Designer dogs are mutts in disguise

There's method to madness of mixing various breeds



The puppies are cute and cuddly, and when children see them, they're likely to beg their parents to get one. They're called puggles, which rhymes with muggles.

Every child who loves Harry Potter books knows what a muggle is. But what's a puggle?

Breed a pug with a beagle, and you'll get puggle puppies.

Mixed-breed dogs have been around forever, usually the result of random couplings. Sometimes they're called mongrels or mutts. Here, in the hometown of the famous condiment maker, the term "Heinz 57" is sometimes used to describe dogs that appear to be a mixture of many different breeds.

But now people are producing mixed-breed puppies on purpose, marketing them as "designer dogs" and selling them for thousands of dollars. They are giving the offspring new "breed" names that often include the words "doodle," "noodle" or "poo."

The many doodle-crosses come from poodles, popular because of their intelligence and no-shed coat.

Pair a Labrador retriever with a poodle to produce a litter of Labradoodles.

When a schnauzer hooks up with a poodle, the result is a schnoodle.

Breed a Yorkshire terrier to a poodle, and you get a Yorkiepoo.

Breeders make bagels by breeding basset hounds to beagles.

So what would you get if you bred a bulldog and a shih tzu? That's not a designer-dog breed, at least not yet, just a joke told in some dog circles.

But it could happen.

"Designer dogs are trendy. They are the latest thing, and some people have to go out and buy the latest thing," said Margaret H. Bonham, author of "The Complete Idiot's Guide to Designer Dogs."

The nonaccidental creation of mixed breeds is not a new concept.

"Cockapoos (cocker spaniel-poodle) and Peekapoos (Pekingese-poodle) have been around since the 1950's," Ms. Bonham said. "But now breeders are asking for -- and getting -- $1,000 to $3,000 for designer puppies."

Her book lists 23 of the most common mixes, but the list of possible combinations is almost endless.

"It seems like they are coming up with new mixes almost every day," said Ms. Bonham. She owns purebred Alaskan malamutes and mixed-breed Alaskan huskies, developed from a number of working breeds, including Siberian huskies, Alaskan malamutes and lurchers, a crossbred, silent hunting dog.

The high price tags of designer dogs are sometimes accompanied by high and mighty claims. Some breeders of Labradoodles and other doodles claim their dogs are "hypoallergenic," or do not cause problems for people with allergies. Some breeders claim designer dogs are sturdier and have fewer health problems than purebred dogs.

"We caution people to be very careful," said Daisy Okas, vice president of communications at the American Kennel Club. "There are a lot of people looking to capitalize" on a hot trend. "These are not purebred dogs. People are paying thousands of dollars for mixed-breed dogs. You could get a mixed-breed dog at any shelter or pound."

Purebred puppies generally sell for far less. Prices vary by breed and breeder, but AKC-registered puppies from established breeders that do genetic testing generally sell for $500 to $1,000. Prices can be higher if a puppy's parents are top show dogs and the puppy has what it takes to compete for the "champion" title in the dog show world.

There are no hypoallergenic dogs, according to Ms. Bonham and the American Kennel Club. Many of the hypoallergenic claims come from breeders whose dogs have poodles in their bloodlines.

Dogs that shed heavily can aggravate people's allergies. Poodles do not shed, "but often people are allergic to dog saliva or dander," Ms. Bonham said.

All dogs have dander, which is old skin cells that are constantly being shed. Even hairless breeds -- and the AKC recognizes two, the Chinese crested and a rare breed known as the xoloitzcuintli, or Mexican hairless -- have dander.

The AKC suggests that some people with allergies may be able to tolerate 11 breeds with non-shedding coats, which produce less dander.

The largely non-shedding breeds on the AKC list are Bedlington terrier, bichon frise, Irish water spaniel, Kerry blue terrier, Maltese, poodle, Portuguese water dog, schnauzer and soft-coated wheaten terrier.

Ms. Bonham's book suggests that allergy sufferers looking for a dog they can live with should "visit a breeder and spend a day with the dogs" to see whether that sparks an asthma attack or allergy symptoms. "Or if you have a friend" with the type of dog you'd like to own, "see if she'll loan you her dog for a day to see how well you tolerate him."

If you want a breed that doesn't shed, pick one that has been non-shedding for centuries, Ms. Okas suggests. Some Labradoodle puppies, for instance, may be non-shedding like their poodle ancestors, while others will get the double-coated shedding from their Lab background. Labs have an outer coat of straight hair and a fuzzier undercoat. Both Ms. Okas and Ms. Bonham said potential dog buyers should research breeds that will fit their lifestyle and search for breeders who do genetic testing on their breeding dogs. The most common testing is done to pinpoint dogs that may have hip and eye problems that can be passed on to their puppies.

Breeders of designer dogs are starting their own clubs and registries. The International Labradoodle Association, incorporated in January 2004, has more than 1,300 registered dogs, according to its Web site, which also gives names and contact information for breeders who have joined that organization.

The Web site lists four Labradoodle breeders in Pennsylvania. The closest to Pittsburgh is Mary F. Burkovich, of Laurel Mountain Labradoodles, in North Union Township, Fayette County.

Mrs. Burkovich has a waiting list for puppies, even though her asking price is $2,500. How is she able to command that kind of money?

"Because that's what the market will bear right now," she said. "People don't believe me when I tell them I'm not making money doing this.

"Last year I didn't have any puppies and I spent $15,000 on vet bills and genetic testing," she said. "I spend $500 a month" on dog food, vitamins and supplements.

It's irresponsible to produce puppies without doing every available test in an effort to produce healthy, sound puppies, she said. She won't breed her dogs to dogs that have not had a wide array of tests. The international association takes the same stand on health and genetic tests, which are expensive.

The retired computer-systems analyst said she got her first Labradoodle nearly five years ago and, "I just fell in love with the breed."

She did research, seeking the best and healthiest dogs. She bought three Labradoodles and had them shipped to her from Australia, paying more than $25,000 for the trio.

Now she has five Labradoodles, and she said she has produced three litters -- a total of 19 puppies.

She says she tells prospective buyers there is no guarantee that Labradoodles can be tolerated by people with allergies. However, several of her puppies have been purchased by allergy sufferers, with good results.

They come in a wide array of sizes -- "my own dogs range in size from 32 pounds to 50 pounds" -- and coats. While her dogs have curly poodle-like coats, some of the puppies look more like Labs.

Some people who pay big bucks for a designer puppy will be tempted to breed that dog to recoup their purchase price, and maybe even make a profit. They'll be tempted to skip the health tests, which would reduce or even wipe out the profit, depending on the size of the litter.

Mrs. Burkovich is determined that will not happen to any puppy she has bred. Before they leave her home, at the age of nine weeks, the females have been spayed and the males neutered.

Linda Wilson Fuoco can be reached at lfuoco@post-gazette.com or 412-263-3064.




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