Thursday, 2 December 2010

Cool doods

Fargo likes a laugh with his friends

I’m lucky enough to share my home with Fargo, a fifth-generation labradoodle. At seven years old he’s a beautiful, excitable boy who thinks everyone, human or canine, is his best friend. He’s eager to please though he finds it hard to sit still, he’s a bundle of laughs and he likes to curl up on the settee and watch films (he seems to like the Lord of the Rings trilogy, I’ve never worked out why).

Labradoodles have gained a name for themselves as ‘designer dogs’, and they remain a contentious issue. This was amply illustrated in Simon Hattenstone’s column, ‘Whose bright idea was that?’ in The Guardian on 13 November. Hattenstone interviews Wally Conron, who is credited with the invention of the labradoodle in Australia some 22 years ago in response to the needs of a blind woman whose husband was allergic to dogs. According to the article, Conron crossed a standard poodle, which doesn’t shed hair, with his best Labrador to create a crossbreed that would make a good guide dog without triggering an allergic reaction. Nobody would take the dogs because they didn’t want a crossbreed, so Conron gave it a name and said he’d invented a new breed. The labradoodle was born.

But as Conron tells Hattenstone, the market for this popular breed is built on myth. The name ‘labradoodle’ was a PR gimmick with the best of intentions, but now that the dogs have gained such popularity, it seems that often, their non-allergenic properties are a flimsy sales gimmick too.

Fargo’s often been admired by people who are sure of one thing when it comes to labradoodles – that they are non-shedding, non-allergenic dogs. In reality, this is true of only a small proportion of the dogs. They can have a variety of coat types – the non-shedding ‘wool’ of the poodle, the ‘hair’ of the Labrador or, like Fargo, a mixture of the two. But people will pay a lot of money for a non-allergenic dog, and it seems that some irresponsible breeders are doing nothing to dispel the myth that makes labradoodles – or any number of other poodle crosses – such a money-spinner.

What’s in a name?
Conron feels that with the name ‘labradoodle’ he created a monster. He condemns the ‘backyard breeders’ who will cross anything with a poodle because it will sell for a high price, and I share his concern. Over the past few years the classified ads in my local paper have included an increasing number of crossbreed puppies with portmanteau names – most of them (cockerpoo, yorkipoo, golden doodle, etc) poodle crosses.

Personally, I’ve got no problem with the term ‘crossbreed’, though I understand why people want to know a bit about their puppy’s parentage. My choice of the labradoodle was based on temperament and health, not non-allergenic properties. I got Fargo after my large shaggy crossbreed, Murphy, died at the age of 14. Murphy looked and acted like a very large labradoodle, but he was never designated as such because the notion was still new back then. After he died I wanted another big, shaggy dog that would have a similar temperament and a good chance of a long and healthy life. I wanted a crossbreed – but I wanted one that I could be fairly sure would grow up into the type of dog I wanted.

But it seems that creating a portmanteau breed name to suggest a ‘new breed’ is the pathway to riches for some breeders. And paradoxically, this means that the temperament, character and health of the dogs are often secondary concerns.

Good breeding
Fargo’s breeder never claimed that he’d be a non-allergenic, non-shedding dog. Like any responsible breeder, he vetted me as much as I vetted him. I visited Fargo with his parents when he was five weeks old and, when I took him home a few weeks later, I also received a ‘pedigree’ showing his family history. The breeder was very unhappy about the number of people who were making a fast buck out of indiscriminate Labrador-poodle crossbreeds. They put the dogs at risk, he said, by breeding from any dog and by failing to have the parents hip and elbow scored and eye tested, and they undermined the efforts of people like him to establish a standard for a healthy breed.
Reading Hattenstone’s article more than seven years later, I was struck by the way Conron’s comments echoed those of Fargo’s breeder.

Of course I’m biased, but I love labradoodles. They’re great dogs and I can’t share Conron’s regrets about the fact that they’re here. But it’s a tragedy that the short history of these wonderful dogs is already blighted by shallow gimmickry and the ‘designer dog’ label. Something needs to be done to discourage irresponsible breeders, and The Labradoodle Trust is doing good work in this area by providing a wealth of education and advice about the breed, as well as a rescue service.

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