The family—a couple and their four children, ages 5 to 11—wanted a dog in the worst way. Not just any dog, but the type more popular today than any of the dazzling breeds at the Westminster Kennel Club dog show.
They wanted a labradoodle.
With luck and money, they found one not far from where they live in Connecticut. The breeder claimed the dog came from several generations of labradoodles, who in turn were carefully bred from miniature poodles and Labrador retrievers in Australia, where labradoodles were popularized 25 years ago. A ball of chocolate fluff, the puppy cost $2,800. That's more than it would have cost the family to adopt every single dog at their local shelter. But it was not outlandishly priced for a labradoodle.
The family installed an electric fence inside the house to keep the pup contained, paid for obedience classes from a trainer, and were set.
Only they weren't. Theirs is a cautionary tale, an increasingly common one, of what can happen when a dog becomes too popular for its own good.
The puppy did not have the docile temperament of a lab, as advertised. He was high-strung, as poodles can be sometimes, especially miniature poodles. He was not good with children; he competed with them as if they were littermates—scolding, wrestling, biting them. He was not, as labradoodles are marketed, low-maintenance. Like both a poodle and a labrador, the puppy craved constant company. Being confined to two rooms by an absurd, zapping, invisible "fence" drove him crazy. So did the children and the nanny, who were inconsistent with their attention and discipline.
Like more and more labradoodles—and their cousins, the golden doodles, a golden retriever-poodle mix—this pup was dumped. He ended up at the Doodle Rescue Collective, Inc., based in Dumont, New Jersey, which fields calls from doodle owners all over the country desperate to dump their dogs.
Since the Doodle Rescue Collective began rescuing doodles in 2006, it has helped over 1,200 dogs and counting. And it is not alone. There are dozens of other poodle-mix rescues, including rescues for cockapoos, or cocker spaniel-poodle mixes; schnoodles, for schnauzer-poodles; chi-poos, for chihuahua poodles; maltipoos, for maltese-poodle mixes; and so on. The rescues often spend thousands of dollars in healthcare and rehabilitation for these so-called designer dogs, mutts actually, whose owners spent months on breeder waiting lists to get them, and thousands of dollars to buy them, only to abandon them within a year or two.
Of course, not all labradoodle breeders run puppy mills. Gail Widman, president of the Australian Labradoodle Club of America, said that all members of the club must adhere to strict breeding standards, using DNA tests as proof, register with the source group in Australia, and guarantee the health and temperament of their dogs.
Given all those qualifications, Widman said, for people who might not be able to have a dog otherwise because of allergies, the true labradoodle, she claimed, "is the perfect dog."
"You'll be hard-pressed to find a real Australian labradoodle in a shelter," Widman said. "They have wonderful temperaments, no smell, no shedding—they're brilliant dogs and they simply do not get given up."
But it is true, Widman added, "That a lot of people [breeders] call their dogs Australian labradoodles and they aren't."
These dogs have become victims of their hype, rescuers say. It's a phenomenon that happens to many breeds of dog. Every time a type of dog captures the public's imagination, the clamor surrounding it creates new backyard breeders, a new product for puppy mills, and new owners swept up by the hype. Dalmatians were all the rage after Disney's 101 Dalmations was released. Cocker spaniels had their day after Disney's Lady and the Tramp. Paris Hilton made teacup Chihuahuas dressed up in tutus a fleeting fad.
Each time a breed becomes too popular, it gets inbred and overbred, causing severe health problems or behavioral issues the dogs' guardians don't want to pay for or live with. Labradoodles and other poodle mixes are marketed as hypo-allergenic, non-shedding and odor-free, attracting some people who have never lived with a dog before, but like the idea of one that sounds low-maintenance.
Labradoodles attract some people, in short, who probably shouldn't own dogs.
Meanwhile, dogs—or cats—that might be a better fit languish in shelters, or are euthanized for lack of space. The Humane Society of the United States (HSUS) estimates that out of the six to eight million dogs and cats animal shelters care for each year, three to four million healthy, adoptable animals are euthanized.
Puppy mill rescue teams are finding more and more designer dogs in farms where dogs are kept in misery— in cages, usually in filthy conditions, in every state in the country. Such dogs are often in poor health. Breeding females are treated like puppy factories, pregnant at every heat for years on end. A breeder may use the same miniature poodle—or cockapoo, which looks like a miniature poodle—to breed labradoodles, maltipoos, schnoodles, affenpoos (affenpinscher-poodles) or jackipoos (Jack Russell terrier-poodles).
