Why “designer dog breeds” make me uncomfortable

Labradoodle. Source: Wikimedia Commons.

“Designer dogs” are increasingly in vogue. It’s not uncommon to see a labradoodle or a goldendoodle–big dogs who look like animated Muppets–galloping down the street. Cockapoos, maltipoos, anything with a “-poo” suffix are a dime a dozen these days. Puggles have entered into mainstream consciousness. The dogs are always cute. They seem happy. But I admit that I always get a little uncomfortable when I meet someone who owns and intentionally sought out a “designer dog” breed.

Here’s why.

What bothers me is NOT that people are making “new breeds.” People have been doing that for centuries. The majority of breeds recognized by the AKC today were the “designer dogs” from Victorian England. I get that and I’m not distressed by it. What really bugs me about designer dogs is that they are bred solely for cuteness and convenience. This also means that the majority of “designer dogs” are bred by puppy mills. The goal of these breeding facilities is to churn out these fluffy puppies as fast as possible to get them into the hands of the insatiable and regrettably unscrupulous public.

Maltipoo. Source: Wikimedia Commons.

Just a few months ago, I ran into a young woman about my age who was walking what appeared to be an animated stuffed animal. The cream-colored fluff ball on a pink line weighed all of two pounds. I asked her if I could pet him, and she said yes. She told me that he was a five-month-old maltipoo, which she chose because “it’d fit well in my little apartment.” Yes, the little creature made my heart nearly burst with how adorable and tiny he was, but as I walked away, I couldn’t help but feeling sad that this animal had been micro-sized just for human convenience.

In 2007, the New York Times ran an article on the explosion of designer dog breeds and examined the prime profit-maker for these franken-puppies: The giant puppy mill, paradoxically named Puppy Haven Kennel, in Wisconsin. (Mercifully, about a year after this article was published, the Wisconsin Humane Society bought the puppy mill and sought to re-home the 1,100 dogs it rescued.)

The article makes the link between the existence of these terrible mills and the public demand for cute, convenient dogs. The writer cites Katherine C. Grier, a cultural historian and author of Pets in America, who says:

 “The dogness of dogs has become problematic. We want an animal that is, in some respects, not really an animal. You’d never have to take it out. It doesn’t shed. It doesn’t bark. It doesn’t do stuff.”

In the busy 21st century, people want dogs who act more like cats: They should be small, fastidious, independent, and require little attention or training. It’s a nice idea, but that’s not really a dog. But people promote and market “designer dogs” as if they were all of these things, as if they were nothing more than a new lamp to go with your living room, like this appalling article suggests. They’re “hypoallergenic”! (A myth that has been debunked.) They don’t make any noise! They don’t shed! They’ll never need any training! These are not dogs. These are glorified stuffed animals.

Any time we mass produce an animal to fit our own flights of fancy, we’re doing a grave injustice and we should be ashamed of ourselves. In a country that demands instant gratification and convenience, it’s no wonder that we have designer dogs and puppy mills around every corner. I only wonder if this is something that will ever change.

Pup links!

An Aussie and his castle. Source: blacksheepcardigans.com

A lot of great dog-related links from around the Web this week!

Dogs of Darjeeling. This is the best pup link I’ve seen yet: My sister’s amazing and beautiful photographs of the dogs she saw while she was living in and around Darjeeling, India. So striking! The photos make me remember that, regardless of where in the world you are, dogs are still dogs. It’s perhaps a silly thing to think, but I an enamored with this collection of her photography. Check it out. (Como Say What?)

Why You’re NOT Doing a Good Deed When You “Rescue” that Pet Store Puppy. This is an article I wish so many people would read. It’s such an ethically murky situation, I know, but this is a perspective that needs to be amplified. (Dogster)

Why Dog Women Get More Respect than Cat Ladies. An interesting article on Slate this week about why it’s easier to be taken seriously if you’re a crazy dog lady instead of a crazy cat lady. Not fair, of course, but a curious cultural phenomenon, perhaps. (Slate)

New York Times Goes Dog-Crazy. A brief look at the dog-centric memoirs that are cropping up in the pages of the Times. (Daily Intel)

How Much Money Should I Spend on My Dog’s Vet Care? And how much is too much? A well-expressed opinion from Lindsey Stordahl about how we navigate the difficult decisions between veterinary care, finances, and our dogs. (That Mutt)

26 Reasons Why Owning a Puppy Is the Same as Raising a Toddler. A funny list, but it certainly emphasizes what a serious commitment we undertake when we bring a puppy into our lives. (A Peek Inside the Fishbowl)

Diary by Kingsley: I Made a Video. One of the blogosphere’s most famous bulldogs, Kingsley, has a video playing with his new sister, human baby Eleanor. (Rockstar Diaries)

Hello, I Feel Like I Know You. Sweet and colorful portraits of dogs and their humans by artist Paule Trudel Bellmare. (Under the Blanket)

Don’t Like Your New Dog’s Name? Karen London gives some practical tips on changing your adopted dog’s name. I feel pretty sure that I will want to rename our future dog, and so this is a helpful thing to think about. What about you? Did you change your dog’s name? (The Bark)

Inspiring Photos of Pets with Disabilities. A charming collection of portraits of dogs with disabilities. There is joy and life in their eyes. (Flavorwire)

Pup links!

