Cockapoo, Labradoodle

Designer dogs

Picture: Percy, drawn by me

Unscrupulous breeders, cashing in on the fad for designer dogs, are creating hybrids with eyes that fall out and hips that need replacing before the dog is a year old.

The most fashionable hybrid is the puggle, said to combine the cuddly quality of a pug with a beagle’s oomph. Puggles are in great demand and can fetch prices well above £500. “I get people calling left and right for them,” says one breeder, hinting that they make fine accessories: “Basically you get the equivalent of breeding a Marc Jacobs handbag with a Louis Vuitton.”

The puggle craze started in the US, and has won endorsement from celebrities. Sylvester Stallone and Julianne Moore own puggles, as do Jake Gyllenhaal and James Gandolfini. Among British celebrities, the actress Dawn Steele, best known for her appearance in Celebrity Fame Academy, recently said: “I’d really like one. They’re so cute and adorable. I’ve just bought my own flat in London and a puggle would be the perfect addition.”

On the internet, many other would-be owners offer vast sums for their own puggles, and other popular hybrids, such as the Shocker (a Shina Ibu-Cocker Spaniel cross), Pekeapoo (Pekinese and Poodle), Shepadoodle (German Shephard and Poodle), Basschund (Basset and Daschund), Bullmation (Bulldog and Dalmation), Labradinger (Labrador and Springer Spaniel), Porkie (Poodle and Yorkshire Terrier), Weirdie (Bearded Collie and Westie), and Jackadoodle (Jack Russell and Toy Poodle).

Dog experts say we’re witnessing the most radical shift in dog breeding in at least 200 years.

But experienced breeders in Britain, represented by groups such as the Pug Dog Club and the Beagle Association, are shunning designer dogs. Consequently many hybrids are being bred with questionable health and character – which future generations are likely to inherit.

“We are concerned that these dogs will end up in rescue a few months down the line,” says Joan Leonard of the Beagle Association.

“Dogs are not fashion accessories, they’re living beings,” says Clarissa Baldwin, chief executive of the Dogs Trust, who believes that the fad and the celebrity endorsements lead to more impulse purchases, and more dogs being abandoned. Battersea Dogs and Cats home says much the same.

Some breeders do know what they’re doing. Vicki Cuerdon from Gainsborough, Lincs, created Rodinglea Scruffies 24 years ago from Bearded Collie, Border Collie and English Springer Spaniels. “I wanted to create a family dog that I could take to friends houses and who would fit in with my lifestyle. I created the dog I wanted.”

But the rampant market for designer dogs has encouraged a surge of amateur breeders who lack Cuerdon’s credentials and genetics expertise, warns Dogs Today magazine.

Crossing a Newfoundland and a Saint Bernard could generate a crippled giant—both breeds are plagued with hip dysplasia, a disorder that often requires hip replacement before the dog is one year old. Mating a Pekingese with a Pug could produce disastrous consequences. Both breeds have eyes that easily pop out of the socket to rest on the cheek. Surgery is required to fix the injury, often at the cost of the dogs’ sight. Breeding the two could yield a dog that literally has its eyes falling out.

And that’s already been done, according to the American Canine Hybrid Club, which positively encourages people to experiment by offering the first person who registers new hybrids the opportunity to name them.

Almost every breeder selling hybrids claims to be “responsible.” But their opponents ask how responsible they can be to play Frankenstein with dogs and expect the public to pay for their experiments.

The idea behind the many poodle mixes is to combine the non-shedding hypoallergenic qualities of the poodle with desirable qualities of other breeds. The Labradoodle – a Labrador-Poodle cross that can cost £650, and considerably more for a second-generation puppy – was initially bred in Australia as a guide dog for blind people allergic to dog hair.

But allergic reactions to dogs are caused not just by hair but by dander, skin secretions and saliva. And anyway many pure breeds are also low- or non-shedding. “The Labradoodle is not filling a niche that isn’t occupied by several pure breeds,” says one pedigree breeder.

The Kennel Club registers over 200,000 pedigree dogs every year. These include 203 breeds, categorised in seven groups: hounds, gundogs, terriers, utility, working, pastoral and toys. Only after popular crosses have become well established, and careful research has been carried out into the historical background, health and temperament, will the Kennel Club recognises them as new breeds.

These days, cross-breeding is all about having a tiny dog. At least half of the most popular breeds registered with the Kennel Club are small. Popular large dogs such as the Golden Retreiver and the German Shepherd are tumbling down the ranks.

But enthusiasts accept that the Cockerpoo –a Cocker Spaniel-Poodle hybrid that has been popular since the 1970s – can weigh anything between 3lbs and 30lbs.

Of course, even breeds that have been recognised for centuries – such as huskies and afghan hounds – didn’t spring up fully formed, as if through some sort of canine Intelligent Design. They too were created, originally, by mixing two breeds.

But most modern breeds were developed in the last 200 years to cater for specific needs. The Doberman, for instance, was first bred around a century ago, by a tax collector who needed a dog to protect him on his rounds.

More recently, Guide Dogs for the Blind has successfully crossed innumerable Labradors with Retrievers. Manager Neil Ewart says it has also crossed Golden Retrievers with Border Collies. “My blood turned cold thinking about that one. When it worked it was very successful, but when it didn’t it really didn’t.”

As this suggests, it’s not just the dog’s health that’s at issue. Hybrids might also inherit unappealing temperaments: a Dalmation and Border Collie mix – known as a Dollie – would be too energetic for most pet owners. Other combinations, easy to imagine, could be too aggressive.

Fortunately most hybrids, whether deliberate or accidental, don’t come out too badly. But thinking up names for some can be tricky. “I have a 6 year old Jack Russell-Shih Tzu mix,” says one proud owner. “Needless to say I think my Jack-Shit is the cutest dog out there. I wonder why the breed hasn’t caught on.”