Equally worrying are claims that the dogs are being stolen to order to be used in illegal underground fights, on which large sums of money are gambled.

Pedigree pups command premium prices, selling for pounds 500, which explains why there is also a buoyant black market for stolen Staffies.

With concerns about thefts running high, I agree to Anthony's request to withhold publishing his full address.

He admits that he telephoned the office the day before my visit to check my identity. "You can't be too careful," he says.

Billy, kennel name Cambridge Warrior, has a lineage that can be traced back five generations, with the families of Wyrefare Prince Naseem (his father) and Clampitt High Society (his mother) featuring a total of 19 champions. Prince Naz was the country's top stud dog for four years in a row. As Anthony points out, three-year-old Billy would be a "prime catch" for villains.

Ironically, it may be the dogs' good nature that makes them so easy to steal. Billy certainly projects a fearsome image but although he is undeniably powerful there is nothing to suggest he is anything other than playful with Anthony and me.

Whether I would leave him in a room with an unattended young child is another matter, but his owner insists the dog modifies his behaviour depending on the person.

Anthony is acutely aware of the breed's poor PR but blames irresponsible owners. "It is the same with any dog. If you don't feed them they will bite and fight," he says.

Anthony says the bad publicity about dog attacks and illicit fight rings is an "unfortunate" part of ownership of a Staffordshire bull terrier.

"When you are out, you get people crossing the road. The dogs have so much power when you walk them and people say, 'Oh, I wouldn't like that.' I don't know why they still have this reputation."

Anthony bought Billy for his wife, Shirley, as a 50th birthday present. They chose him from the litter because of his then nickname, Dyson. "He was like a vacuum cleaner on the end of his mother's teats," says Anthony.

"That attracted us because he looked like he wanted to survive in life. He also had a nice keen eye and head."

Billy has brown flecks through his short coat, making him black brindle in colour. He entered Crufts for the first time last year and will be in the graduate class at the NEC this time.

Anthony, who shows the dog in the ring, says he and Shirley have learned from their mistakes last year. While showing Billy, Anthony fumbled when he went to retrieve a doggy treat from his pocket and dropped his name badge on the floor.

"All the time Billy walked along he had his nose down looking for the treats. But we have taken care of that now," says Anthony.

He and Shirley do not have a special pre-Crufts regime for their prized dog. Throughout this week, they will continue to take him on his regular six to seven-mile daily walks, which keeps the weight down and aids the animal's rib definition.

Billy's tail will have a quick clip and a shave to ensure it has the required whip-like quality sought by judges and then there is the teeth cleaning. Gnawing on marrow bones helps to minimise plaque but the smokers' toothpaste aids the million dollar grin by removing unsightly stains.

Billy's regular diet will remain unaltered - just the usual fresh roast chicken, rice, fresh vegetables and biscuit. And, if he's a good boy, a tasty pig's ear.

If Billy represents the brash Marine Corp muscle of Crufts, power-puffs Jonty and Tally epitomise the championship's languorous glamour.

Shih tzus are among the real high maintenance catwalk stars of dog shows, the celebrity pooch of preference for ex-Spice Girls and camp TV stars.

Brother and sister Jonty and Tally will undergo a meticulous grooming programme at their home in Solihull over the next seven days. There will be baths, showers, shampoo, blasts of hairdryers, trimming and hours of combing as owner Jean Anderton, a veteran of the show ring, prepares for her 20th Crufts.

It is just as well Jean used to be a hairdresser. "When I first got shih tzus, I didn't realise how difficult the knots in their coats were," she says. She knows now.

Jean, aged 73, got her first shih tzu in 1984. She used to have a toy poodle, Cricket, but was so devastated by his death that her husband, Derek, would not let her get another dog for seven years. Finally it was Dougal, the shaggy dog in The Magic Roundabout, who attracted Jean towards the Chinese breed.

"If you leave a shih tzu's coat long enough and don't tie up the top knot, they look just like Dougal. You don't know if they are coming or going," says Jean.

Putting aside her grief over Cricket's passing, Jean took the plunge and bought Tetley, starting a love affair with shih tzus and a run of pet names linked to tea, a drink she doesn't particularly like. There has been Storm (in a teacup) and Twining, for example.

The tea connection explains Jean's affix for her dogs' posh kennel name - Pekoe. Jonty goes by the full name of Pekoe Sharp Shooter while sister Tally is Pekoe Patent Pending.

The two-and-a-half-year-old dogs stand out from the mutley crew as show dogs but back home they are just two of the family -- two of 12 shih tzus, members of the Marston Green Fluffy Dozen.

Jonty has his own special area in the Andertons' utility room, where he is kept apart from the other two chaps, Cookie and Claude ("As in the actor, Jean Claude van Damme"), lest they pull on his full coat too much.

Jonty is not short of company, however. The nine shih tzu girls have their pen in an area of the kitchen and the conservatory and Jonty has a run with them every day when they are not in season.

"Mind you, I keep my eye on the girls so they don't pull on his coat - and so he doesn't have his wicked way with them," says Jean.

"They play-fight but it is not vicious. Shih tzus are very mischievous dogs. If you have one, you will never want another dog. They are little people."

