Kate’s Family Pets
I am a country vet. Most of the dogs that I deal with are working cattledogs, sheepdogs and hunting dogs. These dogs are fit and athletic, with very good temperaments and usually live to a ripe old age. I usually see them for injuries or infections and I rarely see the genetic diseases I read about in the veterinary journals.
These dogs are bred for a purpose, they must be fit and easily trained, and if they don't perform they are certainly not bred from. Almost the only time I see dogs with congenital and structural defects is in town pets - and frequently these problem dogs are purebreds.
In my job I have the unfortunate responsibility of putting down stray and unwanted dogs for the council. I am constantly reminded of the waste if life which occurs when inappropriate dogs are taken on by people who have not given enough thought to their choice of a family pet. Most of these dogs are crosses of our working dogs - Kelpies and Cattledogs or the large hunting breeds - Stag Hounds, Mastiffs, Bull terriers, Pit Bulls, Staffys The pure bred dogs that appear are usually presented for behavioural problems: Aggression (German Shepherds, Cattledogs, Border Collies and Rottweilers), wandering (Fox Terriers, Labradors and Beagles), nuisance barking (Kelpies, Cattledogs).
While all of these problem dogs, in the right hands, could probably be made into excellent companions they are inappropriate dogs for the situation they are in.
In 1991 ago I attended a veterinary course on dog behavioural problems in Sydney. I was alarmed by the number of dogs showing neurotic behaviour, which are seen by veterinarians specialising in behavioural problems. I was amazed at 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:
No-one appears 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 because inbreeding leads to immune system, fertility and mental health problems.
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:
My dog would be similar in size and shape to a Kelpie or Dingo - dogs selected by nature for survival not by man for appearance.
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 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.
My ideal dog would have a coat that doesn't need too much clipping or grooming.
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 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 I have not been able to think of a better crossbred combination than a Labrador Poodle cross.
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.
Complementarity between Labs and small Poodles should be excellent. Toy Poodles are highly intelligent, suspicious of strangers but devoted to their owners. They are very early maturing, small, fussy eaters and prone to knee and eye disorders. Labradors are usually fabulous friendly pets and love everyone but they are large, late maturing dogs which shed hair everywhere and are prone to obesity, and recessive hip, shoulder, elbow and eye disorders.
As far as I can determine, apart from one eye disease these breeds do not share any common congenital disorders. In theory the cross would be a medium size, smart, healthy, shaggy dog that is not too prone to obesity and matures reasonably early.
Breed selection is only part of the story - selection within the breed is also important because within breed variation can be greater than variation between the breeds. In my ideal breeding program I would select my dogs on health first. Then I would look for dogs that are easily trained gentle and friendly without being too excitable or too shy and which don't bark except when disturbed. Any sign of dominance aggression would be selected against. Any dog which didn't pass would be desexed and rehomed at 6-12 months of age.
So that's how it started. We have lots of space, a dry healthy climate and the expertise needed to produce healthy well adjusted dogs, and breeding puppies was a lovely way to help put my children through boarding school - much more fun than breeding cattle or sheep.
It is 16 year since I first started thinking about miniature labradoodles. When I first started people would ask – what’s a Labradoodle? These days everyone has heard of them, there are many people breeding them and they are now the fastest growing “breed” or “designer dog” in the US.
We are very proud of our record and the fact that most of our inquiries these days come from people who have met our dogs and like them.
Kate Schoeffel BSc(Hons) BVSc