AS the beautiful contestants strut their stuff in the hope of winning the top prize they are perfectly poised with back-combed and blow-dried hair, manicured nails and sparkling white teeth.

With huge amounts of sponsorship money at stake for the winner, this could be any beauty pageant. But it isn't. It is Crufts. And instead of glamorous men and women posing for the judges, it is canine contestants vying for the coveted title of Best in Show at Crufts, which will be handed out tonight.

Rivalries at the world’s biggest dog show are as ferocious as those played out behind the scenes of Miss World and Mr Universe, with owners making allegations of sabotage and even foul play.

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In its 126-year history, Crufts has been dogged by rumours about underhand tactics such as breeders slipping laxatives into a rival’s food, sticking chewing gum in a glossy coat, placing a bitch in heat next to a male to distract him, snipping unsightly lumps out of a competitor’s coiffure ... and even murder.

The highly competitive world of dog showing was rocked two years ago when police were called in over the death of a prize-winning Irish Setter who competed in the show, after it was poisoned. Thendra Satisfaction, known as Jagger, collapsed at his home the day after being shown. According to its owners, a post-mortem showed the animal had eaten beef laced with toxins and the owners suspected Jagger was poisoned at Crufts.

Rumours spread, alarming breeders and soon six other owners came forward fearing their dogs had been poisoned at Crufts. But the Kennel Club said they had not received any official complaints from owners and insisted that any poisoning was ‘inconceivable’. When it turned out that Jagger had eaten the poisoned meat after returning home to Belgium, the show was in the clear.

Two years after this poisoning drama, the dog-eat-dog world of canine competition once again descended on the National Exhibition Centre in Birmingham for the four-day show spread over five halls and 25 acres.

There are numerous competition categories but the grand finale is Best in Show, which goes to the overall top dog this evening. Last year an adorable Westie called Geordie Girl won best in show.

More than 22,000 dogs from all over the world are competing for the title, which is worth only £100 and a replica of the solid silver Keddall Memorial Trophy (after Robert Keddall, show manager for 30 years). But it’s the glory of winning that counts among these passionate dog lovers – and it’s worth way more in sponsorship deals and stud fees as puppies from winners can fetch thousands.

Crufts itself is a lucrative market with around 450 trade stands selling everything from doggy ice cream to the usual leads, baskets and toys with the average owner spending more than £120 on such treats.

A cohort of Scots owners were among the 16,000 to descend on Crufts.

Linda Webster, from Giffnock, East Renfrewshire, is showing her Golden Retriever Drifter (show name Tasheen Hudson). “There is plenty of rivalry and I’ve seen people fall out with each other. Some people are so competitive, but I do my own thing. On the whole it’s a friendly event – a meeting of like-minded dog-lovers. Dogs are our whole world.”

Christine McLean, from Glasgow, has no fewer than eight Akitas and is showing two at Crufts: a puppy called Rex (show name Melodor All Hell Broke Loose) and a young dog called Goldie (show name Melodor Song for Gold).

“I’ve been going to Crufts for around 40 years. My dogs have won plenty of rosettes, including Best of Breed and Best Female, but I’ve never won Best in Show. There’s a lot of rivalry and more so since the pet passport was introduced and foreigners started competing, which makes it even more exciting.

“Crufts is the highlight of my year – it’s like Wembley for dog owners. The dogs love the attention because they get blow-dried, and their teeth and nails done.”

Alyson Carmichael, from Glasgow, is showing her Rough Collie, Zola (show name Kilchrenan Zena’s Design).

“Zola has won rosettes – last year she came top in the Good Citizens class – but I’m realistic about winning the top prize. But I know that I come home with the best dog,” she said.

Ruth Dickson, from Lenzie, is showing two Bernese Mountain Dogs, Josh (show name Monolou Dutch Connexion) and Jarvie (Monolou Vino Verde).

“Josh is a champion with quite a few wins. I’ve had Bernese Mountain Dogs for 20 years and I love them because they are big and boisterous and full of fun. Dogs are the love of my life and Crufts is the biggest dog show in the calendar.

“It’s very exciting, big and noisy with hundreds and hundreds of people so it can be nerve wracking to show your dogs. I’d love for one of my dogs to win Best in Show – that would be wonderful. It’s everyone’s dream.”