Last week, the HSUS announced it had investigated a large suspected puppy mill in Arkansas on Thursday, and posted a picture of one of the 121 dogs it rescued, a severely matted goldendoodle.
Kathleen Summers, director of outreach and research for the Humane Society's Stop Puppy Mills Campaign, said the HSUS is finding designer dogs in half of all the puppy mills it investigates.
"The hybrid breeds are very attractive for the puppy mills to produce," Summers said. "They really cash in on the whole 'hypoallergenic' sales pitch that there are some dogs that don't shed and that won't aggravate some people's allergies. Puppy mill breeders try to sell the notion that anything mixed with poodle is going to be hypoallergenic."
While people research their breeders on the Internet, what they don't know, Summers said, is the amount of false advertising presented in the marketing of the dogs.
"Most of the websites for puppy mills that we've shut down for horrific conditions," Summers said, "say things on their site like 'We don't support puppy mills.'"
No one has lamented the popularity of the doodles more urgently than Wally Conron, who created the first labradoodle. As the puppy-breeding manager at the Royal Guide Dog Association of Australia, Conron was trying to fulfill the need for a guide dog from a woman in Hawaii whose husband was allergic to dogs. He bred a standard poodle with a Labrador retriever for this couple. But there was more than one puppy in the litter, and no one on his three- to six-month waiting list for guide dogs wanted a crossbreed. So, "We came up with the name labradoodle," Conron said in a recent interview with the Associated Press. "We told people we had a new dog and all of a sudden, people wanted this wonder dog."
With all the breeds and crossbreeds in the world, Conron says, he is horrified at the proliferation of labradoodles and the other poodle mixes. He blames himself for "creating a Frankenstein." Instead of breeding out problems, he said, clueless and unscrupulous breeders are breeding them in.
"For every perfect one," he says, "you're going to find a lot of crazy ones."
The gold standard for labradoodles remains the Rutland Manor Labradoodle Breeding and Research Center in Australia, which now calls its dogs "cobberdogs." Rutland Manor claims the true Australian labradoodle has developed over two decades of careful breeding into a breed in its own right. Its hallmarks, the Rutland Manor website says, "are a highly developed intuitive nature, a love of training and a yearning for eye contact. It has a 98 percent record for allergy friendliness, a reliably non-shedding coat and is sociable and non-aggressive.
But at the Carolina Poodle Rescue, outside Spartanberg, S.C., Donna Ezell, who has been rescuing poodles for 15 years, said that labradoodles and other poodle mixes she sees are not only unpredictable in size, shape and looks, but also in temperament.
"If you have a purebred poodle or a purebred boxer from a reputable breeder," she said, "you know what you're going to get. You know what it's going to look like. You have a pretty good idea of its temperament. With the doodles and maltipoos and all these others, they don't breed true. You can't predict what they'll be. They all look different. They have different temperaments. And some are non-shedding, some are not."
Jacqueline Yorke of the Doodle Rescue Collective, said poodle-mix owners are often surprised to find that they are still allergic to their "hypoallergenic" dogs. "They may be allergic to the dog's saliva, or the skin it sheds or the fur it does shed," she said. "And they've also found out that non-shedding does not mean no work. If the fur doesn't shed, it grows and grows. They need to be mowed down and groomed every six to eight weeks."
Yorke said the rescue has taken in dogs with fur so matted the dogs were unable to relieve themselves; their feces were stuck in their fur.
Time and again, the rescue has fostered dogs with the same health conditions, including hip dysplasia, cataracts, torn anterior cruciate ligament, or ACL, injuries which require expensive surgery, and megaesophagus, a potentially life-threatening disease which causes the dog to choke on its food.
But the primary reason doodles end up in the rescue, Yorke said, are issues with children."We just got three more," she said. "Every one listed 'aggressive with children.'"
The poor dog featured at the beginning of this article ended up being euthanized after he attacked and bit Yorke and was evaluated by veterinarians and trainers who deemed him dangerous. But that kind of extreme situation, Yorke said, is rare.
One bit of good news, Yorke said, is that doodles and other designer dogs are so popular rescues have long waiting lists of potential adopters.
"We have hundreds on our list," Yorke said. Most will not make the cut when vetted by the group. The rescue will not adopt out doodles to families with small children, for example. The goal is to provide the dogs a permanent home, Yorke said, and not see them back at the rescue.
"We get hate mail all the time from people mad at us for not handing them a dog. They'll say, 'Well, I'm going to a breeder.'"
Her response? Buyer beware.