OK, out with it: The designer dog--er--elephant in the room. Or on the website. Yes, I wrote a book about designer dogs. "But how, Caroline, how could you write about those overpriced mutts that are helping bring down apple pie, dog shows and the American Kennel Club?"
It took some soul searching (and a glance at my bank statement). When I was first approached by Weldon Owen, a book packager (and we can talk the differences between book packagers and publishers in a future entry) to write it, I sighed and regretted I'd be turning them down. I've been an AKC participant for most of my life, and I enjoy the perks my AKC dogs allow me. Writing about designer dogs seemed so traitorous.
I thought some more. I studied my bank account some more. And, as I try to do every decade or two, I opened my mind. Not everybody wants to compete. Not everybody wants one of the 150 or so AKC breeds, or even the 450 or so breeds registered elsewhere. And this IS America, home of the free, and home of the freedom to choose an AKC dog, a mutt or even a designer dog. Withholding information is never the answer, and I'm egotistical enough to think I'm the best source of that information. Who better to present the truth about designer dogs? Who better to say we can't subtitle it "Better than purebreds" or some other unsubstantiated claim? So I agreed. Well, yeah, I did try to convince them I should write under a pseudonym, but that was a no. Apparently my name has value. How inconvenient.
So, here's the truth about designer dogs: In some cases, they work. Look at the huskies running the Iditarod; most are mixes. Look at the lurchers (sighthound x non-sighthound mixes) favored for poaching in Britain. The longdogs (sighthound X sighthound mixes) so successful at coyote and jackrabbit hunting in the western United States. Want to succeed at flyball? Get a BorderJack or BorderStaff or one of the other crosses bordering on insanity. Breeds, like cultures, evolve. We strive to hang on to cultural artifacts and antiques, but that doesn't mean we don't stop inventing. Every pure breed we now have was once a novel invention---perhaps even sneered at in its infancy.
But let's be truthful: Most designer dog breeders aren't out to make a better hunter or worker. They're out to make a better companion, and their main claim that these dogs are better (besides the fact that most are cute as h**l) is that they're healthier.
Here's an excerpt from the book:
When kennel clubs began registering purebreds, they allowed any dog of that general family type to be registered as the breed. At some point, registration closed, leaving a fixed number of potential sires and dams. What wasn't known at the time was that all of us, dog or human, carry from five to seven recessive genes that, if we carried two copies of any one of them, would
result in some type of hereditary disease. Because humans are a bunch of mixed breeds, we don't often end up with a mate who carries the same bad recessive gene
as we do, so it's unusual to produce an affected child. Because those early canine sires and dams carried some random bad recessives, and because all present-day purebred dogs descend from them, there's a fair chance that dogs carrying that same recessive gene might mate, creating a puppy with the disorder caused by that gene.
The solution? Widen the breeding options, deepen the gene pools to create crossbreeds that don't share the same bad recessives. That's one argument for breeding dogs by design. The trouble is that idea works only within limits. Cross two breeds that share the same disorders and it doesn't work at all. Cross two hybrids again after the initial cross, and you're right back where you started---maybe even worse off: those hybrids will stand a good chance of carrying recessive genes and producing pups with two of the recessives and thus
two disorders. A designer dog should never be just a random mating to "see what happens." Instead, the best mixes blend breeds that can reasonably be expected
to produce desirable physical and behavioral traits.
I can't stress this enough: Just as with a purebred, your source is critical. Most of the designer dog breeders I interviewed left much to be desired in their knowledge of health or genetics. One memorable one had a clearly hydrocephalic designer dog puppy that was being touted as their poster puppy for good health; another had a puppy with a leg I swear was attached backwards! Well, it WAS a novel design...
Too many internet breeders jumped at the chance to produce puppies they could charge twice as much for as they could puppies from same-breed matings. To be fair, many purebred breeders are equally naive and money-motivated. Cave canem, buyer beware and all that.
As for the book, it turned out to be one of the most beautiful books I've been associated with--and fun. The folks at Weldon Owen were a dream to work with, my editor, Peter Cieply, made me look smart, the photography by Anna Kuperburg was stunning, the models captivating, the owners thrilled and the text gave me a chance to be both fanciful and factful (Is that a
word?). And I got to meet some pretty cool dogs!
For example, there's the Chesador, whose profile begins with: Attaboy--shake it out! This sportsman loves a good dousing, be it from splashing along in the surf or dog-paddling around the lake. If you share the Chesador's enthusiasm for all things active, you'll get along swimmingly...
The Jack Chi: All saunter and swagger, the Jack Chi acts like he's the biggest deal on the block. But despite his bold braggadocio and bad-boy image, he's a trickster and a charmer. And though he's happy to be scrappy, he
also craves a cuddle...
...And 34 other breeds, all represented by dogs who are very special to someone, and just as cherished and deserving as any purebred.