It is a relentless task looking after 12 lively dogs, two of which require weekly baths and blow dries.

"Derek is 75-years-old and gets up every morning and lets the dogs out and brings my breakfast up on a tray. He does that every morning," explains Jean.

"Then that is it for the rest of the day. From then on, it's all down to me. You have got to be very dedicated."

Or a bit mad? Consider this: Jean and Derek attend more than 30 dog shows across the country each year and when one shih tzu goes, they all go.

All 12 dogs hop aboard the Andertons' motor home. The giant vehicle carries a double generator to power the doggy hairdryer, a baby bath for pre-show pampering and a duplicate set of feeding bowls.

Is the bath necessary? Jean says: "You have to bathe them. You have to get the dogs into the ring in pristine condition. It is such a competitive business.

Everyone is trying to outdo everyone else."

Nowhere is that more true than at Crufts. All other shows pale into insignificance when it comes to the biggest dog show on earth. The judges may like to put on a front, but they're not kidding anyone.

"If you talk to the judges at Crufts and ask them if they are excited they will say it is only another dog show. But it isn't another dog show," says Jean vehemently.

"It is an electric atmosphere. It is magical. It is just Crufts - and everybody wants to go there."

The quest for canine perfection is popularly associated a ruthless streak among owners, but Jean's devotion to her beloved Shih Tzus is unquestionable. Storm, now a grand old dame of 15, has gone deaf and Jean communicates with her using hand signals. The veteran showgirl is also given the special dispensation of a bed in the Andertons' lounge.

Jean says: "Some breeders can let their dogs go when they have finished with them. I can't do that. I get so attached. I think they have done so much for me. They have given me babies."

And when the time comes to put an old dog out of its misery, Jean is there to see them off to that great show ring in the sky.

"I have to hold them and love them to the end. I like to be there. My voice is the last one they hear," says Jean.

Blue may be full of life but he, like Billy the bull terrier, is under threat. He quite literally belongs to a dying breed.

Skye Terriers like Blue are renowned for their unwavering loyalty. The most famous of them all, Greyfriars Bobby, lay on his master's grave for 14 years, moving only from the spot for his midday meal.

Blue's owner, Jan Mason, cherishes her dog's loyalty above everything else. "Skyes are just so faithful," she says.

Human beings, however, are far more fickle. Skye Terriers are now officially listed by the Kennel Club as a vulnerable breed. Last year, only 84 Skye puppies were registered in the UK, making them the ninth most threatened breed. Otterhounds, bloodhounds and Dandie Dinmont Terriers also feature in the top ten pup parade of the most vulnerable dog.

By comparison, the British love affair with Labrador Retriever just keeps getting stronger, with 45,700 registered in 2006.

Jan, aged 65, who will be stepping into the ring with Blue at Crufts a week today, is a purist and blames the demise of Skyes on the fad for designer dogs. The market has been flooded with new cross-breeds such as labradoodles, puggles, dollies and cockerpoos (that's Labradors mixed with poodles, pugs with beagles, dalmations with collies, and cocker spaniels and poodles).

"I don't like it at all," says Jan. "You can end up with the worst aspects of both breeds. You have got to be so careful with breeding. Some people are just in it for the money."

It is only the popularity of the breed with foreign owners that maintains the numbers and high standards at shows. Competitors travel from all over Europe to attend coveted events in the UK.

But as the number of Skyes continues to dwindle, Jan fears people will become less aware of the breed, creating a vicious cycle that will lead to extinction.

"People don't know what they are anymore. When people ask me what dog I have got and I say a Skye, they say, 'A little lap dog?'

"They expect something miniature poodle sized. They are not like that at all. Skyes are medium-sized dogs - on small legs."

Having come face to face with Blue at his home in Ward End, Birmingham, I can attest to the fact that Skyes are most definitely not miniature. Within seconds of sitting down, Blue is up behind me on the armchair, nuzzling me and licking frenetically.

A framed colour print of a serene Greyfriars Bobby looks down from the sitting room wall. I thought these dogs were meant to be placid.

Then it really kicks off. "Where's Baby?" says Jan, in mock excitement.

At first I haven't a clue what is going on but discover it is a diversionary tactic to draw the dog away from the flustered stranger with the sopping wet notepad and pen.

"Where's Baby? Come on, Blue! Where's Baby?" demands Jan.

The terrier bounds off the chair, scampers across the room and seizes a child's soft toy by the throat. He then proceeds to gnash away at the stuffed elephant, emitting that half-crazed growling noise beloved of playing dogs.

Poor Baby, I think. She's lasted longer than Billy's pig's ear but her future looks bleak.

"Skyes were bred for badger baiting," remarks Jan as Blue goes wild. It's not difficult to see why.

Blue's rough and tumble behaviour is deceptive, however. Jan goes on to explain how he plays with her rescue cat, Polly.

The animals are a similar age and when Blue was a puppy he apparently used to put his mouth over Polly's head and drag her around.

"You would hear this tiny meow inside Blue's mouth," says Jan. "Then he would open his mouth and she would go, 'MEOWWW!' The cat didn't mind. She gives as good as she gets."

