Ever heard the one about what you get when you cross a poodle and a labrador? No, seriously, what you get is a labradoodle, a hybrid dog so trendy that it has even become a television star, with pups selling for as much as £2,000. There have always been a few crossbreeds seen in the field. Lurchers are the obvious deliberate cross, and thanks to the testosterone-fuelled determination of dog spaniels, sprockers (springer x cocker) are a fact of life on shoots everywhere. But now dozens of new crosses are curling up in dog baskets in both the suburbs and the shires.
These mongrels have gained such social cachet that they are known as designer dogs – and have the labels to match. There are spoodles and toodles and cockerpoos and maybe even cockerdoodledoos. The idea is to have the dog without the drawback. Hence labradoodles supposedly don’t leave hairs on the sofa, unlike smelly old Bertie the black lab. Springadors (springer x labrador) are meant to be better suited to the confines of Wimbledon Common than big, bumbling old Bertie. And as for cockerpoos (cocker x poodle), well, poor old Bertie can’t hold a candle to them for cuteness.
So there is a fashionable cross to suit every pocket (sometimes literally). Toodles are a cross between a terrier and a poodle. If you crossed a hound with a beagle with a poodle, you could even have a Hoobledoodledo dog for fans of The Hoobs. So has everybody gone noodles (Newfoundland x poodle)? Is all this crossing just a load of old bulldog x ox?
The professional dog world can’t agree on the subject. Pure-breed societies are incandescent, especially The Standard Poodle Club, whose animals appear in most of the fashionable crosses. But breeders and buyers of crosses (officially known as hybrids) and many shooting people are fans. The Kennel Club is poised in “hup” on the fence; ironically, the whole debate really started with its foundation in 1873.
After the first ever organised dog show was held in June 1859, for 60 pointers and setters, the need for formal organisation and records led to the establishment of The Kennel Club. Frank Pearce generated the first studbook covering the period from 1859 to 1873, and so enshrined the concept of a pure-bred pedigree dog for the first time. Until then, as every hybrid breeder will point out, gundog breeds were constantly being improved with judicious drops of foreign blood. The Gordon setter, for example, owes some of its beauty and intelligence to the fourth Duke of Richmond’s inspired use of a collie bitch back in the 1800s. Spaniels have a rich and colourful ancestry, much of it untraceable and even unmentionable to the present day.
More than a century after the establishment of The Kennel Club, the existence of breed standards and official registration has become both a boon and a challenge for the serious breeder. Steve Kimbrell, of Kimberlenes breeding kennels, explains: “I started with labradors about 35 years ago, using classic Sandylands progeny crossed with the famous field trial champion, Ben of Mallowdale. I have always been trying to improve what we are doing but years of ‘line’ breeding has resulted in pure-bred dogs inheriting diseases and disorders. Responsible breeders are attempting to combat this through health tests, but unfortunately that’s having the effect of re-ducing an already limited gene pool still further.”
So Steve began to look at other breeds to introduce new blood. He’d heard of labradors being crossed with poodles in Australia to produce guide dogs with less allergenic coats. But what interested him about the labradoodle cross was its potential to produce an animal with better hips than a labrador (a breed troubled by hip dysplasia) and better general health. “The theory side alone is enough to excite anyone into labradoodles,” comments Steve. “Not only are they striking-looking but they combine the calmness and trainability of the labrador with the exuberance of the poodle. They have that desire to please that I always look for in a dog. Some of our clients take their ’doodles out shooting, but their main quality is that they are an excellent all-round family dog.”
Most owners of labrador crosses report that the good old equable lab temperament shines through, combined with all sorts of new, most un-lab like qualities. Jan Brown used her top picking-up lab, Ace, on a good labrador bitch, only to discover too late that a greyhound had got there first, but she reports: “The result, Inca, whom you can only describe as a labrador-lurcher has been a wonderful worker for me. She is jet-black but clearly greyhound-shaped. I did get teased a bit to begin with, but when you have the fastest retriever in the Westcountry, you don’t mind.”
