Verity Hardcastle Talks Crufts

Verity Hardcastle Talks Crufts

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Read time: 15 mins

14 Mar 2023

"Crufts is more challenging for the owner than the dog"

Verity Hardcastle shares the secret behind becoming a Crufts winner, what it takes to compete in the annual dog show and the top tips she swears by as a dog owner.

Crufts 2023

Crufts is back with its annual dog show for 2023 and as the competition heats up, master groomer and TV presenter Verity Hardcastle has shared what it takes to become a winner. She reveals to us here at Butternut Box, an official sponsor of Crufts 2023, the secret to becoming a Crufts champ, why it’s more ‘challenging for the owner than the dogs’ when competing and why nutrition is ‘super important’ for those pups involved.

Verity also shares her advice for dog lovers who are thinking about welcoming a furry friend into their home, the top tips she swears by as a dog owner, including why it’s ‘always important’ to let your dogs sniff during their walks, and her experience filming for BBC’s Pooch Perfect.

What Do You Think is the Secret to Being a Crufts Winner?

"It’s definitely got to be the right dog and by that, I just don't mean they have to be conformationally correct, or adhere to the breed standard that the Kennel Club set out. But they have to have that joy in them, they have to love what they're doing. Otherwise, they're not going to show well, they're not going to carry themselves well and they're not going to hold their tail properly.

The dog has to be enjoying itself, loving life as well as being beautiful. It has to be that perfect partnership, I feel that that's so important when you’re showing a dog. They absolutely have to adore what they're doing. Things have changed and dogs are very much members of our family now, they want to work for us, they like praise and rewards. It’s lovely to have that positive relationship with them when you’re showing them."

What Are Your Main Tips For Getting a Crufts Ready Dog?

“Nutrition is super, super important. Just like we hear with people, you are what you eat and the same applies to dogs. It’s so important for their health, their skin, their coat, that we're feeding them high quality, nutritious foods like Butternut Box.

We also need to make sure that we're practising with them before the big day, training them and keeping them engaged. And when we're doing this, we need to make it a rewarding activity. So either using their favourite toy or treats and having fun with them, cementing that joyful bond with them while you're doing it.  Exercise and condition is vital, not only should they be in tip top shape but their coat should look its best, achieved through a quality diet, good exercise and maintenance.

Another is having a positive association with what they’re doing. It’s really important that when you embark on showing a dog, you start training them when they are young. You start taking them to ring craft classes, which is where we take our puppies and dogs to practice for the show ring, it’s a lovely socialising activity for them, they will be interacting with other dogs, and training with you at the same time. It’s all interlinked, but they have to have that positive association all the time with showing and want to show for you.”

Are those tips just as important to normal dog owners not taking part in Crufts?

“Yes, 100%. Crufts isn’t just about showing, there's agility, flyball, obedience, and so much more. It’s really a celebration of all things, dogs. Originally it was a dog show, but all the same things apply to all of the dogs.

Dogs love a hobby, so I'm a really big advocate for trying to get people at home, who are looking at their dog who is just used to doing their morning walk routine and not much alongside, to try to think outside the box. There are so many hobbies out there to do with dogs. Some are great exercise, some offer great mental stimulation, and it's lovely bonding time for the both of you. Plus, you will probably both make some new friends along the way.”

How rigorous is the training for Crufts?

“I think that as long as you put the work in when they’re young, they know what they're doing. If they’ve been brought up doing it, then it's like muscle memory. My dogs know when I'm packing up the van for a dog show, they'll fly to the front door and they’ll start squealing. They get so hyped up and excited for it. It’s super important that the training is in them already then at the show its just about having a good time. I try and carry out about five minutes show training every three days with a young dog, that’s it. They have their own separate show leads, I don't use their normal collar and leads when show training, they know the difference. I work them little and often, it's the same with all training, short bursts, keep it engaging and enjoyable.

Will dogs be following a certain diet ahead of Crufts?

“Yes, but not of any sort of deviation from the usual. I always feed them on ButternutBox and make sure that they're getting a good omega three in there. Especially with my dogs, I've got poodles, their coats and their skin health needs to be exceptionally good. 

You need to make sure that, when we're looking at a food, it has good quality ingredients in it. Two things I actually love about Butternut Box is that it contains sweet potato in it. This is like a superfood for skin, and obviously fish is amazing for their joints and mobility. And secondly the ingredients listed are actually things we have heard of, things we would eat, in fact it’s all human grade ingredients so we can eat it”

How challenging is it to compete in a contest like Crufts?

