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Motivation

What's Behind the Craze for Designer "Doodle" Dogs?

The desire for a hypoallergenic pet drives the popularity of designer dogs.

Key points

  • There has been a large increase in the popularity of Poodle cross designer dogs, which now account for one in four puppies sold in the UK.
  • The Labradoodle was the first popular designer dog. It was created in response to the need for a hypoallergenic guide dog in Australia.
  • Whether any particular puppy is hypoallergenic cannot be known without testing, which designer dog breeders do not seem to be doing.
Jubilee Labradoodles/Flickr (CC BY-NC 2.0)
Jubilee Labradoodles/Flickr (CC BY-NC 2.0)

Over recent years there has been a huge upsurge in the demand for so-called "designer dogs". This term is used to refer to new crossbreeds of purebred dog breeds. They are easy to recognize since they are given names that are usually a combination of the two pure dog breeds that have been bred together.

Since so many of these designer dogs involve the Poodle as part of the mix we often find "doodle" or "poo" as part of the name. Thus the Labradoodle is a cross between the Labrador Retriever and the Poodle, while the Cockapoo is a cross between a Cocker Spaniel and Poodle. The Goldendoodle is a cross between a Golden retriever and a Poodle, the Cavapoo is a Poodle/Cavalier King Charles Spaniel mix, the Schnoodle is a cross between a Miniature Schnauzer and Poodle, while the Peke-a-poo is a Poodle/Pekingese cross.

The best data as to the rise in the popularity of these designer dogs comes from the UK. For example, a 2014 study estimated that designer crossbred dogs made up less than 6 percent of the UK dog population. By 2020 this had jumped to one in four puppies (26 percent) being designer crossbreeds, making it the latest "fad" for puppy buyers. In fact, the Cockapoo and the Cavapoo were among the 20 most commonly sold breeds in 2020. A team of researchers from the Royal Veterinary College decided to investigate the factors that might be behind the increasing demand for such crossbreeds.

This was a very large study involving 6,293 dog owners including 1,575 owners of designer crossbred puppies. The data was collected using an online survey, of dog owners across England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland, who acquired a puppy between 2019 and 2020. The amount of information gathered was too extensive to report in detail here, but here are some interesting highlights.

Not Doggy People

Apparently owners of designer crossbred puppies were somewhat less familiar with dogs in general since they were significantly less likely to have previously owned or co-owned a dog before their current puppy (46 percent) compared to purebred puppy owners (68 percent). They were also less likely to have grown up with a dog. Supporting the idea that designer dog owners are less informed about dogs is the fact that individuals who work in animal care related jobs and thus might be expected to have the most knowledge about dogs (such as veterinary surgeons, veterinary nurses, and dog trainers) were three times more likely to select a purebred dog over a designer cross.

Designer puppy purchasers were also considerably less likely to gather much information about the breeder, breeding conditions, or parentage of the puppy. They were less likely to seek a breeder who provided relevant health tests in favor of a breeder that lived within a convenient distance or had available puppies at the desired time. They were also less likely to see their puppy in person before purchase, and were less likely to see their puppy with its littermates or its mother at the time that they collected it.

It's All About Allergies

Perhaps the most dramatic finding of this study had to do with the fact that nearly half of the designer dog purchasers (47 percent) cited that one of their main motivators for selecting a designer dog was because they believed that it was hypoallergenic. This is six times more than purebred dog buyers (8 percent). This was despite the fact that there is little or no scientific evidence suggesting that all designer dogs involving Poodle crosses are in fact hypoallergenic.

How the Designer Dog Craze Started

The perception that designer dogs are hypoallergenic has a historical source. The Royal Guide Dog Association of Australia is often cited as having "invented" the original designer crossbreed, namely the Labradoodle, in the 1980s. This came about when they assigned the task of creating a guide dog that was hypoallergenic to Wally Conran. He originally believed that Poodles could fulfill this function. However, for temperamental reasons, Poodles did not work out as guide dogs. In desperation he decided to cross a Labrador Retriever with a Poodle in the hopes that this would result in a hypoallergenic dog that could do the required guide dog work. I had the opportunity to interview Conran in 2011 and he explained to me what happened after he had his first litter of Poodle/Labrador Retrievers pups.

Although the Royal Guide Dog Association had a waiting list of people wishing to foster guide dog puppies, they all had a strong preference to care for a purebred dog and no one wanted to take these crossbreeds. According to him, "I went to our PR team and said, 'Go to the press and tell them we've invented a new dog, the Labradoodle.' It was a gimmick, and it went worldwide. It worked — during the weeks that followed, our switchboard was inundated with calls from potential dog fostering homes, other guide-dog centres, vision-impaired people and people allergic to dog hair who wanted to know more about this 'wonder dog.'"

Are They Really Hypoallergenic?

Unfortunately there was little consistency in these crossbred dogs. Even in the nature of their coat (the reason why the Poodle was originally part of the mix) there is variability. Labradoodles' coats can vary from wiry to soft, and they may be curly, wavy, or straight. Straight-coated Labradoodles are said to have "hair" coats, wavy-coated dogs have "fleece" coats, and curly-coated dogs have "wool" coats. Furthermore, there was no guarantee that any individual pup would be hypoallergenic. Of the three pups in the original litter only one proved to be hypoallergenic, while in the next litter, out of 10 pups only three had non-allergenic coats. He complained to me, "Now people are breeding these dogs and selling them as non-allergenic, and they're not even testing them!"

Just to see if this is still true, prior to writing this post I went on the Internet and contacted four random breeders, two of which were offering Goldendoodle puppies, and two who were offering Labradoodle pups. I asked each of them whether their puppies were tested to prove that they were hypoallergenic. One did not reply, while another answered "It is not necessary to test individual puppies because it is well-established that all Goldendoodles are hypoallergenic." The third breeder wrote me that "Any specialty breed involving a Poodle has been scientifically shown to be non-allergenic." While the last responded "The mother is hypoallergenic, which means that all of the puppies are as well."

It appears that Conran was correct after all, and whether any individual "doodle" or "poo" designer dog is actually hypoallergenic remains more of a matter of untested belief rather than a scientific fact.

Copyright SC Psychological Enterprises Ltd. May not be reprinted or reposted without permission.

References

Burnett, E., Brand, C.L., O’Neill, D.G., Pegram, C.L., Belshaw, Z., Stevens, K.B. & Packer, R.M.A. (2022) How much is that doodle in the window? Exploring motivations and behaviours of UK owners acquiring designer crossbreed dogs (2019-2020). Canine Medicine and Genetics, 9(8). https://doi.org/10.1186/s40575-022-00120-x

Coren, S. (2014, 1 April). A Designer Dog Maker Regrets His Creation. Psychology Today, Canine Corner, http://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/canine-corner/201404/designer-dog-maker-regrets-his-creation

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