Starweek Magazine


- Jessie Milligan -
It’s a sunny afternoon at Chia’s Pet Kingdom, an apt name for the rural Denton County home of a couple who own 20 dogs.

Little shorkie dogs scamper about the living room of the house that is their kingdom. Two chiweenie puppies are curled up on the kingdom’s leather sofa.

Chiweenies, a blend of Chihuahua and dachshund, and shorkies, a Shih Tzu-Yorkshire terrier combo, are designer dogs, the latest trend with legs.

Designer dogs – a combination of two purebreds – are reaching a startling height of popularity that is jolting even the American Canine Hybrid Club. The club is registering about 500 litters of designer dogs a month, more than double the number of litters it was registering just more than a year ago. Those numbers are just the tip of the tail as home breeders and professional breeders across the nation are turning purebreds into mutts with panache.

At Chia’s Pet Kingdom in Krum, Glenna and Jeff Heraly are seeking to breed out the common back problems of the dachshund by combining it with the less lengthy Chihuahua. They are looking to tone down the yappiness of the Yorkshire terrier by slipping in a little of the Shih Tzu.

The Heralys know that some of their designer pups will inherit the best qualities of their parents. They know it’s possible some of their litter mates may inherit the worst.

"It’s like raising kids," Glenna Heraly says. "Some kids grow up to be killers. Some grow up to be priests and presidents."

It’s not just DNA.

"You have to have a good environment," say the Heralys, whose breeding stock is a pack of well-loved purebred pet dogs who live in the Heraly’s three-bedroom home. The dogs have their own bedroom with a full-size bed. Most of their dogs are priests and presidents.

All of them are part of a fascinating and controversial trend.

Today, the first day of the Chinese New Year’s Year of the Dog, is a good time to examine our years with dogs.

The last decade has seen what’s been called the most radical shift in dog breeding in at least 200 years.

In kennels and back yards from Arlington, Texas, to Arlington, Va., designer dogs are being created.

Labrador plus poodle equals the hybrid labradoodle.

Pug plus beagle equals the puggle.

Chihuahua plus Yorkshire terrier equals the chorkie.

More than 200 such combinations now are registered with the Arkansas-based American Canine Hybrid Club.

"This is a major departure from how dogs have been bred for centuries," notes Cheryl Spencer-Scher of the National Humane Education Society in West Virginia.

At first, way, way back, we bred dogs to be nicer than wolves. Then we bred them to work, and to hunt, and to keep us warm at night. Then we developed kennel clubs and bred dogs to meet exacting standards so that the "good" dogs had tails that wagged a certain way and ears that perked up just so.

"Almost all modern dog breeds have been developed in the last 200 years," says Margaret H. Bonham, a Colorado breeder and author of "The Complete Idiot’s Guide to Designer Dogs". Only malamutes, huskies and some sight hounds, such as the Afghan, have genes that have stayed relatively pure back to antiquity.

The hand of man always has shaped dog genes.

Quietly, about 50 years ago, the idea of creating crosses of purebred dogs began to take hold.

For the first 40 years, all was well. The original and purest of goals of designer dog breeders, such as the Heralys, was to combine two purebreds to create new dogs without the purebred’s genetic diseases and conditions, and, in many cases, with a lesser likelihood of shedding.

Then, and this does have something to do with Jessica Simpson, the powerful forces of celebrity and publicity went to work. Hollywood celebrities opened the gate and the designer dog trend ran into our lives.

Jessica Simpson carries Daisy, a maltepoo (Maltese-poodle) bred at Puppiepoos, a kennel in East Texas. Natalie Portman once brought her schnoodle (schnauzer-poodle) named Noodles onto the set of a television talk show.

"Brokeback Mountain"’s Jake Gyllenhaal and "The Sopranos"’ James Gandolfini both have puggles, a cross of a pug and a beagle. Puggles lead the list of most-bred designer dogs, and one breeder in Wisconsin produced 300 puggles last year alone. Puggles are touted as having fewer breathing problems than the loveable short-nosed pugs and a calmer nature than the boisterous beagle.

A labradoodle even showed up in a recent L.L. Bean catalog, a place where photo layouts have long been dominated by golden retriever puppies and purebred gun dogs. And www.amazon.com carries 10 labradoodle T-shirts and one calendar, a sure sign the dog is established in popular culture.

A Texas bred Labrador-poodle cross made the cover of "Life" magazine more than a year ago, and four of the Labrador-poodle crosses from the same Huntsville-area breeder, Carla Strange of Dawgs by Design, are owned by reporters in the presidential press corps. Strange also lists Ashley Judd as one of her customers. That would be cockapoos (cocker spaniel-poodles) for Ms. Judd, two of them.

The widespread trend also created breeders who raise designer dogs for their funny names, their trendy status and their high price tags, which are linked to their popularity. The chiweenies and labradoodles and such fetch $300 to $3,000, although mixed breeds aplenty wait in shelters for a fraction of the cost.

