Saturday, September 25, 2010

Designer Dogs

The Designer Dog Craze is all about fashion.  It's a fad.  It is "in" right now to have a mixed-breed dog with a portmanteau name.  The more silly the name, it seems, the more fashionable the dog is.

This bothers me, to no end.  There are so many mixed breed dogs in shelters right now, dying for lack of homes, and yet they cease to be "Designer Dogs" as soon as they get to a shelter.  Then they become mutts, and they are not fashionable anymore.  Unlike second-hand designer handbags or jeans, there is no label stitched on a dog that perpetrates it's value after an owner no longer wants it.

Designer Dog, Hybrid Dog, or just a mix?  

The term Designer Dog pisses me off because it implies a status symbol, like designer jeans.  A dog is not an accessory.  It is a living animal.  Why call them designer dogs, if not to imply the "designer" status on them, like they were a Coach bag?  They weren't designed to any specific purpose, unlike almost all purebred dogs, who did originally have a useful function in society.

The term "hybrid" is just misleading all around.  Crossbred dogs are not hybrids in the sense that people want them to be.  A hybrid is the term for offspring resulting from the breeding of two distinctly different species.  All dogs are the same species.  A donkey and a horse create the hybrid known as a mule.  Breeding two dogs, no matter what breed they are, still results in a dog.  

Mixing Isn't Magic

This term "Hybrid Dog" leads to what I like to call The Hybrid Vigor Fallacy.  Inbreeding depression is a problem in any purebred dog.  However, simply out crossing different breeds on a whim is not the only answer to it.  I point out that when there is a problem that requires widening a gene pool in a breed, it is undertaken with care by people who know and understand the genetics involved, such as with the Dalmatian-Pointer Backcross Project, which seeks to lessen the incidence of hyperuricemia in the Dalmatian by introducing genes from the English Pointer.  This is the correct way to widen a gene pool within a breed to reduce unwanted genetic defects.  Hybrid vigor does exist, and is well documented.  In the case of crossbred dogs, however, the fallacy is that people believe that simply throwing two different breeds together is going to result in a completely genetically sound animal.  Sorry, genetics don't work that way.  If you breed a Poodle with luxating patellas to a Shih Tzu with luxating patellas, you're going to get puppies with even worse luxating patellas, and they will be mixed and have a cutesy portmanteau name to go along with the 3,000 dollar corrective surgery.  In short, there is no magic fix for a genetic defect.  Very careful selective breeding and meticulous record keeping, paired with a good understanding of the genetics involved is required.  And guess what!  That's what every reputable breeder of a purebred dog already does, and has been doing for years before the term "designer dog" was ever coined.

It's A Hairy Problem

Let's begin by getting this out of the way:  As of this time, there is no such thing as a dog that is completely hypoallergenic.  As far as I understand allergies, there probably never will be, even with advances in the field of genetics such as gene silencing.  This is because allergens are not confined to just hair or fur.  Dander, and proteins in saliva and urine are also a factor, and as far as I am aware, you will never be able to breed a dog that doesn't need to salivate and urinate.  Allergies are tricksy things.  Some people are highly allergic to every part of a dog, not just their coat.  Those people will never be comfortable around a dog, even a "shedless" or hairless breed, without medication.  A person can appear to not be allergic to a dog on one day, and have a serious reaction to the exact same dog the next, depending on their immune status.  (True story, it happened to me and I'm not even allergic to dogs!)  Now then.  Where were we?  Oh yes. 

The laws of genetics that apply to defects also apply to the genes for coat type, and thus, shedding.  A first generation mix of a Poodle and a Pomeranian does not produce a dog that doesn't shed.  Remember Punnett Squares from Bio class?  Okay, maybe some people weren't paying attention that day.  Let's use this interactive Punnett Square calculator.  Let us say that the shedding gene is represented by two capital letter As.  AA = shed.  The non-shedding coat will be represented by two lowercase letter as.  aa = non-shedding.  Input AA as Parental Genotype 1 on the left and aa as Parental Genotype 2 on the right.  Now you can hit the big Go button at the bottom.

