Sketch: The Holyrood Dog of the Year 2019
Deputy Presiding Officer Christine Grahame had bags of ham in her pockets. Her pockets were full of ham.
Why was Grahame, an MSP for 20 years – a veteran of Scottish politics – wandering around the Scottish Parliament garden with her pockets full of ham?
The short answer is experience.
It was the Holyrood Dog of the Year 2019, the single biggest event in the political calendar, and MSPs were taking it seriously. Ten MSPs. Ten dogs. One crown. Some brought their own dogs; others were assigned a rescue dog by the Dogs’ Trust.
The competition began with the contestants sizing each other up. Some barked. Some sniffed. Richard Leonard’s Hungarian Viszla, Cooper, had to go for a walk around the block, having become overcome with excitement over the occasion.
The format was simple. The teams were given five minutes in the judging ring – a cordoned-off pen in the middle of the garden – in which to impress the judges through the sheer force of charisma, before confronting the obstacle course.
Part One of the agility contest was a set of hurdles, testing dog and human alike, with Richard Leonard moving through the course like a young gazelle, or like the bottom half of a young gazelle, anyway. In what appeared to be an attempt to maintain his dignity, the Labour leader leapt over each tiny hurdle with a little jump, holding his arms straight down at his side. Cooper, in contrast, jogged delightedly round the outside, avoiding almost all the hurdles.
Part Two was harder, with a 15-foot tunnel laid out on the grass, designed to push competitors to the limits of physical and mental endurance. David Torrance and Golden Retriever, Buster, got stuck at the entrance for some time, with the Kirkcaldy MSP appealing in vain for Buster to enter, at one point even attempting to crawl inside in an attempt to demonstrate, before having second thoughts. Crawling out backwards again, he claimed it was too small for a large dog to fit inside. Buster watched on, wagging his tail.
Meanwhile, the contest represented a challenge for the media too. Impartiality is a basic journalistic principle, but how do you cover a story if the interviewee has no basic concept of manners, and instead just follows you round expecting constant praise?
And it wasn’t just the MSPs who presented challenges – the dogs, too, were unruly at points.
Alex Cole-Hamilton, 41, is a Lib Dem MSP for Edinburgh Western, while Martha, aged 18 months, is a dog. He explained: “She’s a black Labrador-Setter cross, and she’s just a ball of energy, she’s made friends with everybody.”
You’re not here to make friends, Alex. This sounded like the talk of a loser. It sounded like the talk of a Lib Dem. So what was his strategy? What tactics did Cole-Hamilton have in mind? “My entire strategy is based on staying on my feet, because she keeps trying to haul me off them,” he explained, as Martha started tying him up with her lead. “She obeys no commands whatsoever, so it’s really a case of whether I can direct her to the assault course using treats.”
Pressed for further comment, Cole-Hamilton added: “I don’t want to have my arms ripped out their sockets.”
So, cautiously optimistic, then?
“Yes, it’s a very Liberal Democrat trait – to be relentlessly optimistic in the face of overwhelming odds.”
Martha was unavailable for comment.
It was around this point things became more chaotic, with Cuillin (part of Monica Lennon’s team) managing to slip his collar and ran around in circles before being captured.
A one-year-old labradoodle, Cuillin had risen sharply in the public poll after launching a well-targeted campaign based on greater regulation of fireworks. Cuillin is scared of fireworks, and the public seemed to appreciate a policy message being delivered by a politician with first-hand experience of an issue. Some politicians live in ivory towers, but not Cuillin. He lives in Monica Lennon’s house.
“Fireworks can be very traumatic, not just for children and older people, but also for dogs and pets,” Lennon explained. “So Cuillin is strongly in favour of tougher regulation.”
At this point, Cuillin seemed to be strongly in favour of jumping in the parliament pond. But there was only one real scandal at play, with previous winner Christine Grahame eventually confronted by persistent rumours she had been using ham to keep her companion – a small rescue dog called Rocky – behaving properly.
Responding to the allegations, she said: “The competition is good and a lot of fun, but the point is to let people know, before they get a dog, be sure you are ready for them and that you’re getting the right kind.”
OK, Christine, but what about the ham? What about hamgate? Was the ham within the rules?
“Rocky is a star,” she explained. “An absolute character, but I’m working here all day so I can’t have a dog.”
It was a strong response, even if it didn’t seem to fully answer the question. Yet eventually the race was run and it was left to the judges to announce the results, with Iain Gray’s guide-dog-in-training, Giles, winning the public vote and with Jeremy Balfour and Sadie, a poodle-cavalier cross, named Dog of the Year. Alison Johnstone and Georgie, a rescue spaniel, came second and Monica Lennon and Cuillin, third. Cuillin then refused to climb the podium, instead trying, yet again, to drag the Central Scotland MSP into the pond.
A media scrum quickly formed around the winners, while Sadie stood tall. A champion, a winner, the Dog of the Year.