February 04, 2007

"designer dogs"


The cover story of the Sunday Times magazine is about "designer-dog fights". Labradoodles, cockapoos, puggles, morkies -- there is no end to mixing breeds to get a dog that just has it all - the sweetness of a Maltese terrier, the smartness of a Yorkshire terrier, the happy-go-lucky personality of the labrador, the cute wrinkled face of the pug -- or, if things turn out differently, the wanderlust of the beagle coupled with the diminished sense of orientation of a pug.

Many dog breeders resent this kind of meddling with trusted standards.
“Predictability is what you pay for when you buy a purebred dog,” says Daisy Okas, assistant vice president for communications at the A.K.C. “Are you really active? Do you need a running partner? Then you might want to look at getting a border collie. But do you live in a 500-square-foot apartment in Manhattan and work all day? Then a border collie, for you, is going to be a disaster. That’s why they cost hundreds or thousands of dollars. Because groups of people over decades or even centuries have been carefully breeding that dog to have certain characteristics and a certain temperament.”
On the other hand, what's the point in adhering to a standard, if that standard produces dogs that are prone to deafness (as in the case of Dalmatians) and encephalitis (pugs)? Or if that standard doesn't even allow a dog to procreate?

Making purebred pugs is arduous and important business. The pug’s problem is geometrical. A century of selection for the standard’s “square and cobby” body has exaggerated those qualities, rendering many males incapable of positioning themselves on a bitch, of procreating reliably without human assistance. Nor can puppies muscle through the pug’s narrowed birth canal; like many breeds, virtually all pugs must be delivered by C-section.

As much effort breeders invest in producing purebred puppies, as little responsibility they may feel for puppies that don't confirm to their expectations:
Jutta Beard described how years ago, while she was breeding Rottweilers, one of her bitches was accidentally impregnated by a dog of another breed. Great effort had been taken to segregate the bitch, and how the intruder got in and out of the Beards’ kennel was a mystery. His identity couldn’t even be discerned in the gangling, alien faces of the resulting puppies. Beard had them euthanized. I asked if no one would have wanted them as pets. “I didn’t want them,” she said decisively.
I really expect better from a breeder than killing a litter of unwanted, but otherwise perfectly healthy puppies. Talking about irresponsible breeders: The article also portrays Wallace Havens, the owner a large kennel in Wisconsin, who specializes in breeding mixed-breeds (such as the puggle) . His kennel houses 1600 dogs of 35 different breeds, and he sells about 3000 puppies annually. Their latest "special designer puppy", to quote their website, "looks like a Mini St. Bernard. However, they have absolutely no St. Bernard in them". The dogs live in groups of five females and one male dog (of a different breed). The website shows pictures of "Bichon Females Being Exposed To A Yorkie Male To Make Yorkie-Chons" and other creations, designed to satisfy consumer needs.
A Chihuahua rooted amid bichons. A Shar-Pei presided over a crowd of beagles like a crumply-faced shogun. That was an experiment, Havens said, “just to see what happens.” 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. “Good for you,” he told me as though I were learning the business.
When Havens can't use his dogs for breeding anymore, he sends them to the Humane Society, where they have to be treated to overcome their fear of people, before they can be adopted. They're there, along with many other dogs of all looks and personalities. Purebreds as well as adorable mutts. Flat coats, shaggy coats, floppy ears, pricked ears, wagging tails, hiddent tails, sad eyes, eager eyes, energetic barks, and soft snores. And giving one of these dogs a home will make you feel better than any designer purchase could.

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