In Keller, Deborah and Larry Lawson read the 2004 "Life" magazine story with interest. On the cover was an adorable labradoodle, longer legged than a lab and with a curly coat.

It certainly wasn’t the first breed combo the Lawsons had ever seen. Lovable mutts abound, and the world has known cockapoos, a cocker spaniel-poodle mix, and pekepoos, a Pekingese-poodle mix, since they were popularized in the 1950s. Those two breeds cemented what would later become a trend in combining the breed names of the purebred parents.

The "Life" article described how labradoodles were first bred in Australia in the 1970s, with a renewed interest in the 1990s.

The goal was to create dogs that didn’t shed and were smart enough and friendly enough to serve as guide dogs for disabled people with allergies to dog hair. A portion of labradoodles "are" turning out that way.

One month after reading the story, the Lawsons bought a green-eyed purebred chocolate lab named Gracie and a green-eyed chocolate purebred standard poodle called George. The result was a litter of five chocolate labradoodles last fall, one of which they kept for their 18-year-old daughter Lauren to train, possibly as a service dog. Lauren has a learning disability, and in this loving home her parents wanted her to have a smart, good-natured pet, and also a project.

The Lawsons’ labradoodle puppies were not all alike. Some leaned toward the lab with its shedding coat. Others took after the poodle, others fell somewhere in between.

That’s doggie genetics. Although bred to be nonshedding, the first generation of puppies from two purebred parents will have varying traits. That’s why designer dogs are not considered "stable," nor are they yet considered "breeds."

Jazzie, the Lawsons’ 3-month-old labradoodle, has traits of both parents and sheds a little. At the Lawsons’ home, that just doesn’t matter. The pup is smart and sweet, and is in what humane society educators call "a forever home." She’s a very good dog.

But not all designer dogs turn out to be a good fit, and some breeders and dog-lovers advise caution for potential dog-buyers.

For example, some sellers offering poodle mixes label their dogs as "hypoallergenic."

"There’s no guarantee that they will be hypoallergenic," says Garry Garner, president of the American Canine Hybrid Club.

Reputable breeders, notably the Rutland Manor Labradoodle Breeding and Research Center in Australia, are working toward a stable nonshedding labradoodle. Yet allergic reactions to dogs are caused not just by hair, but also by dander, skin secretions and saliva, Bonham says.

Designer dogs also are commonly described as having the "hybrid vigor" that protects them from the genetic diseases and conditions found in purebreds. Yet, genes for common problems, such as hip dysplasia, don’t entirely disappear in crossbreeds.

"With hybrids you are guaranteed a wider gene pool. That lessens the chances of common defects," says Alda Brown, a Fort Worth dog breeder for about 30 years.

The possibility of less-than-responsible breeders combining ill-matched dogs also exists. As National Geographic magazine vividly pointed out, breeding a pug and a Pekingese could result in a dog that has trouble keeping its eyes in its sockets.

Another thing to watch for is price. Labradoodles carefully bred from other labradoodles and shipped from Australia have the right to command top dollar. But hundreds of dollars for a crossbreed can be considered unreasonable if the breeders are unable to show that they’ve done genetic screening for hip and eye problems, plus provided other basic health care, Bonham says. Buyers should visit the breeding site, visit the parent dogs, and make sure the place is clean and that the animals are loved.

And don’t forget animal shelters.

"I highly recommend shelters," says Bonham, owner of 50 dogs during her lifetime. "You can get very healthy dogs out of a shelter. You can also get sick ones. But at least you haven’t spent $500."

At the Humane Society of North Texas, dogs such as Luvs Muffin, a 5-year-old Rottweiler-Tibetan mastiff, and Rufus, a 5-year-old Dalmatian-heeler, recently waited in cages for homes. We’ll call their breeds rottiff and dalheeler in hopes of increasing their allure.

They are two of the 24,055 unwanted or mistreated dogs taken in atthe Fort Worth shelter in 2005. Just more than half of those were euthanized last year for want of a good home, says Heather Bern, Humane Society spokeswoman.

Humane society workers cringe at the designer dog trend. Any breeding will be upsetting to animal shelter workers as long as there is already such an obvious pet overpopulation. They also worry what will happen if the trend fades.

"The trendiness of it bothers us. All the young starlets carry their little pooch like an accessory, like the latest purse," says Spencer-Scher of the National Humane Education Society. "Designer accessories are fine, not designer dogs."

The world does not need more dogs, but designer dogs appear ready to sit and stay.

The American Canine Hybrid Club, a group that documents the types of designer dogs, started keeping track of them in 1992.

"It felt like a fad for 10 years, but a fad doesn’t go on for 10 years," Garner, the club’s president, says. "People want something new, something different from their neighbor." –Fort Worth Star-Telegram/NYT











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