I worked as a country vet for 25 years. Most of my patients were purpose bred working dogs. They were fit and athletic, with very good temperaments. I saw them for injuries or infections and I rarely saw the genetic diseases I read about in the veterinary journals. Almost the only time I would see dogs with congenital and structural defects was in town pets – frequently these problem dogs were purebreds and often the problems were related to their breed conformation .
For many years I had the unfortunate responsibility of putting down stray and unwanted dogs for the council. Most of these dogs were crosses of our working dogs – Kelpies and Cattledogs or the large hunting breeds – Stag Hounds, Mastiffs, Bull terriers, Pit Bulls, Staffys. Large active dogs, usually about 6-12 months old. The occasional pure bred dog would appear for behavioural problems (and if we came across a cute shaggy dog we’d find a home for it in a day or two). All of these problem dogs, in experienced hands, could probably be made into excellent companions most of them were physically and behaviourally inappropriate as family pets.
In 1991 I attended a veterinary course on dog behavioural problems in Sydney. I was amazed and alarmed by the number of neurotic urban dogs seen by behaviour specialists and by how frequently it was said that most dog attacks on children were by entire male purebred dogs.
On the long road back to Condobolin I began thinking about the way pets are bred:
Responsible purebred dog breeders put a high value on sound health and a good temperament but these are very rarely the first criteria used in selecting breeding stock
Appearance is the first criterion – does it fit the “Breed Standard”? If a pup doesn’t look good enough for the show ring it is sold as a pet.
If it is temperamentally unsuited to showing it is sold as a pet. Breeders talk about their disappointing pups as “only pet quality”. In other words pets are a byproduct of the breeders search for the perfect dog.
Backyard breeders are usually people who have bought one of these less than ideal pups and join it a couple of times, for fun or to make a bit of money. Sold a pets without papers these purebreds are usually bred without any plan and with no understanding of the attributes of the parent lines or inherent problems in the breed. Most show breeders depend on their pet sales to support their hobby and even to make money, but most of them would not like to think of themselves as pet breeders and are, often quite rightly, very suspicious of anyone who only breeds pets.
No-one appeared to be trying specifically to breed a dog which makes an ideal family pet. I began to think what criteria I would use to breed an ideal dog and came up with the following in order of importance:
1 . Temperament.
A dog bite to a child’s face can cause dreadful damage. My first and most important criterion would the absence of aggression – whether motivated by dominance, territoriality or fear. The risk of aggressive behaviour can be best minimised by rigorously selecting against any sign of aggression in the breeding parents.
Veterinary bills can be awesome when dogs have chronic or recurrent health problems. My ideal dog would not be inbred or line bred and would have maximum genetic diversity
Extremes of breed conformation lead to inherent health problems which are not so much a defect as an inevitable characteristic of that breed standard. For example:
• Short legged long backed dogs – bad backs
• Short faced dogs – eye and respiratory problems
• Long eared – ear infections
• Loose skinned dogs – eye problems, skin infections
• Thick skinned fighting breeds – skin infections
• Large headed dogs – inability to breed naturally
My dog would be similar in size and shape to a “village dog” or a Dingo – dogs close to the original companion animals which evolved from their wolf ancestors – rather than animals selected to serve people.
My ideal dog would be medium sized – again not extreme. Extremely large dogs are prone to bone defects, a short life span and heat intolerance. Extremely small dogs have mouth problems and delicate bones and joints. On a more practical level, toy dogs are usually not good with children who they can find threatening, and anything over about 25 Kg eats a lot and is too big to fit in the car comfortably.
Although many people love their independent (a euphemism for almost totally untrainable) terriers, beagles and spaniels (apologies if you own one) there is no doubt that an easily trained, responsive “willing” pup is very rewarding to own and is my personal preference.
By the same token a highly intelligent and extremely active working dog can be totally unsuitable as a pet unless you live on a farm. Ads. can be seen in any country newspaper any week – ” Free to good home, Kelpie-Collie cross (Kelpie, Border Collie), great with kids, needs acres”.
My ideal dog would be attentive and trainable without having a strong working drive or being overactive.
Appearance is always in the eye of the beholder. Some people want an aristocratic fashion accessory, some a knockabout backyard dog. But most people want a dog that appeals to their eye and they want to know what the puppy they have acquired will look like as an adult. My ideal dog would have to be predictable and appealing in appearance and an attractive colour.
6. Coat type.
An afghan cantering on the beach with its hair flowing in the wind makes a wonderful sight but, as many people found when this breed had a burst of popularity, the long coat matts easily and requires constant grooming. Labradors and German Shepherds have a heavy undercoat which sheds profusely in spring and needs constant grooming at this time. Old English Sheepdogs may be ideal in Old England but in the Australian summer these dogs suffer badly if they aren’t clipped.
7. Coat Shedding.
This was not initially a criterion I considered but after living with a white hairy dog and black tield floors for 5 years I have come to appreciate the importance of shedding in a house dog.
I have a background in farming and genetics and so it is natural for me to think of the way that farm animals are bred.
A mainstay of livestock and plant production is crossbreeding. Unrelated breeds are crossed to produce an “F1” or first cross. This is done to take advantage of the fact that the cross between unrelated inbred animals will have hybrid vigour and so will be healthier and grow better than either parent breed, and to use the complementarity between breeds to overcome breed shortcomings.
First cross animals tend to be intermediate in type to the parent breeds and tend to be similar to each other in appearance. In sheep, pig, poultry and cattle production systems, stud breeders produce purebred animals for other farmers to use in their cross breeding programs.
Cross breeding is, to me, the obvious way to produce healthy dogs in a single generation and at the same time take advantage of the opportunity to combine characteristic of different breeds – as long as the parent breeds and individuals are chosen with care.
I heard of the “Labradoodles” being bred by the Guide Dogs Association in their efforts to breed a hypoallergenic guide dog. I have always had a soft spot for Poodles having had a loyal miniature Poodle which went everywhere with me for 13 years. They are faithful and highly intelligent.
My observation in practice has been that poodle crosses make excellent pets. Labradors are the archetypal family dog, renowned for their friendly nature and trainability – as family pets they are hard to beat and so initially the Labrador Poodle cross seemed an ideal combination.
Stanley Cohen in his book “Intelligence of Dogs” ranks 79 dog breeds in order of intelligence. Dog trainers were asked to score all breeds for various behaviour traits. Poodles scored second only to Border Collies for intelligence (without the Borders need for space and work to do) and Labrador Retrievers were 7th. Both breeds score low for aggression. For “reactivity” (or excitability) Labradors were among the lowest – Poodles scoring in the middle. (In case you were wondering, the dog that rated lowest for intelligence was the Afghan.)
The Labradoodles bred by the Australian guide dog Association were nice looking “shaggy dogs” – not very aristocratic perhaps but endearing. The only problem with their dogs is that they are too large to be my ideal pets.
Also standard poodles are prone to Hip Dysplasia which plagues the Labrador breed. So the “miniature Labradoodle” breeding program, using Toy and Miniature Poodles, was born.
Over the years “Labradoodles” have become very popular but most breeders have introduced other breeds and more poodle in order to produce a non shedding “breed”. the expectation is that these dogs will not shed – and many of my labradoodles did shed.
I have always been committed to crossbreeding and so have had to look at other crossbreeding systems in order to maintain genetic diversity. I have now developed a “composite” breeding program which combines long haired retrievers with poodle coated dogs. there may be as many as five breeds in one of my crossbreds but they are consitently medium sized, low or non shedding, healthy dogs with great temperaments