Kratu, the Romanian rescue dog who has stolen the show at the annual Crufts dog show in Birmingham, England, three years in a row, is retiring from agility competition. The Carpathian-Mioritic mix rose to fame for his total disregard for the competition’s obstacle course, instead running all over the floor, hiding in the tunnels, and—in a show-stopping grand finale this year—grabbing a pole from one of the hurdles and making off with it.
Kratu’s other talents include serving as an ambassador to the European Parliament and acting as a support dog to his trainer, Tess Eagle Swan, who is autistic. Eagle Swan has three other Romanian shepherds—Paqo, Polo, and Kratu’s brother Raffy—as well as a wolfdog named Maia. Slate spoke to her about Kratu’s unexpected Crufts fame, why he’s retiring, and the more serious side of this fuzzy goofball. This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.
Marissa Martinelli: How did Kratu start performing at Crufts?
Tess Eagle Swan: We do training with a charity called Wood Green, so because we train with them, we were invited to be on the team. I said, “We can’t do agility,” but they said, “It’s just a basic course and it’s fun.” The whole point of this is to show that rescue dogs and their owners can have fun. It’s a good thing to do training together. Kratu and I, we learned some agility, and he was OK. He could do a whole course. The first year we went, he did the course and some more jumps and that was it. They said, “That was very good. You had lots of fun. Come back the next year.”
We went back the next year, part of the team, and I still can never forget my face when he went in the tunnel and wouldn’t come out, because my mouth was a perfect O. My mouth fell open. Where was he? He went viral.
For good reason.
We got invited back the next year. Kratu, during his training, had suddenly decided he wasn’t going to do a course. He liked the tunnel. He liked the tunnel very much. He decided he would go in and lay down and not come out. He stole a toy from the trainer and lay in the tunnel squeaking it. I started laughing, and the more I laughed, the more he did the same behavior. Him being naughty makes me laugh. That’s probably why he’s so naughty, because I find him funny.
But you didn’t know he was going to do it at Crufts?
He came out really determined to do something because the other dog I had, Polo, was in the team. Polo had gone out before him. Kratu gets very, very miffy if somebody does something before him; he suddenly gets this look, and I know there’s going to be trouble. He’s not going to listen to me at all. It’s like he’s saying, “I’m going to teach you a lesson for letting somebody do something before me. You wait and see.” I just knew the devil was in him. If you watch me, I just throw my hands up in the air. I had no idea. He just exploded with his Kratu character. That was it, full-on, unadulterated, sheer joy and naughtiness. I had no idea he was going to take the pole across the arena.
Do the others get up to their own tricks or is Kratu the clown of the bunch?
Kratu’s the clown, very much so.
Do you have a specific course that they run at home?
No, I just make it up as I go along. See, I’m a bit like Kratu. Strange things amuse me. I just suddenly decide, “OK, let’s put your paws up on this.” I’ve taught them to climb up on things. I taught Kratu to tap his paw when I tap my foot on the floor. He does a special training where he copies me. It’s called “Do as I Do.” An Italian scientist, Claudia Fugazza, she teaches it. He copies me on a cue. Its very easy for me to train Kratu, because I explain—he’s got a fantastic vocabulary—and then I show him, and he gets it most of the time.
What was going through your mind this year at Crufts when he picked up that pole?
Being autistic and being in that arena with those lights and those people, and trying to follow your unique, crazy character of a dog who is unpredictable, capable of anything … I feel like a rabbit in the headlights. I don’t know if I’m even present. That’s a really tough one, thinking about that.
How about when you watch the tape afterward?
I just love it. I just love it so much. But I can’t understand how the commentators didn’t know who he was. I mean, that was ridiculous.
There’s a serious side to Kratu. We’ve been to the European Parliament, which made history. We went for a film screening about homeless dogs in Romania. He flew back to Romania in the cabin with me. We went viral in Romania, which is very hard to do. In Romania, dogs like him only guard. They do not go near people. They hate people. They couldn’t believe a dog of his type, loving children, being my assistance dog, visiting old people in care homes. They couldn’t believe it. He was on two news stations and an international paper.
