Editor’s Note: Alexandra Horowitz is a senior research fellow and director of the Dog Cognition Lab at Barnard College, and author of “Our Dogs, Ourselves: The Story of a Singular Bond.” The opinions expressed in this commentary are hers. View more opinion articles on CNN.
What if, in 10 years, the dogs of the world were all oodles? You know the dogs I mean: the schnoodles, the goldendoodles, the cockapoos; the labradoodle. Poodle cross-breeds, the mop-haired balls of enthusiasm that, if you live in a dog-filled town, you see everywhere.
To Wally Conron, the breeder of the first named labradoodle, this future would be dystopian.
“It was a gimmick,” he said this week on the Australian podcast “Sum of All Parts” about his attempt to sell the final puppies in the litter born of Brandy, a Labrador retriever, and Harley, a fluffy standard poodle. Now, he thinks, “I’ve created a monster.”
To the people who live with oodles, or covet them, it might be hard to understand why he’d feel that way. After all, aren’t they great snuggly, soft, irrepressibly cute dogs and shed-free, to boot? They may be, but to Conron, “the biggest majority are either crazy or have a hereditary problem.”
Is he right? Is this new monster the unmaking of dogs as we know them?
To answer that, we must go back in time. Not too far, just to the 19th century, when the first dog fanciers began to pluck what they saw as the most beautiful examples of dogs from the multitude and start pure breeding. Purebred dog breeding is very, very new historically — at least compared to the history of our living with dogs. Humans domesticated dogs some tens of thousands of years ago.
For most of those tens of thousands of years, dogs were used for certain functions, to guard the house, retrieve game and as hunting partners. Some morphologies were more suited to certain tasks than others — the large mastiff-looking dog was better at guarding and the long, lean greyhoundy dog better at coursing after prey. So, over time, dogs diverged into distinct types of dogs.
But in the late 1800s, people decided to breed dogs for how they looked, rather than the function they served. And that’s when the more recent examples of the dogs we now recognize — the German shepherds, the dalmatians, the Chihuahuas — began to be developed. The breeders’ ambition was, as befits the name of the product, pureness.
To achieve purity, then and now, purebred dogs are inbred. To be a member of the breed, a dog needed to be born of two other members of the breed. So, parent mated with pup, sibling to sibling, and now, a century and a half later, we’re still doing it.
The results for purebred dogs have been dire. As is now becoming more widely known, there are myriad genetic disorders due to breeding to “breed standards,” the description of what dogs of a breed line are supposed to look like. These emphasize looks, rather than health. That the “distance from bottom of stop, between the eyes, to the tip of nose should be as short as possible” in the bulldog’s breed standard, for instance, has led to a dog with such a short nose that they have severe problems breathing in the heat, or with even the least amount of exercise — which includes “walking.”
French bulldogs, pugs, all short-nosed, “brachycephalic” dogs, commonly must have soft-palate resection surgery — removal of the soft tissues jammed tightly together in the throat — simply to make a space to breathe through.
The maker of the first named labradoodle is worried that as the breeding of labradoodle knockoffs proliferates, looks are prioritized over health. But in that, nothing has changed. The rise of pedigree dog-breeding prioritized looks over function and the result are the genetic problems we see in so many breeds today.
As for the non-pedigree dog breeders that are supplying your local pet store with purebred dogs or doodles, the reason they continue to succeed is that we humans have an insatiable desire to have the great new thing — the prettiest dog, the “designer” dog. Breeders will continue making more puppies, because we want puppies.
Interestingly, by cross-breeding dogs, as with the oodles, the genetic problems purebred dogs face can be eliminated, if one continues cross-breeding (as usually does not happen in oodle breeding). Over generations, we’d wind up with a new dog, one likely to be less crazy and healthier. We’d wind up with my favorite dog — the mutt.