You know that perfect dog from your childhood? The one that did everything right, was intensely loyal and loved you more than anything? I had a dog like that once.
This is not the story of that dog.
Chapter One: How Not To Get a Puppy: Part One
© 2016 Susan J. Kroupa
I stand in the biting November wind cradling a warm lump of curly black fur in my arms. It’s unusually cold, even for late fall in the Blue Ridge Mountains, and the sky’s uncharacteristic drab gray makes everything look a bit bleak. Behind us, stands a modest farm house, and behind it, an old barn that has been converted to kennels, from which rises a cacophony of barking and howling from maybe twelve or fifteen dogs. My husband shivers beside me as the breeder, a tall woman with short, salt and pepper hair and a friendly smile, tells us about previous puppies she’s placed.
“We have one in Waco, Texas, and several in Pembroke, from this group of puppies. Daisy is in Pennsylvania and Sketch has just gotten his therapy dog papers in Norfolk. Brady is still in Maine taking care of his family and Oscar is in Weisbatten, West Germany doing things at the US Army base there. Plus a slew of others around the east coast that are also being wonderful dogs in their American families.” She beams at us, proud of her dogs, even though she’s confessed that she’s having to give them away now, because of the economy.
The two puppies in the sagging, two-stall shed beyond the house don’t look like future therapy dogs. Muddy, and according to my husband, stinky, they’re busy pawing into the half-full bag of Ol’Roy, ripped open to the food line.
“Do you only have the two?” I ask. I’ve done enough reading about labradoodles to know that unless the pups have labradoodle ancestry going back for multiple generations—the so-called Fn labradoodles—some will favor the Labrador retriever and some the poodle side of the gene pool. We are definitely after the poodle side, but the two puppies in front of me both have straighter coats and broader noses of a Labrador.
“No, we have a few more. They’re down in the gully. There’s an old deer carcass there they like to chew on.” She dispatches her son, thin, silent, shy, maybe around twelve or thirteen, to go retrieve the rest. He gives no indication of whether he’s happy we might take a puppy or resents our presence. While we wait, stomping our feet against the toe-numbing cold, I remember the advice, culled from countless books and websites, on how to get a new puppy. (This is assuming you’re buying from a breeder and not adopting from a shelter. I’m not going to debate the merits of each method here.)
- Only buy a puppy from a reputable breeder, one who has done extensive genetic testing and careful breeding to insure the health of the pups.
- Get a puppy in the late spring or early summer when the weather is mild, because with any new puppy (except the smallest of breeds) you’re going to be spending a lot of time outdoors.
- Don’t judge a puppy by its coat or color, but by its personality and energy level.
- If possible, meet both the pup’s parents. See what type dispositions they have.
- Pick a relaxed time when you can play with the puppies and watch them interact to find the onewhose energy and dominance levels best fit your lifestyle.
- Take your time. Don’t make a rushed decision as the pup you pick will be with you for a long time.
There are, of course, more things to consider, but you get the idea.
So here I am, at the beginning of winter, looking for a pup that will have the coat of a poodle, from a backyard breeder. How is it possible that I’m pretty much breaking every rule in the book? In every book?
Chapter Two: Dreaming of Doodles
Labradoodle lust is the only way I can explain it. I had wanted a labradoodle ever since I first began reading about Australian labradoodles a few years earlier, but knew I could never afford one. Back then, when I first started gazing adoringly at photos of labradoodle puppies, the breed, or rather hybrid, wasn’t as easy to find as it is today, where often unscrupulous or at least sketchy practices by amateur breeders hoping to make a quick buck on the breed-mix du jour—aussiedoodles, goldendoodles, schnauserdoodle (schnoodles), etc.—have flooded the market and sometimes the animal shelters with “designer dogs” of unproven health histories and personality traits.
But initially, designer dogs came out of a practical desire to create non-shedding and mostly hypoallergenic service dogs. Developed by Wally Cochran (beginning in 1989) Australian Labrador retrievers (generally calmer and smaller than American Labrador retrievers) were crossed with standard poodles. These dogs were designed to be service dogs for people who are allergic to golden retrievers, German shepherds and other typical service breeds. The goal was to pair a non-shedding, more hypoallergenic coat (i.e., a poodle’s coat) with a service-dog personality (i.e. a Labrador retriever.)
The first cross, called an F1, has a Labrador retriever and a poodle parent. F2 puppies are the offspring of F1 labradoodles, F3, the offspring of F2, and so on. Fn labradoodles, registered with the Australian Labradoodle Association of America, have at least an F6 background. The more labradoodle (rather than individual poodles or Labrador retrievers) in a puppy’s ancestry, the more the pup will conform to what are now the standards of the Australian Labradoodle Association of America. That means you playing the lottery with an F1 as to whether or not a pup will have a coat that sheds, but not so much with an Fn.
(Note to anyone who might be foolish enough to read this blog as advice: there are no breeds that have a truly hypoallergenic coat. The fact that poodles don’t shed makes them less of an allergen to many people than other breeds. But if you happen to have allergies, check to make sure you aren’t allergic to labradoodles—as some people are—before investing in one.)
At this point, you might think, “Hey, poodles already have the (mostly) hypoallergenic, non-shedding coat. Why go to all the trouble to create a hybrid?”
Because poodles, with their quick intelligence and their independence are not always the most biddable dogs. Biddable, in dog training terms, means compliant, tractable, easily led or taught.
Smart, yes. Clever, definitely. Self-esteem? Can we say Entitled? In fact, poodles have so much self-esteem that they often don’t see the need to take advice or instruction from the humans in their life. While some poodles can be biddable, many are more independent than the breeds most often used as service dogs.
So the Labrador part of the labradoodle equation was to make the breed more user-friendly. The Mac version rather than the PC. Or the PC version rather than the Linux, depending upon your software biases. That’s what Wally Cochran was looking for in 1989 when he began crossing the two breeds in search of a hypoallergenic service dog.
(Cochran has stated in recent years that he now regrets starting the whole designer-dog trend. “There are a lot of unhealthy and abandoned dogs out there,” he said in 2014, referring to all puppy mills spawned by the designer dog craze.)
So, labradoodles were supposed to be calm, clever, non-shedding, probably hypoallergenic, and—an added bonus—cute. Really cute.
As I said, what’s not to like?
But there was one teensy problem: cost.
Like designer clothes, designer dogs carry a price tag that didn’t fit into our semi-retired lifestyle budget. $1500-$2000 for a puppy? Excuse me while I wipe the tears of laughter from my eyes.
Which is how we ended up on a bitter afternoon at a run-down kennel that less charitable folks might have called a puppy farm.