“I think it's more challenging for us. We’ve got to keep our calm and keep our cool because showing somewhere like Crufts is really quite daunting. There's the biggest audience, more dogs. We compete throughout the year, all year round at dog shows. The dogs are used to that, but when you go to Crufts it’s on a much bigger scale.

There's a lot more noise, there's a lot more people and they like to clap. We need to get our dogs used to applause and things like that. You can even train your dog to get hyped up for applause. If you have a dog that is spooked by something like applause, then what you would do is play them a sound of applause on a speaker. You would start playing the noise at a low volume, so it's barely audible, reward through food and play at the same time. That reprograms their thinking over time to hear that noise and associate it with something really positive, rather than something scary.

Generally dogs love Crufts because they can pick up on the fizzy atmosphere. It’s just very important for us to stay calm and keep our cool, because they pick up on any tensions in us or stress. For me, I'm always very aware of my body language and those little micro cues that you might do when you're stressed.

For example, you can grip the lead a little bit tighter and slightly flare your nostrils when you are stressed. Dogs are so in tune with us that they can pick up on these stress cues. So it's really important that we stay calm and collected and just try and have a really good time. At the end of the day, it’s a celebration of dogs.”

Seeing the dogs on Crufts will no doubt inspire people to get a dog of their own, what advice do you have for new dog owners?

“Anyone who's considering getting a dog, I would say definitely do your homework because it shouldn't be a knee jerk reaction. You've got to think about your lifestyle now. Your dog is going to be with you for 15 years, depending on what breed you go for. You've got to think about how life changes. I mean, the things I've been through with my dogs. They’ve been with me when I've been single, met my husband, been married, and now I've got two young children.

You also need to give the dog the tools to be able to deal with these changes in life and still give them the time, love and exercise they need. We saw in the pandemic, everybody was working from home, and then suddenly lots of people were back in the office. It’s just equipping them with the tools to be able to deal with these changes through training, socialisation, attention and love. You have to make sure you've got the time in your life to dedicate to a dog.

Obviously, the most important thing is they get lots of exercise and mental stimulation, love and kindness, above all. It’s just making sure you have room in your life to do that, not just now, but in 10 years time. I always would urge anyone thinking of buying a puppy to visit a rescue, even if you are completely closed off to the idea, you never know, your perfect new best pal may just be there waiting for you.”

Do you have any tips you swear by as a dog owner?

“My first tip will be nutrition. As we mentioned, they are what they eat. If you're feeding your dog Smarties every day, you can imagine the difference in your dog. Not only does good nutrition help the skin, coat and body condition, but it’s also so vital for their mind.

I've heard from a lot of behaviourists that they attribute a lot of unwanted behaviours that they see in dogs down to poor nutrition or are exasperated by poor nutrition. A lot of behaviourists will go into a home and the first thing they will ask he owners is, ‘what are you feeding your dog on?’. This is really, really important because poor nutrition could really cloud their mind. 

I'm a master groomer, so grooming your dog is vital. Small bursts every day, every other day, or every week- obviously depending on your dogs coat type. Just maintaining their coat is really important. It can be such a lovely thing to do together, sitting watching telly even. Butternut Box has got some small training treats, these are perfect. So you can feed with one hand and brush with the other.

Number three would be to get a hobby for your dog. If you're not sure, visit Crufts because there's so many options out there that you may not have even thought of. Things don't have to always be high octane, like flyball or agility and there’s loads of things that even disabled dogs can do like Hooper's, it's almost like an agility course but there's no jumping involved. 

If you don't want to go down that route, start playing games with your dog, hide and seek ramekins of Butternut Box under cups even trying out a puzzle game for dogs. Exercising and tiring them out isn't just about pounding the pavement, it's about exercising their minds too.

Number four is the importance of allowing your dog to sniff. Dogs get so much mental stimulation from sniffing. This is so important that when you're on a walk, it’s scientifically proven that it makes the dogs feel more optimistic. It makes them feel calmer and also it's exhibiting a natural behaviour for them.”

You’ve spoken before about the importance of developing a bond with your dog, what can new dog owners do to ensure they too can build a strong bond with their dog?

“My first thing is when you're training them, you just always need to be looking at positive training. There’s loads of information about positive training online, but effectively it's a bit like how we bring up our children, ignoring the stuff you don't want to see and rewarding the stuff you do want to see. It’s also about rewarding them when they're being calm in their bed we often forget to reward that bit. We mentioned games, it’s really fun to get the family involved and play with the dog, whether it's interacting with their toys or having fun in the park.

