Super-mixes or mixed blessings?
by Oregonian Pet Talk columnist Deborah Wood, © 2006
An article about the "Designer Dog" fad, its pitfalls and its occasional merits, written by The Oregonian Pet Talk columnist Deborah Wood. Reprinted here unaltered (except for formatting) by her permission.
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The hot fashion news in the dog world this year is designer genes: So-called "designer dogs" are mixes of purebred parents with cutesy names: labradoodles (Labrador retriever-poodle mix), puggles (pug-beagle), schnoodles (schnauzer-poodle).
These mixes don't come cheap. Some fetch as much as $2,000 for a puppy -- often twice as much as their purebred parents.
One such designer dog is Angel, a sweet, funny, smart puggle. The 1-year-old pup has a repertoire of tricks, plenty of energy for long walks, and is a snuggle-bunny for any family member with a lap. And she's undeniably cute.
"I call her perma-puppy. She looks like a perpetual puppy," says Paige Richardson of Portland.
Angel has a pug's orientation toward people and a beagle's energy and enthusiasm. She seems to epitomize the argument that the mixes offer the best of both breeds.
The reality isn't that simple. The truth is a mix of science, hype, mythology, genetics -- and the luck of the draw.
The truth and hype about hybrid vigor: The argument in favor of mixed breeds is that they have "hybrid vigor" and are healthier than purebreds. That's true. Sometimes. Maybe. Until the second generation.
There are some diseases created by a recessive gene. In some cases, these recessive genes are limited to certain dog breeds. It takes parents with both genes for that genetic problem to express itself. Cross two different breeds and their offspring can't have those breed-specific problems. So, the puppies from a Labrador-poodle cross won't have the poodle genetic problems or the Labrador problems.
Sounds perfect, right? Not so fast, say the experts.
"Crossing two different breeds masks recessive traits during the first generation, but in the second generation of designer dogs the negative genes reappear with a vengeance," said Patti Strand of Portland. Strand is on the board of directors of the American Kennel Club, and bred the Dalmatian that won the Non-Sporting group at this year's Westminster Kennel Club dog show.
In the example of labradoodles, the dogs can carry disease genes for both poodles and Labradors, meaning both sets of diseases could show up in the next generation.
"The one thing about a mix, you may be able to cover up recessive genes," said veterinarian Ray Calkins. Increasingly, he said, there are genetic tests for finding problems in purebred dogs. But "the test that works for the Labrador may not work in the labradoodle."
Problems such as hip dysplasia, progressive retinal atrophy (which causes blindness) and a tendency toward allergies are common in most of the breeds that are being crossed for designer dogs. When breeders screen their breeding stock to produce healthier puppies, problems are less likely to crop up. But problems like hip dysplasia and progressive retinal atrophy rarely show symptoms until the dog is into adulthood, so those raising designer dogs in puppy mills may not be checking the long-term health of the offspring, which means the recessive genes aren't necessarily getting weeded out.
"If you start with bad genes, you will end up with bad genes," said Calkins, whose Wilsonville Veterinary Clinic works with many dog breeders in Oregon and Washington on reproductive issues. Calkins says that there are some labradoodle breeders, for example, who are working conscientiously to breed healthy dogs. They are doing all the appropriate tests, such as checking for hip dysplasia, eye disease and heart disease. That kind of responsible breeding -- whether it's a designer mix or a purebred -- leads to healthy puppies.
Designing for performance: Let's face it: all purebred dog breeds started out as mixes. Doberman pinschers were a designer dog created from several breeds (including Rottweilers and some terriers) in Germany at the turn of the last century. Around the same time, Americans were developing the Boston terrier, starting with the mix of bulldogs and terriers. Even ancient breeds were selectively created at some time by humans who were crossing the best hunting dogs or the best herding dogs. That same kind of creative breeding is going on today.
Carol Helfer loves the sport of flyball. This is a lightning-fast relay race where a team of four dogs take turns flying over a series of hurdles, hitting a box that throws out a tennis ball, and then running back with the ball over the hurdles to their owners. Helfer traveled to Michigan -- home of the world champion flyball teams -- to find her puppy, Hotshot. The sleek, active, black-and-white dog is a cross between a border collie and a Staffordshire bull terrier.
"He has the border collie intensity, drive and focus, and the Staffy muscle and temperament," said Helfer. In this sport that's won by fractions of a second, she said, the mix is like "putting an after-burner on a border collie."
Hotshot's breeders did the genetic tests appropriate for both breeds, including X-rays for hip dysplasia and screening for eye disease, and also did hearing tests on the puppies. All the puppies were spayed or neutered before being released to their new homes. Still, says Helfer, some of her purebred dog buddies seem to react to her intentional mix with raised eyebrows.
But are they breeds? Designer mixes are often called breeds but that's not accurate -- at least yet.
"A breed is a group of dogs that have been selectively bred to predictably possess and produce certain characteristics, such as speed, size, temperament, performance ability or appearance," said Strand. "It takes generations of selective breeding to produce healthy dogs that breed true to type."
Flip through the puggles calendar at the Richardson home, and you won't find two dogs that look a lot alike. While the hype is that these mixes are the "best of both worlds," the truth is that the combinations are still unpredictable. Some labradoodles have soft, wooly coats, others have wiry ones. And their temperaments are just as mixed. Some have the sweetness of a Labrador combined with the cleverness of a poodle. Others have the high need for mental activity of a poodle inside a big Labrador body with that powerful tail that can wipe everything off a table.
"Sometimes you get the worst of both worlds," said Calkins.
Helfer, who is a veterinarian, says that she thinks of the breeders of designer mixes are in two camps: the "good guys" who are breeding for specific purposes, and "bad guys" who are selling a commodity. Too often, the hype around designer dogs is about making money. In fact, labradoodles and goldendoodles in particular are often sold as money-making ventures.
"People see that these dogs sell for huge amounts of money and think they're going to make a lot of money selling puppies," says Calkins.
It's too early to know which of these designer dogs will be passing fads -- and which, like Doberman pinschers and Boston terriers, will be respected and popular breeds 100 years from now.
"Only time will tell which ones will stay around," says Calkins.
Oregonian Pet Talk columnist Deborah Wood is the author of 10 books, including "Little Dogs: Training Your Pint-Sized Companion." You can reach her at TaoBowwow@aol.com.