For a century, pedigree dogs have reigned supreme but David Tomlinson is now seeing more and more crossbreds in the line. Do they perform as well?
It seems that pedigrees could have had their day. Crossbreeds are all the rage and now they are starting to turn up in the line. But do the crossbreed gundogs perform as well as their purebred relations, asks David Tomlinson.
A crossbreed could still come from working stock, but it is time that we give show-bred dogs a chance in the field? Read in praise of show-bred gundogs to find out.
The first dog I had a serious relationship with was a neighbour’s big black spaniel called Pip; I used to walk him every day after school. Pip wasn’t a pure spaniel, he had some labrador blood that helped explain his colouring and his size. These days we would call him a springador but back in the ’60s he was just a crossbred spaniel. I suspect he was an accidental cross, as few people then deliberately produced crossbred gundogs.
Today, everything has changed and crossbreeds are all the rage. I’m sure that I now meet more pet cockerpoos (pictured) than pure cockers and I certainly know far more labradoodles than I do pure poodles. The purists frown, shake their heads and complain about the prices such crosses command (forgetting that it costs just as much to produce a litter of cockerpoos as it does pure cockers), but to no avail.
It’s not surprising that so-called designer crossbreeds have become so popular, as so many of our pedigree breeds have suffered badly at the hands of those breeders more interested in type and looks than health and fitness. Since the BBC film Pedigree Dogs Exposed revealed some of the bad practices widespread in the world of pedigree dogs and their breeding, public confidence has declined. Kennel Club registration figures are falling, though there has been no similar drop in dog ownership. You can’t register a cockerpoo, sprocker, labradoodle or springador, as none are recognised as breeds by the Kennel Club.
Being unable to register a dog means that it cannot take part in official Kennel Club shows, tests or trials. For most of us, this doesn’t matter. I’ve owned purebred, unregistered English springers for the past 35 years. They have all been companion dogs (I hate the word pet) and workers, and have been good enough to collect the odd rosette at Game Fair competitions where there is no insistence on KC registration. I never wanted to trial them, let alone show them.
Of course, lack of a traceable pedigree does have disadvantages, especially when it comes to checking health. The Kennel Club has an excellent website, on which you can check the health status of all KC-registered dogs, seeing what checks have been undertaken and whether they are, for example, a carrier of one of the hereditary diseases. It’s a valuable tool.
HEALTHIER THAN THE PEDIGREES
The good thing about crossbred dogs is that they are generally much healthier than pedigrees, as the latter tend to suffer from inherited problems due to inbreeding. However, good health does depend on breeding from healthy and sound parents, so simply crossing a cocker with a poodle doesn’t guarantee producing a puppy that will be free from genetic faults. But there is a good chance that it will be healthier than a pure breed. Pet insurance companies far prefer insuring mongrels or crossbreeds as these dogs are much less likely to be the subject of claims.
From a working gundog viewpoint, the question is whether a crossbred dog can perform as well as, or even better than, its purebred relations. In the case of most spaniel crosses I believe the answer is yes. Crossing a cocker with an English springer to produce a sprocker is now popular but such a cross cannot be compared with the designer crosses, such as pug with beagle (puggle) or poodle with pekingese (peekapoo). Springers and cockers have a common ancestry and crossing one with the other is simply turning the clock back. You still have a dog that looks and works just like a spaniel.
Over the years I have met a number of confirmed springador enthusiasts, for the outstanding individuals do seem to combine the best of both breeds. Curiously, most I have seen look more like labradors than springers, as they are usually solid-coloured, invariably with white on the chest, though longer ears are a clue to their identity. As is often the case with these dogs, the first cross is usually the best and springador x springador is rarely as satisfactory, though I don’t know why.
A cross that is popular with many upland keepers is German wirehaired pointer x springer or labrador. The GWP blood makes for a tough dog that can work in the most adverse of conditions, an essential on the high moors for much of the year. Such a cross might not produce the most beautiful of offspring but handsome is as handsome does, while bearded labradors do have a certain charm. Intriguingly, the pointing instinct often remains strong in the hybrid dogs, a useful trait for a grouse-moor worker.
There are some unlikely crosses that shouldn’t be discounted, either. Last season I spent a day on a Sussex shoot where three cockerpoos were working in the beating line. They were really hunting, too, showing all the enthusiasm of a pure cocker. They did look impossibly cute but appearances can be deceptive. I discovered that they were the offspring of a cockerpoo bitch put to a working-bred cocker sire, so they were more cocker than poodle. Whatever their ancestry, they were an asset in the beating line.
Whether we like it or not – and there are many purists who don’t – crossbred dogs are here to stay. Pedigrees may have remained supreme for more than a century but perhaps their day has at last passed? Time will tell.