Jan must spot my sceptical, half-raised eyebrows and pops out of the room to fetch Polly. Oh, my God, I am going to watch a cat get eaten.

Cradling the puss, Jan returns to the room and shows me the feline, a lamb to the Skye slaughter. Blue, who is beside himself with excitement, snorts manically, leaps up and . . . licks Polly's tail.

He then puts his jaws over a rear leg but he doesn't bite. The cat doesn't flinch, doesn't move a muscle. It is all very odd.

Jan has owned Skye terriers for 35 years. She got her first, Lisa, when a work colleague's marriage broke down and she needed to rehome a number of Skyes.

After Lisa came Shelley, followed by Isla, then Fred and Heidi and Kizzy and then three brothers, the last of whom, Mac, died in October 2005.

I remark how distressing it must be when the dogs die. "I can't tell you," says Jan, who becomes teary at the mere mention of canine mortality.

When an East Midland breeder called to say she had a new litter of Skyes, Jan could not help herself: and into her life trotted Maridale Blueys Beach, who answers to the name Blue. "The rest is history," says Jan.

The young dog, just a year old, is full of promise. Half-Australian (his dad, Toftmonks Ossien Brae, or Oz Poz, is originally from New South Wales), Blue could have an illustrious show career ahead of him.

He won first in the puppy dog category at the Ladies' Kennel Association at the NEC in December and has picked up a best breed rosette.

Jan, who is a judge herself, knows what is required to breed a Crufts winner. For Skyes, judges look for a "long, low and level" animal.

They also want to see good movement, dark eyes, good teeth, the correct bite and black ears.

So will Blue make the grade - and what of Billy, Jonty and Tally? There are only another 25,000 dogs to beat for the ultimate prize.

I put it to Jan that she could find herself on television being interviewed by the BBC's Peter Purvis.

"Oh, just imagine," she says, her eyes glazing over, her knees visibly weakening.

In the dog world, it doesn't get any bigger than that.

Crufts is at the NEC from March 8-March 11.

CRUFTS FACTFILE

This year's event will be the 104th Crufts Show

22,320 top pedigree dogs will be competing in more than 2,000 individual classes for the Best in Show title - the second highest entry ever.

Biggest entry ever was in 1991 the centenary year with 22,993 entries.

Nearly 1,000 overseas exhibitors from 32 different countries will be competing with their dogs at Crufts, up 50 from 2006

182 different breeds of dog will be competing

Four new breeds are being shown for the first time. The Coton du Tuelar, German Longhaired Pointer, Pyrenean Sheepdog and Japanese Akita Inu.

The event will be broadcast on television globally to 49 countries

More than 2,000 cross-breed dogs will compete in obedience, HTM and agility competitions, alongside pedigrees

More than 140,000 dog lovers are expected to visit Crufts this year

More than 5,000 overseas' visitors from all over the world will visit the UK specifically for Crufts

More than 190 different breeds of pedigree dog and experts can be seen in the Discover Dogs area.

Crufts takes up nearly 20 acres of the NEC.

There are 6.8 million dogs in the UK

There is approximately 174 million dogs in the world

The Cocker Spaniel has won the most Best In Show titles, a total of eight times

DOG FACTFILE

TOP TEN DOG BREEDS

(numbers show amount of dogs registered with The Kennel Club)

1. Retriever (Labrador) 45,700

2. Spaniel (Cocker) 20,459

3.Spaniel (English Springer) 15,133

4.German Shepherd Dog (Alsatian) 12,857

5.Staffordshire Bull Terrier 12,729

6.Cavalier King Charles Spaniel 11,411

7.Retriever (Golden) 9,373

8.West Highland White Terrier 9,300

9.Boxer 9,066

10.Border Terrier 8,916

VULNERABLE BREEDS

(numbers show amount of dogs registered with The Kennel Club)

1. Glen of Imaal Terrier (41)

2. Otterhounds (51)

3. Smooth Collie (53)

4. Sealyham Terrier (57)

5. Field Spaniel (64)

6. Bloodhound (70)

7. Sussex Spaniel (74)

8. Dandie Dinmont Terrier (78)

9. Skye Terrier (84)

10. Welsh Corgi Cardigan (84)

You have to get the dogs into the ring in pristine condition. It is such a competitive business. Everyone is trying to outdo everyone else

CAPTION(S):

Billy the bull terrier whose playful side is evident TR270207BILLY-5 Picture, TREVOR ROBERTS; Pictures, Trevor Roberts Jan Mason with her beloved skye terrier called Blue TR260207DOG-3; Billy (also pictured on preceding page). His rosettes proudly displayed TR270207BILLY-6; Lining up for the big day at a previous Crufts show; Shih Tzus Tally (left) and Jonty get ready for their time under the show lights at Crufts LB250207Cruft-5; Crufts coveted Best in Show trophy; Jean Anderton with Shih Tzus Jonty and Tally get a cuddle LB250207Cruft-1
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Title Annotation:Features
Publication:The Birmingham Post (England)
Date:Mar 3, 2007
Words:3564
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