Rachel Middleton-Horner’s springador (springer x labrador) was also a mistake. She remembers: “As a pedigree breeder of 18 years’ standing, I was mortified at first, you feel so embarrassed, but I’d heard of springadors, so I was hopeful, and fortunately the resulting litter was lovely. I was fascinated to see that they did have excellent health and what we call hybrid vigour, and they reached their milestones a lot quicker. All the homes that they have gone to have loved them. There is a momentum growing for good crossbred puppies with proper pedigrees. But you get frowned on by the pedigree people and you cannot Kennel Club register.”
At The Kennel Club, Caroline Kisco confirms: “Crosses cannot go on pure-breed registers and it would be very difficult to set up a breed standard for a cross like a labradoodle where there are so many types. But what concerns us most is the motives of breeders. The difficulty we have is that people are starting to do this purely for fashion. There is a misguided assumption that the offspring will always be healthier, which is very worrying as people may therefore not bother having both parents hip-scored and health tested.”
FASTEST RETRIEVER IN THE WEST
Sandy Vincent of The Standard Poodle Club is more than concerned about designer dogs, especially since so many of the new crosses contain an element of poodle: “We have met this before when a type of dog becomes fashionable,” she says. “People see Richard Hammond on telly with his labradoodle, and then the puppy farmers start breeding them.
“What we object to most strongly is that we have had people who have bought labradoodles because they have been told that poodle crosses will not contribute to asthma. We have never claimed that the poodle is necessarily an allergy-free dog, even though it does not shed its coat. You would have to do a saliva test before you could make any claims about asthma. And we are beginning to see problems with rescue – the dog’s owner isn’t happy with it or moves on to something else and wants to get rid of the dog, but with crossbreeds there is no breed society to pick up the pieces.”
A debate with valid arguments on both sides is turning into a battleground. Jacky Platts, of Wentwood Labradoodles, whose partner Richard Hambleton is in charge of the labradoodle breeding programme, says: “I am a Kennel Club accredited breeder known for my pure-bred working labradors and I have had such criticism for breeding labradoodles. People send me abusive emails. But I am breeding the best and healthiest dogs I can. We breed from working labrador bitches and the dog has to be a top-class poodle, so we get a confident, calm dog, not gun-shy, that can be trained to work. I know you can’t have a breed standard for a labradoodle, but then I am not a showing person, I am a country person.”
Jacky’s words may point to the way forward for the new crossbreeds. Where it is recognised that a crossbreed is neither more nor less than a working family dog, everybody seems happy. Springer and cocker spaniels are always getting into trouble, and the resulting sprockers don’t have to be ashamed of their lineage – quite the reverse in many cases. Hurstbourne Park estate keeper Martin Edwards remembers: “I thought all my birthdays had come at once when, as a penniless 18-year-old trainee keeper, I was offered a sprocker pup. She was £50 – a gundog I could afford! And that pup is still alive and has become the grandmother to most of the sprockers I have bred since. I breed sprocker bitches to pure cocker dogs so you are getting about a three-quarter cross. The sprockers have a good size. I use them for dogging-in and goose-shooting and they can drag a goose across the field. They are also a bit more level-headed. I never breed unless people want them, but people see them working and like them.”
Another keeper specialising in accidentally-on-purpose sprockers is Fred Mitchinson up on Chunal Moor in the Peak District. He confesses: “To be fair all the litters have been more or less unplanned, but people keep coming back and wanting them because they make such great little dogs. Mine are used exclusively on the grouse. I’m a big cocker fan because they handle the heat out shooting in August and they have fantastic stamina, and the sprockers are just that bit longer in the leg to handle the heather. I remember a great grouse-shot Sir Anthony Milbank used to breed sprockers, and he said you can’t beat ’em. The only frustrating thing when you have a good one is that you can’t field trial it.”
WELCOME TO THE FIELD
Back at The Kennel Club, Caroline Kisco explains: “For the time being at least there are no Kennel Club licensed gundog working events in which crossbreeds can take part,” but she adds, “they could go on the Activity register to compete in lots of different ways, and the Companion register for family dogs is also open to them.”
Perhaps The Kennel Club has got it right after all. Whether breeders or doting owners, everyone involved with gundog crossbreeds has stressed exactly those qualities – they are great all-rounders in any activity, and they make a wonderful companion for the family. So let’s welcome these new members into the working fraternity rather than leaving them out in the cold at the mercy of the puppy marketeers.
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