You see what just happened there.  You got Aa in every calculated square.  If that were a litter of puppies, every single one would be born SHEDDING, but CARRYING the NON-SHEDDING gene.

It's a bit more complex than that, but the demonstration serves.  Adding Poodle to a shedding breed does not mean you get a non-shedding dog.  In fact, sometimes what happens is you get a dog that sheds, but that does not start to shed until many months later, when the puppy coat comes out and the adult coat comes in.  This period is different for different breeds.  Pomeranian typically go through what is known as "The Uglies" when their puppy coat falls out and they look nothing like a Pom.  This can happen anywhere between 4 and 9 months of age.  Pom mixes can also have The Uglies.. and what sometimes happens is that a Pom/Poodle cross looses it's non-shed puppy coat at 9 months of age and grows in a thicker, more Pomeranian type coat that does shed, and then what happens to the dog?

It takes years and years and YEARS of careful breeding to create a non-shedding breed out of a mix of shedding and non-shedding dogs.  The Labradoodle has been bred by some people since the late 80's and they still haven't gotten the shedding out of their lines.  (And let me say, the Labradoodle is now plagued by the exact same genetic problems that the parent breeds had:  Progressive Retinal Atrophy, hip dysplasia, Addison's Disease and more.  So much for hybrid vigor.)

The Parentage Question

Lots of people will claim that they would rather buy a designer dog puppy than adopt a mix from a shelter because "then you know exactly what you're getting."  Says who?  Few and far between are the designer dogs that come with any kind of record of their parentage.  Basically, you're relying completely on the breeder being honest with you.  Or the breeder of their stud and bitch having been honest with them.  There is no real way to tell that a Morkie is really a mix between a Maltese and a Yorkie except trust.  The genetics come into play here as well.  What ARE you getting when you buy a designer dog?  You have no real idea if the dog will shed or not.  You have no real idea how big the dog will get.  You have no idea which traits the dog inherited from what parent.  You have no assurance beside verbal that the dog really IS just a mix of the two breeds in question.  Logical conclusion:  You know what you're getting from a shelter dog, because they've usually already grown into their adult size.  They've already grown into their adult coat and the shelter workers can tell you if it sheds or not.  A designer dog puppy is just a bunch of question marks.  Maybe it will stay under 10 pounds.  Maybe it won't.  Maybe it will shed. Maybe it won't.  And every single dog in a mixed litter can be different.

Creating New Breeds

It cannot be argued that without crossbreeding, we would not have the wide variety of dog breeds that exist for us today.  Many dogs have been crossed and out crossed in order to obtain specific traits or preserve a breed threatened with extinction, when there are too few surviving members to continue breeding solely from members of that breed alone.  The fanciers of designer dog breeds are working against themselves in this regard.  Designer dog breeds can only be a mix of two breeds.  The AKC will not recognize any new breed that is not a mix of at least three different breeds.  The Cockapoo has been around since WWII, has a parent club and standards, and is still waiting, despite what anyone may tell you, they aren't likely to gain recognition any time soon.  That's the catch with the designer dogs.  In order for anyone to create a new breed, they have to first be breeding towards a clear goal.  So far, most breeders of designer dogs are not doing that.  They're simply slapping two breeds together and calling it something silly.  There is no organized goal, there is no end result they're aiming for except the money.  Some of them may claim to be aiming for a result, and usually it doesn't make any sense if one takes the time to actually think about it.  Examples?

Shih-A-Poos - They don't shed!  No, of course they don't.  Neither Shih Tzus nor Poodles shed.  So what was the real reason for mixing them?  There is none.

