When I adopted Jasmine Blue in September 2006, I had been on a long hiatus from dog ownership. My last canine companion, a pit bull mix named Chipper, had passed away when I was in my early 20s. When I moved to the Haight-Ashbury, I discovered a tangle of backyards besieged by feral cats. All of the neighbors complained, but none of them did anything. One by one, I trapped the cats, had them spayed and neutered, and found homes for them. From this group of cats came Kelly, a female orange tabby swollen with a litter of kittens. She gave me Steven, my beloved orange tabby, on Halloween; we were inseparable for nearly 16 years, until that heartbreaking July night in 2006 when he died in my arms from a rare blood disease.
I knew when Steven passed that I wasn’t ready for another cat, not even an orange tabby – it would be unfair for any cat to have to live up to Steven’s standards. He was, without a doubt, the smartest, funniest, most loving animal I’ve ever known. Instead, I decided, it was the right time to adopt a dog – not to replace Steven, but to open a new place in my heart. Pit bulls have always been my favorite breed, and when I started searching for one on PetFinder.com, I was overwhelmed (and shocked) by how many needed homes – over 5,000, more than many of the breeds combined.
For those of you who have been following Jasmine’s Tails from the beginning, you know that I soon found the dog of my dreams – a smart, funny, tricolored, piebald, Our Gang Petey look-alike with eyes as blue as the sea of Capri.
As I got to know Jazzy, I also got to know a world that had changed significantly since Chipper – there were now “dog parks” where you could take your dog to play with others. Like a puppy playground, casual conversations blossomed between proud doggie parents. One afternoon at Corona Heights, a woman approached me. “What a beautiful puppy,” she said sweetly. “What is she?” “A pit bull mix,” I told her, and then, glancing at the small tan and black dog at her side, I made an apparently huge “faux paw” in the New Dogworld by asking, “What mix is yours?” The woman’s kind eyes turned beady and her smile disappeared. “He’s not a mix,” she said, incensed. “He’s a puggle.” I must have looked puggled, because she decided to explain: “It’s a beagle crossed with a pug.” Even more puggled, I asked, “Isn’t that a mix?” The woman shook her head, “No. He’s registered …” (Having been out of Dogworld for some time, I assumed that the American Kennel Club had allowed in some new breeds.) “… with the American Canine Hybrid Club.” American Canine what? When I was a kid, the only hybrid around was the cockapoo, a moniker given to any small dog of unknown parentage.
Over the next several months, I was introduced to more and more designer dogs, the most popular class of which seemed to be the doodles. There was a Labradoodle named Snickers (“I bought him because he has hair and I’m allergic to fur,” his owner explained), and there was a goldendoodle named Riley – cute as a button with a mop of curly, straw-colored hair. Like the Labradoodle, the goldendoodle, a mix of golden retriever and poodle, was created as another hypoallergenic alternative.
Ever the reporter, I began to research the history of hybrids, and found, along with all that doodly, puggly cuteness, there was a dark side.
Of course, the American Kennel Club (AKC) folks don’t like the idea. They are trying to keep the breeds “pure.” I found a terrific 2007 article in The New York Times Magazine by John Mooallem called “The Modern Kennel Conundrum” that chronicles both sides of the story. Neither side, frankly, comes out smelling like roses. Show pug breeder Jutta Beard tells Mooallem that she only kept one puppy from a recent litter worthy of the breed standard. “They all had ugly pug heads … they didn’t have good nose rolls … we don’t want anybody breeding any dogs that we don’t think are worthy of breeding.” She goes on to explain that puggles are a very bad idea because pugs have “no doggie sense whatsoever” while a beagle “puts its nose to the ground and just goes.” Another pug person puts the puggle dilemma in simpler terms: “He wants to run, but he doesn’t know why he wants to run, and he doesn’t know how to get home.”
The purebred folks also worry that the high demand and high price tags for hybrids is creating a sort of chemistry chaos, with unscrupulous backyard breeders and puppy mills churning out Labradoodles bred with other Labradoodles (to be a true hybrid, a Labradoodle must come from one pure Labrador retriever and one pure poodle).
“No reputable breeder would allow their dog to be bred with someone else’s dog of another breed,” one purebred enthusiast explained to me, “so you are getting substandard dogs breeding with other substandard dogs who will likely pass down the worst genetic problems from both lines.”
That makes sense; however, today’s purebreds are like the canine Royal Family – they are so inbred that debilitating genetic traits are inevitable. Compare the less than 30 percent chance the genes of human relatives will be identical to that of the nearly 100 percent in two dogs of one breed, and the recipe for disaster becomes clear. To be fair, the AKC spends a lot of money doing research into those bad genetic traits in an effort to cure them. The results can be incredibly ironic: The mutation that causes deafness in Dalmatians also creates their signature spots.
