Herefordshire People: Hilary Engel: Getting ready for Crufts

PUBLISHED: 16:40 09 February 2010 | UPDATED: 15:17 20 February 2013

Getting ready for Crufts

Getting ready for Crufts

Amanda Stewart talks to Hilary Engel about her beloved Labradors. Photographs by Jerry Stewart.

Amanda Stewart talks to Hilary Engel about her beloved Labradors. Photographs by Jerry Stewart.

Does anything sum up the joy of country life more than a Labrador, stretched out in front of the fire? Or two, perhaps? But eight? High up on Saddlebow Hill, near Orcop, all eight of Amanda Stewart's Labradors share her house. They have their own room to sleep in, their own kitchen and washing machine. "The dogs are my life," says Amanda. "They are pets first, and show dogs second." Fortunately her husband Jerry and daughter Katie share her devotion to the dogs, and indeed Katie is about to compete at Crufts herself for the first time this month, alongside her mother.

"I'm up at 6.30 every day to take them for walks," says Amanda. "They get at least half an hour in the morning, then another walk at lunchtime, and another between 4 and 6. I wear out a pair of walking boots every year. Half of the time I let them run around loose in the field, and half of the time we walk on the road. It helps to keep their claws trimmed."

"A Labrador isn't an easy dog to look after. We still get plaster chewed off the walls. They need a lot of attention. But you wouldn't leave a child on its own: so why should you leave a dog?"

Amanda used to work full-time with an interior designer. She bought her first Labrador in 1988 just after she was married. "Jerry was in the forces, and he had to go away to Northern Ireland for two years, so I got Major to keep me company." Up till then, she had had horses: her family, named Pontin, lived in Abbey Dore, and she kept horses there. For a while Major the black Labrador would accompany her to horse shows; but then one day while he was still a puppy someone said to her, "You really ought to show that dog."

So she started taking him to ringcraft classes, and joined the local Labrador Retriever clubs. "Ringcraft classes prepare the dog and the owner for shows. I still go to classes now. It's useful for the dogs to get used to mixing with other dogs. There's so much you need to learn about showing, about presentation. With a Labrador, which has to stand on its own for the judges, you have to be able to keep its full attention while you are in the ring."

She took Major to the Leominster Agricultural Show, where he won Best Labrador Puppy and Reserve Best Puppy in Show, and her life began to change. She gave up her full-time job, and when Major was 18 months old she bought another Labrador, Simba, a black male, as a companion for him. Simba quickly started winning prizes, and was her first dog to qualify for Crufts.

When Katie was born in 1996 Amanda simply took her along to all the shows. "I was out walking the dogs with a baby carrier as well, that was the only difference." Katie grew up alongside Badger, a son of Major - one of a litter of 11 puppies.

"I don't have puppies very often: I don't like to breed for the sake of it. There are a lot of people out there who are breeding for the money. So if you do want to buy a Labrador puppy, make sure that you go to a reputable breeder. You can find them through the Clubs, through their puppy registers. Then you'll know that the parents have good pedigrees, and that they have had all of the tests, and that the dogs have been well treated."

Labradors as a breed can have problems with hips, and with eyes. Both parents should have hips and eyes tested before having puppies, to avoid faults being passed on. You should get details of all this when you buy a puppy.

"You can usually tell if a puppy is going to be a show dog when it's six or eight weeks old - but not always. If you want a show dog you need to buy from show dog parents."

"All of our dogs get on well with each other. But we did have one, a bitch that we bought as a puppy, that we just couldn't handle. We tried a citronella spray on her collar, and we got an animal behaviourist to come and see her. But it was no good, she was just too hyper, too disruptive, and so we had to get her re-homed: it was heartbreaking. But in her new home, where she was the only dog, she was absolutely fine. It was because she had a dominant personality."

Amanda's star dog is Beau, who is now seven. "My show career changed completely when I had Beau. He won every show we went to, and qualified for Crufts at the first opportunity. He did brilliantly. We've been every year since then: we've never won, but we've been in the final eight. With all the different classes, there could be five or six hundred Labradors at Crufts altogether."

Once Amanda started to appear with Beau, she began to get requests to use him as a stud dog. The Guide Dog breeding centre at Leamington Spa asked if he could sire a litter of puppies for them. "There were eight pups in that litter: two bitches were kept for breeding, and the male puppies went into training."

"We always give people a list of do's and don'ts with puppies - about feeding and exercising and so on. Because Labradors can develop problems with their hips you shouldn't let them run until they're six months old."

"My normal routine with the dogs is to brush them every other day. I don't bath them often - maybe twice a year - as it takes the oils out of their coat. I brush their teeth with doggy toothpaste: they all have their own brushes. And I give them meaty marrow bones once a week, to help keep their teeth clean.

"About a month before Crufts I take a look to see if the dogs need more or less exercise, depending on their weight. Often they are moulting at this time of year, which can be a problem, but I give them oil of evening primrose to help bring back the coat, or seaweed powder added to their food."

For the past four years Amanda has been judging dog shows as well as entering them. "I travel all over the country. You meet all sorts of people: I've made such a lot of friends."

"I always advise people that if they want to get into showing they should start off with the companion shows, which are often run to raise money for charity. You can just turn up on the day, and the dog doesn't have to be registered with the Kennel Club. Then if you're more serious you can start to enter the open shows. You can find them all listed in the dog magazines."

This year Beau and his son Onni and daughter Molly are all going to Crufts. Molly will be shown by Katie, now aged 11. Amanda and Katie often find themselves competing against each other in shows. "We both have new suits to wear: it's very important that the owner looks good, as well as the dog."

"The showing starts at eight. So we're up at about 4 am to give the dogs a quick run before we set out. I love it: it doesn't matter about winning, it's just great to take part. I'm just a small fish in a big pond: other people have won a lot more than me. But for me it's a hobby. I didn't set out to show dogs, but I just do it because I love it."

Labrador Retriever Club of Wales: secretary: Mrs. M.H. Barker, "Haulwen", Church Lane, Nantgarw, Cardiff, CF15 7TQ 01443 842585

Midland Counties Labrador Retriever Club: Hon Secretary and Puppy Register: Mrs Julia Lewis. Email: 01484 680 123

Cotswold & Wyevern Labrador Retriever Club: Secretary Mr Karl Gawthorpe 01932 874539

Breinton Ringcraft classes held at Stretton Sugwas Village Hall: Secretary Miss J Jones 01432 359403

Ross Ringcraft classes held at Sellack Village Hall, Sellack nr Ross-on-Wye: Secretary Mr Trevor Carter 01989 561019

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