We went to a university lecture for animal-psychology students in Cluj. They couldn’t believe it. I did that after the Crufts when he went viral. They treat dogs very badly in Romania. I went back because I wanted to say, look, this is what you have. This is what you can have with kindness, love, and reward-based training. You don’t have to beat your dog. You don’t have to hurt your dog. Look what you can do with love. That’s why I did that.
The best way of changing the mindset of people is with education, with young people. He went and posed for selfies with everybody. He wandered up and down the aisle. He just loved everybody. I was so proud of him. We actually went back to the camp where he came from. He didn’t like it, but I wanted to go back, five years after he left. It always brings tears to my eyes. He left a little puppy and he came back a champion.
How did you find Kratu?
My first dog was Maia, who is not a rescue. I had decided to get Maia a dog, because she’s a pack animal. Paqo came, and he’s just not fully present. He was abandoned at 12 weeks old. He loved Maia, Maia loved him, and it was like nobody wanted to interact with me. I thought, “I’ve got room for one more puppy.” I said to my friend, “Can you look for a large breed puppy?”
I started training him via WhatsApp when my friends had him. I used to sing him songs. They travel on a bus from Romania, and when the bus came, because I’d sung him all these songs, I laid down on the floor of the bus and he was there. I looked at him and I said, “Hello, darling. It’s your mummy.” He just laid down and it was like, “Oh, it’s you. I know you.” We bonded. He changed my life.
I’ve got a very traumatic past. I’ve had an eating disorder. I’m a survivor of a lot of bad things that have happened. I never had love in my life. Kratu brought unconditional love, which made me want to be here, because I’ve lived many times through not wanting to be here. Kratu changed that. He made me want to be present. I think I can say after 35 years, the last six months, I’ve beaten a 36-year bulimia problem. It’s still touch and go, but I think I’m there. What’s worked with me is because Kratu, his welfare comes first. If I’ve got an emotional issue, instead of binging, I’ll go and train him. We’ll go do something, he will come with me. Having that support has changed my life in so many ways.
You later went back to find his mother, Tutty, and you also adopted his brother Raffy.
I’ve rescued his mom, three sisters, and his brother.
[Raffy] has got PTSD. They beat the mom so badly with a stick the day before we got her. He’s very damaged, but he’s done a lot of training, and he’s got his gold Good Citizen award [from the Kennel Club]. He loves people as well, big Raffy, but if he hears a noise, he will come and sit on me shaking like a jelly. That’s 50 kg shaking. It’s so sad to see, that memory of fear.
Was Kratu at all afraid when you got him?
No. He’s been a monkey from day one. His favorite thing is to stick his bottom in the air. He likes to put his butt up in the air. From when he was a puppy, he’d put his head on the floor and his big furry butt would be stuck up in the air. It looked like this big rabbit. He still does it to this day. He turns and he sits on everybody because he thinks it pleases humans. It’s so funny. He’s so funny.
Now Kratu is retiring from the agility course.
He’s got a pinched sciatic nerve, so I don’t want him to do jumping and crazy stuff, although trying to stop him … I want his health the best. He’s in very good health, but he’s going to have to just calm down a little bit.
Raising awareness is what I want to do. When we went to the European Parliament, that was about trying to change the laws in Europe to stop people doing what they do to dogs. There’s some terrible cruelty with these public shelters. They poison dogs. They kill them in some really inhumane ways. We’ve got dog issues and problems all over the world. There’s too many rescue dogs. There’s too much puppy farming. Kratu’s mum had a litter every season because they use the dogs to either sell or give away or trade. We’ve created a platform for Kratu, and everybody loves him. He’s an international ambassador for rescue dogs, and what you can achieve with training, kindness, and love.