For every sensitive, conscientious breeder who finds loving homes for their imperfect pups, there is inevitably a Jutta Beard. The portrayal of her in Mooallem’s article is about as flattering as a canine Hitler at a puppy Auschwitz. She tells a story about one of her bitches being accidentally impregnated by a sneaky scoundrel of unknown origin. She had the puppies euthanized. When Mooallem asks if no one would have wanted them as pets, Beard says chillingly, “I didn’t want them.”
On the other side of the coin, Mooallem profiles cattle-breeder-turned-doggie-designer Wallace Havens, who is working on 35 different hybrids at his giant puppy ranch. With dogs kept in pens like livestock at a factory farm, Havens haphazardly throws breeds together – five female beagles to one male shar-pei – to see what happens. The conditions, as Mooallem describes them, sound as deplorable as a factory farm, too:
The scene was rather lawless; later that afternoon, I would watch four schnauzers nearly destroy a fifth in a fight before an employee pulled it out of the pen. I happened to spot a poodle stop humping a shih tzu and hobble, very painfully it appeared, into the corner on an injured foot. When I pointed it out to Havens, he calmly slid a slip of paper from his shirt pocket and wrote down the pen number, 541, so that someone could check on it after lunch.
When I ask hybrid owners why they chose a particular dog, they usually say they wanted something different, really adorable, and super hypoallergenic. When I saw my first doodle it was a novelty, but now, they are becoming as common as chocolate Labs and likely wouldn’t pass my personal test for canine uniqueness: 100 of them at the back of a dog park, all the same color, no fancy collars to distinguish them – could the owners find their own dogs? I also worry that, when the puggle and doodle fads fade, our already overwhelmed shelter system will be flooded with what are, in reality, more of what they can’t find homes for now: mutts. Nearly eight million dogs and cats are surrendered each year to shelters. Purebred advocates point out that each breed has a rescue for dogs that are “imperfect” or unwanted. Yes, it happens even to purebreds – someone buys a dog and then realizes their expectations were different than the reality.
I guess my question is, if you’re allergic to fur, why not rescue a purebred poodle instead of buying a doodle? Or, do what our copy editor, Lynette Majer, did: wander over to Pets Unlimited, where she fell in love with a darling and hypoallergenic bichon-mix named Walden. And there’s always my favorite site, PetFinder.com, where you can search thousands of adoptable purebreds and mixes by breed, age, sex, and zip code.
Last week at Fort Funston I saw my first “boggle,” a mix between a beagle and a Boston terrier. With his stocky white and brindle-spotted body and brindle patches on both eyes, he looked just like a pit bull mix. It boggles my mind why anyone would pay hundreds of dollars for a hybrid of similar looks and temperament to thousands of bully breed mixes facing almost certain euthanasia in shelters throughout the country.
In my fantasy Dogworld, there would be no perfect breeds or purposely mixed breeds, just perfectly mixed accidents, like Jasmine Blue. I know it’s a free country and everyone has a right to have the dog they desire, but I am confident that a few months or less on PetFinder.com would produce a love-match for most people, just as it did for me.
While scrolling through the literally hundreds of mixes on the American Canine Hybrid Club (ACHC) Web site, I couldn’t help but laugh at some of the ridiculous names. (According to one hybrid site, “the first breeder to create a new hybrid cross and submit that breed to the ACHC has the opportunity to name it.”)
“Did you know that a shih tzu mixed with a West Highland white terrier is a silkland terrier?” I asked my friend, as he poured us each a glass of wine. “Do you know what they call a shih tzu crossed with a bulldog?” he asked without cracking a smile. I fell for the bait and asked what. “A bull shih-tz …” he laughed, “and that’s what all this hybrid dog nonsense seems like to me.”
Later, as Jazzy and I took in Nightline, we saw a segment about how some of the oldest British breeds are in danger of disappearing – it turns out the Paris Hilton pocket dog craze has hit London, and it’s all the rage. (Here in America, of course, the fad is over and thousands of tiny dogs are showing up at shelters, but that’s a whole other column.) One of the breeds profiled in the segment was the Glen of Imaal terrier – the scruffy, scrappy breed discovered in Jasmine Blue’s DNA earlier this year along with some rotweiller, bullmastiff, a bit of Lab, and a predominance of American Staffordshire terrier. There were only 36 Glen of Imaal terriers born in the U.K. last year, making them one of the most vulnerable breeds in U.K. history and, as the reporter pointed out, “technically rarer than the giant panda.”
“Now that Paris Hilton has a Chihuahua, every little girl wants a Chihuahua,” breeder Jean Withers explained, sitting in a green field with her dogs. “They don’t want these types of dogs because they’re not particularly glamorous.”
With comic timing Carol Burnett would have envied in her heyday, Jasmine, my unfeminine flower, stretched, snored, and let out an eye-watering pittie poot so loud that it woke her from her slumber.
Purse dogs and puggles may come and go, but my Jasmine Blue – pure mutt and proud of it – is carrying a few genes of a dog rarer than the giant panda. Now that’s something to cocker-doodle-poo about.