Is a crossbreed better than a pedigree? Generally speaking, crossing animals can result in heterosis (also known as hybrid vigour or out breeding) which results in fewer genetic problems being passed on and thus a healthier animal. However, this only pertains if both parents come from healthy stock.
Technically, a crossbreed results from mating parents of known heritage that each “breed true” such as a Labrador and a Poodle to produce a Labradoodle, whilst a mongrel results from one or more of the parents itself being a mix of two or more dogs. Fifty years ago, pedigree dogs were mostly the preserve of the showing and working fraternity and many people had crossbreeds and mongrels, often the result of the then veterinary advice to allow a bitch to have a litter before spaying. Technological advances in veterinary surgery mean that is no longer necessary, so dogs not sold through dedicated breeders are usually sold purely for commercial gain and therefore largely without the health and welfare considerations of the best of breeders.
Closed stud books and inbreeding have resulted in a vast number of inherited problems in dogs and many unscrupulous breeders who now have an easy outlet for sales via the internet. Of course, apart from the 13 basal breeds, all dogs are crosses and, it could be said that, where crossing is directed by man, then the result is always a “designer dog”. Even the basal breeds show evidence of admixing, including with wild canids, and none can be traced directly back to their ancient ancestors. The rise in the promotion of so-called “designer dogs” and owners who value convenience over other considerations has led to an explosion in the population of poodle crosses amongst others. The Labradoodle in all its variants has become something of a poster dog for recent crossbreeds and debates have even raged within the hallows of the UKKC as to whether it should be “recognised”.
The Labradoodle was bred in a very specific context in the 1980s by Walter (Wally) Conran who was the puppy breeding manager for the Royal Guide Dog Association of Australia. He received a request from a client whose husband was allergic to dogs for a non-shedding dog and spent three years attempting to train thirty three non-shedding poodles, none of which passed muster. He then decided to cross his best Labrador retriever with a poodle to see if that would result in a more tractable, but non-shedding, dog. Three pups were whelped but none of the puppy walkers wanted to take on a crossbreed. Conran went to his PR team and suggested that they promote the pups as a new invention – the Labradoodle. From a total lack of interest, the association found itself inundated with requests for the latest wonderdog.
The rest is history. There is now a Labradoodle Association and a Doodle Club in the UK. The former allows breeders to “register” and the latter to become an “accredited breeder”. This should at least ensure that the best pairings are made and dogs re-homed responsibly, and both organisations are, of course, no more nor less self-governing that the UKKC which likes to think that it represents all dogs and should have a monopoly.
Conran knew that the puppies that he produced would not necessarily have predictable appearance and behavioural traits and that they could carry the same variations in coat type as their foundation breeds. “Doodles” also exhibit hair, fleece and wool coats and many shed, with no guarantee that the dander will not result in an allergic reaction in sensitive people. Conran tested hair samples and saliva and found that only one of his original litter did not produce an allergic reaction in his client. His next litter of ten produced three with non-allergenic coats. Not all pairings are made by responsible breeders.
As Conran stated, “Get on the internet and verify it for yourself. All these backyard breeders have jumped on the bandwagon and they’re crossing any kind of dog with a poodle. They’re selling them for more than a purebred is worth and they’re not going into the backgrounds of the parents of the dogs. There are so many poodle crosses having fits, problems with their eyes, hips and elbows and a lot have epilepsy. There are a few ethical breeders, but very, very few.
He went on to add: “I opened a Pandora’s box, that’s what I did. I released a Frankenstein. So many people are just breeding for the money. So many of these dogs have physical problems, and a lot of them are just crazy…A lot of them are untrainable and a lot of them are no good for people with allergies…Today I am internationally credited as the first person to breed the Labradoodle. People ask me ‘Aren’t you proud of yourself?’ I tell them ‘No! Not in the slightest.’ I’ve done so much harm to pure breeding and made so many charlatans quite rich. I wonder, in my retirement, whether we bred a designer dog or a disaster…I only ever bred 31 Labradoodles. I’m on a pension and live in a little shoebox flat. If I’d gone into breeding Labradoodles for a living, I’d be on easy street. But there was no way I’d do it. My conscience wouldn’t let me.”
.. and thereby hangs a tail.
All of the genetic rules that apply to pedigree dogs apply in varying degrees to crossbreed and mongrel dogs. Genetics is a complex field of study and the way that a dog’s genes affect the dog’s appearance and, to some extent behaviour, is not easy to grasp nor even understood fully. Alleles are versions of individual genes that work in pairs to produce various physical traits such as shape, coat and eye colour as well as disease processes and behaviours. The combination of alleles is the dog’s the genotype and the way that this displays in physical characteristics is its phenotype.
Alleles can be recessive or dominant. A recessive allele is only expressed (influences the characteristics of the dog) if both alleles are the same. A dominant allele on the other hand is always expressed, even if it is accompanied by a different allele. Alleles can also be codominant and express two traits simultaneously or partially dominant which expresses as an intermediate characteristic of both parents. Genes can modify each other, mask each other, including masking an unrelated gene, and determine when and if another gene expresses or not. Some will only express in combination with other specific genes and some can only be expressed if triggered by something else such as a virus. Some genes are present in both sexes but only express in one sex or express more frequently in one sex than the other. Some genes have a different impact depending on whether they were inherited from the mother or the father. Worst of all as far as inherited diseases are concerned, some defective genes cause diseases to become more severe with each generation that inherits them.
It’s a minefield.
However, although much is not understood about the complexities of inheritance, quite a lot has been known for generations, long before DNA and genes were identified. Having a basic understanding of genetics is a help when chosing a dog but it is obvious that unhealthy parents are unlikely to produce healthy offspring.
For instance, the “puggle”, a recent fashionable cross between a beagle and a pug, is going to have a healthier shape as far as breathing is concerned than a pug but a less healthy one when compared to a beagle because it may have inherited a poor body and skull shape. This type of cross might be useful as an intermediate stage of outbreeding to improve the pug, but why compromise on what is already a fairly healthy beagle just to produce a companion dog?
A “caverpoo” cross between a cavalier king Charles spaniel and a miniature poodle stands a good chance of inheriting the chiari-like malformations, MVD and syringomyelia that is rife in the CKCS, never mind the skin tumours, bladder stones, tracheal collapse, Cushing’s disease and cataracts that are common in the miniature poodle.
Dogs from show lines are more likely to be in-bred than those from working lines or those not “recognised” by kennel clubs, although most breeders producing working dogs are unlikely to produce crosses – at least not intentionally.
Getting a crossbreed dog can therefore be even more of a gamble than buying a pedigree. In both cases, you need to go in with your eyes wide open whilst letting your head rule your heart. See the parents and find out as much as you can about their ancestors. If possible, find an organisation that is regulating the breeding, check its credentials and then take advice about breeders that they know are responsible and checking for health before breeding.
Most of all, buy a dog because you want to live with a messy, demanding, living creature not because you want a convenient accessory that has a silly name and won’t cause your cleaner to claim overtime.