I love doing canine massage. I talk about it a lot in my book, so long as your dog isn’t injured or sick you can also get involved in canine massage, its like purposeful stroking. It's both beneficial for us and the dog too, as it increases their circulation, which is really good for rejuvenating their blood cells.

But also, it lowers our blood pressure, our heart rate, their blood pressure and their heart rate. It’s mutually beneficial bonding time. Another beautiful thing that we can do with our dogs isn't always just about doing stuff, sometimes it's just nice to grab a cup of tea and have a snuggle on the sofa. What’s nicer than that?”

As a professional groomer, what are your top tips for keeping your dog looking the best it can be?

“It all stems back to nutrition. You’re not going to get a healthy coat unless a dog is fed on high quality food. You’ve got to start at the beginning, so if you want a nice quality coat, then you have to feed the dog correctly in the very beginning. 

Number two tip is to groom them little and often, It's really important you don't let your dog get knotty or tangled, knots can be so uncomfortable for a dog. Not only do hey restrict movement, they're uncomfortable, they can restrict blood supply to certain areas and they don't allow air flow through the coat so they can overheat as they can't regulate their own temperature. A bad coat can hide parasites and skin issues underneath.

As a groomer I see a lot of skin problems in our dogs, especially lighter-coloured dogs and white dogs in particular. Often it's attributed to diet such as a poor quality food that's filled with loads of fillers and grains, animal derivatives and bulking ingredients. You're not going to get a nice healthy coat and supple healthy skin if you are feeding your dog poor quality food.

Bathing your dog is also really good for their coat. It’s a very old myth that you shouldn't bathe your dog. 30 plus years ago, there weren't all these amazing products that we have now. People used to use detergents that are really stringent to wash their dogs in, these would strip out all the natural oils from the coat.

Things have changed, things have moved on, the shampoo business within the pet industry has advanced tremendously. They’re pH balanced to a dog's skin unlike human shampoo products (so you have to always make sure you use a dog safe shampoo). I wash my dogs’ in show coats every 3 days! Obviously don't miss the conditioner if they have longer hair, so it remains beautiful, silky and shiny.”

How important is it to regularly brush your dog’s coat and how can you keep them distracted while doing so?

“Lick mats are really good for keeping them distracted. You can smear your Butternut Box dog food over the mat. While they're enjoying their food, you can be spending time brushing them, checking their paws, checking for grass seeds and giving them a hands on MOT. When we're grooming them, we're giving them a health check all over.

Keep it really rewarding. Don't think you’ve got to brush the whole dog right now if they don’t enjoy it, just tackle the paws today, then tomorrow do the legs. If you have a dog similar to a Labrador, they are a lot lower maintenance, but it's still lovely to spend that time grooming them, removing any loose hair because your carpets will thank you for it as well.”

Many people will recognise you from Pooch Perfect, how did you find filming the show? Was it challenging to film with that many dogs all in one room?

“It was absolutely amazing. It’s the same feeling as when we are at Crufts, we all have this mutual admiration for dogs. You know what it's like when you get dog people together, we never stop talking! Talking about dogs, dog things, our own dogs, so it was very much like that on the show.

I don't think we had any challenges at all. The dogs were treated like kings and queens. They all had their own individual person assigned to them to make sure that they were being taking out to the toilet, and they were happy. It was just fabulous from start to finish. I’m gutted it's not coming back, I loved my PP family.”

How do you feel about it not coming back? Do you think television needs more dog shows?

“I loved the experience and it was an absolute joy. I think there needs to be more awareness about the ins and outs of grooming. As a groomer, we're still seeing dogs coming to us in really poor condition. Don’t get me wrong, the majority of people really maintain their dogs in a fabulous way, but we do still see a lot of dogs who are either medically neglected or have a neglected coat. There’s a lack of knowledge out there somewhere for the general public. When they're getting a dog, especially a lot of mixed breeds that are quite heavily coated.

 It would be lovely to get more education on coat care out there.”

What were your highlights from filming the series?

“Meeting all the competitors, every one of them was so lovely. I've stayed in contact with many of them and now some of them are my good friends. Again, it's this mutual admiration of dogs that brings people together. I think I was privileged to be on such a big production, just seeing how it all works. It was absolutely fascinating, like working with Sheridan [Smith] as well. She’s an absolute master of her craft. All the dogs on the show were just so lovely too. Every one of them was just such a cutie and they loved the pamper."