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Dog days

For many teachers the classroom can be like a zoo. Averil Cawthera-Purdy prefers her animals to be of the furry variety - and outside the school gates. She tells Harvey McGavin about her other life.

Staff and students at Burton Borough School in Newport, Shropshire, know Averil Cawthera-Purdy as their mild-mannered head of learning support. But there's a different side to Averil, an all-consuming hobby that takes up her weekends, summer holidays and most time in between. Averil's other life is a dog's life.

The country cottage outside Telford that she's renovating with her partner (they met at a dog show) might not have any stairs at the moment, but it isn't short of ornaments. Dozens of silver salvers, bowls and trophies adorn the lounge, rosettes and paintings hang on the walls, and the sideboard heaves with cut glass.

The winners of these cups and the objects of her puppy love are a dozen very furry, foxy-looking dogs the size of footballs (Pomeranians) and four white-haired bigger versions (Samoyeds), their cousins from the Spitz family. As they run around the enclosure outside her back door, barking, Averil explains the attraction.

"When I was little I always liked teddy bears. You can't have teddy bears all your life, but you can have these. Poms are lovely, very affectionate and playful and really quite adorable."

It all started with a goat. Averil took one along to a village show in Yorkshire as a seven-year-old and won her first prize - coming third out of three. Her mother kept Samoyeds, and before long Averil began taking one along to local shows. But while her brother, Donald, was sweeping the board with one particularly fine example, she was trying to control a boisterous specimen. "He was big and strong and rather badly behaved in public. He used to pull me around and bark his head off."

So she plumped for Pomeranians instead, because they were smaller and easier for a 10-year-old to handle.

Dog-showing is a family affair. Averil couldn't do it without the help of her mum and dad, former commercial kennel owners who live a few miles away and perform regular dog-sitting, feeding and walking duties. "My mother was a headteacher, and I always wanted to be a teacher. So teaching runs in the family as much as the dogs."

Averil's house is home to 16 dogs and two cats. The Samoyeds are called Drover, Wolfie, Bugsy and Cassie, while the Pomeranians answer to Mardi Gras, Jolie Madame, Chantilly Lace, Amazing Grace, Kiss Me Kate, Kissana, Kissinger, Calcutta, The Sooty Show, Twist and Shout, Picked a Pocket or Two, and Champion Thelbern Oliver Twist from Livera .

Eight-year-old Oliver is, Averil admits, "definitely very special". He has won 32 challenge certificates, the award for best of show on the championship circuit. Only four Pomeranians have ever won more than 30 (the record is 34). Oliver retired from the ring at four, and is a bit long in the tooth these days, but he still misses the thrill of competition. "Once a show dog always a show dog," says Averil. "He knows when the others are going off to a show - it's like they are going to a party and he's not invited. So once they retire you have to make sure they have a comfortable home life."

Averil's full-time job rules out frequent breeding, so additions to her canine family usually arrive via a friend and fellow Pom enthusiast from Jersey. When time allows, litters are planned to coincide with half-terms and holidays.

"When you breed, you can't do it to order - you try to breed selectively to improve what you started with. I know what characteristics I want to enhance and what I want to keep."

Poms are a presentation breed, so appearance is all important. In the show ring, beauty isn't in the eye of the beholder but can be found in the Kennel Club breed standard booklet. This lists all the features of a pedigree Pom, including a soft woolly undercoat, short, fine muzzle and small, almond-shaped eyes.

"There's no such thing as the perfect dog," says Averil. "What's vitally important is temperament, and it's what makes these dogs so easy to live with. But whenever you mate a dog to a bitch it's a gamble."

It paid off last year, a record-breaking one for Averil, when she won nearly Pounds 1,000 in prize money. But she's not in it for the financial rewards. The dog food bill accounted for most of the winnings, anyway. And with vets' bills, entrance fees and sundry other expenses, it's not a cheap hobby. Although a Pomeranian puppy can fetch Pounds 300 or more, Averil breeds for need, not profit.

"I enjoy the challenge of showing, of putting a dog in the ring and getting the best out of it. Winning is a little bit addictive, I admit, but it's not the be-all and end-all. I enjoy meeting other people who are interested in my breed and the dog world and all that goes with it."

During the season, through spring and summer, Averil spends weekends on the road in her caravan, attending shows up and down the country. Holidays have to wait until Christmas, because in August she helps to run the Kennel Club Junior Organisation summer camp, an annual get-together for kids and their canines. She writes a column for Dog World, and, as a judge, she has cast a keen eye over contests as far afield as Spain, Belgium and Finland and has been asked to officiate at Crufts 1999, the greatest honour in dog-dom.

But she keeps quiet about her hobby in the staffroom. "You have got to go into so much detail before people understand," she explains.

"It's a very specialised thing, and if you are not involved it does become a bit difficult. It's a way of life. And it's very nice to be able to live two different lives. I like the contrast.

"From the outside, people think we are obsessed with dogs and let them rule our lives. It's good fun, but if you get too serious about it you would get to the point where it would all become far too important.

"You have to keep it in perspective - it's the dogs that are important, not the winning."

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