Halloween is right around the corner, and something scary is around town. He’s fuzzy and bouncy and may be one of the most popular creatures in Jackson right now.
“Frankenstein’s monster” is a Labradoodle.
That’s how Wally Conron, the breeding manager at the Royal Guide Dog Association of Australia, refers to his 1989 Labrador retriever-poodle creation. He’s called the mix his “life’s regret” because he opened “Pandora’s box.” He’s said he worries the labradoodle’s popularity — evident today by just walking down a street in Jackson — has paved the way for unscrupulous breeders to make a quick buck without considering the physical or behavioral health of puppies. He’s also said he worried the labradoodle has served as a stepping stone to the creation of other “designer dogs.”
This may be indeed true. Following the labradoodle, new “breeds” like the puggle (pug and beagle), the chorkie (Chihuahua and yorkie) and the cavachon (cavalier King Charles spaniel and bichon frise) soon followed. And as if labradoodles weren’t enough, those quick to jump on the bandwagon helped to create a whole slew of doodles: Goldendoodles, Bernedoodles, Sheepadoodles, Aussiedoodles, Borderdoodles, and most recently, the Rotti-Doodle.
Conron, however, wasn’t looking to create a cute mop-headed dog. He was working to concoct a dog that was suitable as a guide dog for a woman whose husband was allergic to dogs. He originally considered the standard poodle, but decided to breed a poodle with a Labrador retriever after he determined a poodle’s temperament wasn’t ideal for the work. His intention was to create a dog with the disposition and work ethic of a Labrador with the less allergenic coat of a poodle.
While Conron’s regrets focus on the health and behavior problems of today’s overwhelming number of doodles, there’s more to the story.
First, to clarify: Doodles are not a breed. While there’s nothing inherently bad about that — mixes can be great — the issue here is genetic predictability. A founding principle for seeking out a specific breed is the high predictability of temperament, instincts, behavior, energy level and size. Two dogs of the same general origin, behavior and appearance tend to produce puppies with those same traits.
When two dogs of different origins, behavior and appearance are bred, all bets are off — they don’t come out similar every time, not even close. And the further you get down the doodle genetic chain (breeding two doodles together) the variability increases. This means that a doodle’s traits are quite difficult to predict.
Certainly the idea of a nonshedding, hypoallergenic dog would make many people happy, but the reality is many doodles shed and none are truly hypoallergenic. Although many doodle breeders may claim this trait, there’s no such thing as a hypoallergenic dog.
“Allergens are carried in dander (dead skin cells), saliva and urine, so they’re impossible to escape,” veterinarian Dr. Marty Becker said. “It is true that some dogs produce fewer allergens than others, but you can’t assume that doodle dogs across the board won’t set off allergies if you or a family member suffers from them.”
As for the texture of their coats, there’s a huge degree of variety. Some doodles have a curly coat, some a wavy, long coat; others are more wiry. Though you may find a doodle doesn’t shed much, be aware they are incredible dirt, mud and burr magnets with their furry feet and faces. I’d guess the biggest headache about doodles is how easily they get messy, and they seem about the highest maintenance dogs when it comes to grooming needs. Many of them have coats that easily mat and will need brushing daily; they have hair in their ears and it grows around and into their eyes.
“If you are getting a doodle, you need to expect and prepare for daily home maintenance,” groomer Melanie Gilbert of Patriotic Pet Care said. “If you want your doodle to have that well-known long and fluffy coat, they should be at the groomer every four to six weeks... in addition to daily home maintenance.”
The doodle coat is also prone to matting, which can be extremely painful, lead to bruising or skin infections and may result in shaving to the skin.
“The cost of grooming a doodle,” she notes in “An Open Letter to Doodle Owners,” “is not small.”
As for general temperament, again we see a trait that’s hard to predict. While some of the Labra- or goldendoodles I’ve met have seemed quite Lab-like in personality, many more doodles have more of the poodle disposition. Poodles tend to be athletic and energetic, bright and needing mental stimulation, alert, vigilant and aware, sensitive and reserved, and can be high strung and nervous. Many people don’t seek these traits in a canine companion, especially if you are looking for a forgiving and easygoing family dog.
This isn’t to say that doodles can’t be lovely dogs — certainly, they can! (And doodle owners take note: I point out all the disadvantages to border collies on an almost a daily basis. Education can prevent heartache.) But choosing a dog you will be (hopefully) spending the next 10 to 15 years with based on a single superficial trait or two — how it looks or if it sheds — is never a good idea, as I’ve discussed in “Breed instincts influence training,” a column that ran Nov. 30, 2016. In a country where we are still killing a couple million dogs in shelters annually, if you are looking for a friendly genetic crapshoot with a certain appearance, head to the nearest animal shelter.
If you are dead set on a doodle of some kind, or any designer dog, for that matter, there are a few steps that help ensure you are doing the best job possible so you’re not handing money over to a bad breeder. Be warned: Selling designer puppies is a way for many to make a fast buck. Who would want to accidentally support those breeding dogs with no regard to their physical or behavioral health? But it happens more often than you would think, so don’t be fooled. (Read more in “Adoption and education curbs breeding of mill pups,” July 26, 2017).
Responsible breeders looking out for the health and future welfare of their puppies will screen their buyers (expect to give them some detailed information about yourself), offer lifelong support (expect to be given puppy raising resources right away) and be willing to take a pup back at any time (ask about their policy). If they won’t, look elsewhere. Although they may have websites, reputable breeders don’t sell puppies online, won’t have multiple litters and will focus on one type of dog only.
Visit where the pup is being raised, see how they are kept and inquire as to what the breeder has done as far as socializing and teaching basic skills. Puppies should be raised in the home and have met and been handled by many people, have a play area rich with toys and objects, have ridden in a car, have begun skills like crate training and be vaccinated if of age — at the very least. If the breeder doesn’t allow visitors and offers only to meet you off site, run away as fast as you can.
Last but not least: You absolutely need to meet the pup’s parents. Since there’s more variability when you cross two breeds, meet both of them. Meeting the parents will give you great insight into what their pups will be like; this is perhaps the primary advantage to buying a puppy. Are they fearful, timid or aggressive? If you don’t like everything you see in the parents, walk away. If you can’t meet them or if the breeders report they are “not great with strangers” or “protective,” look elsewhere.
The traits most people seem to love about their doodles are certainly wonderful — they can be loving, bright, cute and charming. But those are traits not unique to doodles. Many dogs being euthanized in shelters also have those traits. While crazes for “the latest thing” usually don’t play out well for the individual fad in question, the ‘doodle craze is a little heartbreaking to me for that bigger reason alone. I can see why Wally Conron feels it’s his “life’s regret.”