Pug Mixes - They don't have breathing problems!  False false false.  Remember our genetics lesson?  Some do have breathing problems.  Some aren't as severe.  And every one can be different.  Some of the Pug mixes are downright irresponsible and unethical, like Jugs, which are Jack Russell Terriers mixed with Pugs.  Great, now you have an extremely hyper dog that can't breathe.  Who's bright idea was that?  Bugs.. Boston Terriers mixed with Pugs.  What was the purpose for that?  BOTH those breeds have the same foreshortened muzzle and breathing problems associated with it, so they can't claim to have been trying to eliminate breathing problems.  Really, they just wanted the name, Bug.  If you want a Bug that doesn't have breathing problems, run to your local VW dealer, because that's the only place you're likely to find one.

There really aren't so many good reasons for mixing breeds.  Except the fashion of it.  Dogs should never be fads, because it's always the dogs that suffer.  Many designer dogs wind up in shelters and at rescues, going from Designer Dog to Disposable Dog at the drop of a hat.

If you absolutely must spend 500 dollars on a mixed breed dog, my advice to you:  Adopt one for a much lower adoption fee, and donate the remainder to the rescue or shelter you adopted it from. 

Further Reading:

Disposable Dogs: Heartwarming, True Stories of Courage and Compassion

Disposable Animals: Ending the Tragedy of Throwaway Pets

One at a Time: A Week in an American Animal Shelter

Control of Canine Genetic Diseases (Howell reference books)

Genetics: An Introduction for Dog Breeders



  1. A couple of comments from a cross-breeder:

    The Dalmatian Backcross project is NOT an example of cross-breeding to widen the gene pool. Dalmatians do not have a normal uric acid gene. None of the Dals tested possess a normal 'wild type' gene, so the only way to get that gene into the population was to cross breed. Because it was a limited project, only one cross was ever done. If you had wanted to produce a large number of Dals with the normal gene, you would need to do a number of crosses in a large, controlled breeding project. The AKC Dal club nixed any hope of that happening.

    A short explanation of inbreeding depression before I give you an example of out-crossing to expand the gene pool. Inbreeding depression is not due to deleterious or 'bad' genes, like the ones for luxating patellas or PRA or DCM. It is due to the loss of diversity in the Major Histocompatibility Complex, which governs the immune system. Repeated breeding within a closed system, where all animals are not given the opportunity to breed, results in gene loss in the MHC, which produces inbreeding depression, characterized by poor immune function (allergies, cancer, poor resistance to infections), lowered fertility, and greater neonatal death. (All of these things do not necessarily happen at once or in all breeds.) I see a lot of breeders now that have problems with bacterial overgrowth in the vagina of their bitches, so the bitch cannot conceive or carry a litter; it is SOP to put these bitches on antibiotics before and during the pregnancy to carry a litter to term. This is almost certainly due to inbreeding depression, it is almost a textbook example.

    Crossing two breeds will almost guarantee greater diversity in the MHC, resulting in hybrid vigor. Whether the two breeds have the same recessive 'bad' genes not related to the MHC which may manifest in the pups is irrelevant to the concept of hybrid vigor. Hybrid vigor is actually used in a misleading way by unethical cross-breeders.

    To reduce the incidence of deleterious genes across a breed or species, you need to maintain a low coefficient of inbreeding and make sure that as many individuals as possible contribute to the gene pool. In a breed where pretty much every individual carries a bad gene, it would be necessary to cross-breed to do that. Cavalier King Charles Spaniels come to mind.


  2. It is also entirely possible to produce hybrid vigor within a closed population. It used to be that a breeder would keep at least three fairly inbred lines (to produce an inbred line, you must cull ruthlessly.) When one line started having problems due to inbreeding depression, you simply outcrossed to one of the other lines. Viola, hybrid vigor, at least for one generation.

    The Chinook Owners Association is working with the UKC on a cross-breeding project designed to widen the very small pool. This is an excellent example of how to do a controlled project with a specific goal.

    There are others working on a small scale, a lady in England with Beardies who is crossing to unregistered working dogs to get a proper coat and working ability, some people in Europe who are crossing working Cockers with Clumber spaniels to produce a more functional hound. The dog registries are actually an anomaly among animal registries, most other species have approved outcrosses, breed up programs, and percentage registries. Very few are completely closed like dog registries are.

