When Wally Conron bred the world’s first labradoodle back in 1989, there was a practical reason for doing it. A client was looking for a guide dog with fur, not hair, so it wouldn’t inflame her husband’s allergies. But the 89-year-old Australian, who upon the idea of crossing a Labrador with a poodle to successfully solve her problem, now believes he has created a monster.
It is, he says, his “life’s regret”, because too many of the labradoodle crossbreeds that have become so popular as pets are either “crazy” or plagued by health problems.
The name, though, was just so catchy (some vets report that others had crossed the two breeds successfully before Conron, but didn’t have his knack for branding). And the labradoodle was just so cute that it quickly became the designer dog of choice, encouraged by well-known owners from Jeremy Clarkson to Jennifer Aniston and Graham Norton. It was looks, rather than utility, that created such a market that breeders struggled to produce enough puppies to meet demand.
Creating designer dogs is a sad path to have gone down.
History is littered with dogs created to be easy on the eye. My own faithful family cocker spaniel, Bess, is what is known as “show” rather than “working”, because she is part of that strain bred for decades to have smaller legs, a longer nose and ridiculously bigger floppy ears than her ancestors, the lives of which once revolved around hunting and picking up game, rather than smiling up winningly from under my desk.
But at least she came to us from an approved Kennel Club breeder. The thing with crossbreeds is that there is no such oversight, and so, as Conron complains, a thriving market for labradoodles has encouraged “unethical, ruthless people”, with scant care for the dog’s future welfare in their hurry to make a quick buck.
Even opting for a regulated breed, though, doesn’t guarantee a healthy dog. Ask any vet and they are much more likely to complain about the number of suffering French bulldogs — or ‘Frenchies’ — than labradoodles who turn up in a sorry state in their surgeries. Frenchies have been manipulated by breeders picking out those from the litter with flatter faces so as to create a look that may today be prized by celebrity owners such as Madonna and Leonardo DiCaprio, but is widely cursed by animal welfare experts on account of the chronic breathing problems it has caused.
The best way of seeing the current plight of the labradoodle, suggests vet Bruce Fogle, is a “variation on a bad theme”. Labradors are known for their hip problems, he explains, so conscientious breeders, with Kennel Club encouragement, X-ray all litters to select those free from dysplasia — the breed’s troublesome hip vulnerability — to go on and have puppies of their own.
Beagle + Pug = Puggle
Dachshund + Corgi = Dorgi
Labrador + Poodle = Labradoodle
“But because labradoodles have suddenly become so popular,” argues Fogle, the Canadian-born but UK-based father of broadcaster and adventurer Ben Fogle, “some unscrupulous breeders don’t bother with X-rays, with the result that many of the labradoodles I see today have just as many hips problems as Labradors, if not more.”
While in theory crossbreeding could be an opportunity to eliminate such inherited problems, the reality seems to be that it is increasing them — and animals’ suffering. Fogle also believes that one of the key selling points of the labradoodle — that it is hypoallergenic — is at best exaggerated because they have the same Can f1 protein in their skin as other dogs. This is what causes an allergic reaction, he says, not whether they have hair compared to fur.
While most working vets are not quite so damning about labradoodles as Conron, they do stress that there are pros and cons with this and other crossbreeds. “Creating designer dogs is a sad path to have gone down,” says Yorkshire-based vet Zaila Dunbar.
Her advice to those wanting a dog is a familiar one: go to rescue centres where what used to be called mongrels, a mixture of all sorts of breeds, are readily available, and often have less of the exaggerated traits and drawbacks of purer breeds or specific crosses.
Fogle echoes this advice to go for a ‘mutt’, but he also highlights why it is falling on deaf ears. A growing number of the puppies available from rescue centres in recent years have contained at least some element of bull terrier in them, which puts off potential owners, especially those wanting a family pet, because such dogs feature so frequently in stories of savage attacks.
“If you don’t want to risk a rescue dog, the crossbreed can sound more attractive than the pure breed for all sorts of reasons. On the pro side, if you are looking for a breed that has a good record for being pretty healthy, lives a long life, and is very responsive and trainable, the poodle is a good option. But while it was regarded as fashionable in the Sixties, its looks are now definitely non-woke. So a crossbreed that is half poodle but better-looking has great appeal.”
Dunbar is reluctant to recommend a particular breed for those who have been put off labradoodles. She does, though, point to “robust, healthy” Border terriers. They still have sufficient of that “working” element in their genetic make-up.
Broadcaster Edward Stourton, whose Diary of a Dog-Walker column was a hit with Telegraph readers, puts it more bluntly: “Go for a dog bred to do healthy things, rather than for vanity.”
— The Telegraph Group Limited, London 2019
Peter Stanford is a British writer, journalist and broadcaster.