Queen Elizabeth and her corgi, Susan. Source: the3goobers.blogspot.com

Fun and thought-provoking dog-related links from around the Web this week…

Top 10 Myths about Dogs. I’m certainly ready for these myths to disappear from the general public’s perception! (A Place to Love Dogs)

Puppy Mill Expose on HBO. This looks like a great film. I hope it reaches the public, too. The fear is that it would only be seen by those who are already well aware of the tragedy of puppy mills. Let’s hope that’s not the case. (The Bark blog)

Enzo & Hughie. A cute series of photographs of these tiny canine BFFs, by our wedding photographer, Meredith Perdue. (Meredith Perdue)

I Love Dooce and Her Dogs. I have been reading Heather Armstrong’s incredible blog for years now and have always delighted in the stoic Chuck. Lindsay from The Hydrant collects a few photos of Chuck’s best. (The Hydrant)

What You See… The pack of dogs from Wootube always seem to be having the best time. What a fun and energetic set of photographs, too! (Wootube)

Lacamas: Day One. Speaking of another pack of high-energy dogs… I love these photos of the border collies like sharks in a field. Such expert stalkers. (BCxFour)

Day 4: Sharing. A sweet photo of two new corgi mamas feeding their puppies side by side–and their breeder’s story of how they get along beautifully together and happily feed each other’s pups. Motherhood! (Ruffly Speaking)

Shio the Watchdog. I feel like Shio has excellent posture. (Shio the Shiba)

So Near and Yet So Far. A variation of “The Look,” this time with a greyhound. (ShutterHounds)

Hipster Dogs Don’t “Do” Affection. So true. These two look way too cool for kisses and cuddling. (Pets Who Want to Kill Themselves)

Strange Bedfellows. Funny, but this just confirms why I have no desire to ever get a chihuahua… (Animals Being Di*ks)

What I learned this week

Cockapoo Puppies
A cockapoo. Source: Flickr, user: melmansur

This weekend, we went to Raleigh for my brother-in-law’s college graduation. I got a bit of time with two dogs there: his housemate’s lab, Sally, and his girlfriend’s cockapoo, Adelaide.

Sally is a two-year-old yellow labrador retriever. She lives in a house with four college guys and so she’s developed an exceptional level of noise tolerance. The first time I met Sally, she was a nine-week-old puppy who was being passed around at a Superbowl party like a bowl of chips. She was pretty sleepy most of the time but handled it all gracefully. Today, Sally is a large, sleek young adult who is smart and devoted. The boys in the house do spend a lot of time with her and have trained her to do a variety of party tricks. She can speak and bow on command and will do just about anything to get her beloved tennis ball.

What I learned from watching Sally, though, was the importance of consistency in cues. I felt frustrated for poor Sally. A new trick she was learning was balancing a tennis ball on her snout and then catching it with a command. Different guys would come up to her and try to get her to perform this task, but often unsuccessfully. I think Sally was totally capable of performing, but the poor dog was so confused. Win, my brother-in-law, gave her the command “hold” while he balanced the ball on her nose. But there were a dozen people moving around and eating in the room and I think Sally was too distracted to perform. Two other guys tried this trick with Sally after Win. The first guy kept telling her “stay” while he held the ball over her nose and the other one gave her the cue “don’t move.” Poor Sally isn’t fluent in English. She didn’t know that these words all meant the same thing. Consistency is key in training; we often forget that dogs don’t speak English and don’t often understand our verbally complex or confusing requests.

Adelaide is a two-year-old black cockapoo who belongs to Tracy, my brother-in-law’s girlfriend. I went over to Tracy’s apartment to meet Adelaide and take her out before we went to a party. She’s a small mop who is so dark that it’s almost impossible to see her black eyes under her curly black fur. Adelaide was very submissive when I met her and so I tried not to reach down or over her when we met; rather, I crouched down a few feet from her and held out my hand for her to sniff and greet me on her own terms. After that initial contact, she was very snuggly and wanted to climb up into my lap.

Tracy shared Adelaide’s back story with me. I suspected that Adelaide might not have benefited from good parentage, since small breed mixes are very often farmed out in puppy mills or by irresponsible backyard breeders. Tracy saw a sign for puppies on the side of the road in her hometown and quickly found herself staring at a puppy mill. She said that Adelaide was kept in a small cage with seven other dogs. The man let out the puppies and Adelaide crawled on top of Tracy’s feet and looked at her. Tracy was heartbroken and conflicted. She was witnessing how terrible and unethical puppy mills were, and yet her heart was drawn to this abused little puppy.

Tracy took Adelaide home and began her long work of training and rehabilitation. Adelaide had some serious food aggression issues, which are quite common to puppies from puppy mills, who have to fight their cage-mates if they want to get enough to eat. She was also extremely fearful of men and is still very wary around them today. Tracy has worked with Adelaide through most of these issues, but she admitted to me that it hasn’t always been easy and she might have made some different choices had she known then what she knows now.

I felt very conflicted about Adelaide’s story. On one hand, I’d never want to give any money to the frankly evil people who run puppy mills. On the other hand, you have to wonder what will happen to these sick, abused dogs. Who else might end up with them? It’s very likely that some other unscrupulous person might end up with these maltreated puppies.

I don’t really have the answers on these questions, but I think about them often. For more information, read the ASPCA’s list of 10 ways you can help fight puppy mills. It’s high time this grotesque phenomenon of the mass production of pets ended.