    I have Salukis, and we do have a way to get country of origin dogs from the Middle East into the main registry (AKC, FCI registries.) It works but it does point up to the problems of having a 'open' registry. Salukis are genetically very diverse, but that diversity resides mainly within the desert bred and recent desert descent population. The vast majority of Salukis still trace back to the hundred or so dogs that were initially imported in the last century. Open registries are one thing, getting people to accept that they are necessary to maintain health and genetic diversity and USE them is the problem. It must be done on a widespread basis to benefit the breed as a whole.

    There are cross-breeders who do health test. There you get the same problems as buying from an ethical purebred breeder, who won't sell to just anyone. And for some reason such dogs are hideously expensive.

    I'm enjoying your blog, it's very educational. I hope you will consider writing about your perspective on the frequent assertion that it is unethical to make any money from breeding dogs.

  3. Jess - Hey thanks for the compliment and for the discussion! I know one other person is also a cross-breeder in the more "European" sense. He has Belgian Malinois, and his dogs are excellent and are often used by local police. Also, I know with the older crosses, like the Cockapoo, there are some very ethical people breeding, in so far as soundness and treatment of puppies goes. I think I know who you're thinking of when you say hideously expensive. I've heard of Labradoodles that are just blow-your-mind insanely expensive, and that's where I start to get a little iffy. Yeah they may be doing health screenings and keeping records and it's all very much on the up and up and that's stuff's not cheap, but OMG. At some point you're just tacking another 900 on for the name. The reasons for the mixing always makes me wonder, too. Well, we needed a guide dog that didn't shed. Okay.. why can't a Curly Coated Retriever be trained as a guide dog? Has anyone tried it? I mean, we already GOT a non-shedding breed by mixing Poodles with retrievers, so what was the need, really?

  4. After more thought on the matter... and putting aside that I find myself getting a little inwardly, irrationally upset when people say to not mix-breed dogs (because I would kill for my beagle/bichon mix! he's marvelous!)...

    Have you read Edgar Sawtelle? It wasn't all that great, but there were some really neat points that the author made. The family bred dogs - but they weren't a breed per say, they were the Sawtelle Dogs. The grandfather had a bitch that was said to have descended from Hachiko the Akita and he found a male with qualities he liked of some unknown shepherdy breed and started his own type of dogs. They were loyal, hard working, reliable and devoted dogs without the confines of a breed or the genetic ailments that comes with a breed. They were bred for a purpose - to be anything their owner needed them to be.
    They raised and trained them until they were a year old then they sold them.

    I got a lot out of that book that made me realize that Shibas aren't all that great as a breed, and neither are the breeding practices that follow them. I started to appreciate the uniqueness and quirks of the mixed dogs in the shelter. The unidentifiable by breed alone really stand out to me now. Like Pumpkin at the shelter right now. Maybe setter? Maybe retriever? Maybe hound? Whatever the mix, she's a gorgeous red haired, short tailed, floppy eared tracking dog.

    And from that I always sort of envisioned creating a type of dog that suited me. Where health and function were more important than appearance or registration.

    But for every one of me, there are 10,000,000 other people who aren't in it for the health or function, but the novelty and the profit.

  5. I haven't read Edgar Sawtelle, but now it's going on mount TBR (To Be Read). That sounds like how most breeds truly are or were created.

  6. Mixing is not the devil.. Mixing for the wrong reasons and/or making up nonsense reasons for the mix is the devil.

    Especially love the ones that won't tell you which breeds they mixed. It's a huge secret, like the recipe to Coca-Cola. (Mini Saint Bernards come to mind.) Then you really have no idea what you're in for.

  7. I've read Edgar Sawtelle and found the dogs very interesting. Breeding for an intangible (temperament, health, working ability) without consideration for the tangible (appearance) is something you do not see in 'accepted' dog breeding circles. The people I know with working lurchers and longdogs usually do that type of breeding, though often the 'health' aspect can be lacking.

    I must admit I'm quite married to the appearance and temperament of my dogs. I just like them.

  8. Mini Saint Bernards were news to me. WTF?