WALLY CONRON BELIEVES OUR BUILD-A-DOG MENTALITY NEEDS TO STOP
By Erin Kirkpatrick
In today’s world, we’ve grown accustomed to cross-pollinating our produce (i.e. grapples = grape-flavored apples and broccolini = broccoli+ rapini), customizing our purchases (i.e. Nike soles and Starbucks orders), and genetically perfecting animals.
In the case of dogs, we pick and choose appealing traits of certain breeds and pair them with characteristics of other breeds to create dogs that fulfill exact specifications. I liken it to those children’s book with three horizontal slices that allow you to create new characters by mixing and matching pages.
In the mix-and-match book, one has the opportunity to create a crocodile with a hippopotamus’s backside. In the case of crossbreeding dogs, however, one might be creating a designer dog with unpredictable characteristics and a slew of health concerns. The former is set in a fictional, imaginary world, while the latter is a reality we currently face.
Designer dogs are now readily available, and Poodles, a crowd-favorite in crossbreeding because of their non-shedding coat, are almost always involved in the mix – Schnoodle (Miniature Schnauzer/Poodle); Goldendoodle (Golden Retriever/Poodle); Yorkiepoo (Yorkshire Terrier/Poodle): Poochon (Bichon Frise/Poodle); and Labradoodle (Labrador Retriever/Poodle).
Designer dogs are exempt from derogatory terms like “mutt” and “mongrel” because they are the product of deliberate crossbreeding. The exclusivity and sophistication of a new breed are marketing catnip to society’s elite. Jennifer Aniston, Elle Macpherson, and Jeremy Clarkson are among the celebrities that own and have owned Labradoodles.
What a time to be alive!
Now, would it surprise you to learn that the man credited with creating the Labradoodle regrets his creation AND never profited from it? It surprised me!
Let’s go back to 1980. Wally Conron was the Breeding Manager for the Royal Guide Dog Association of Australia and responsible for providing visibly impaired people with suitable guide dogs. One day, he received a letter from a blind woman in Hawaii desperately seeking a guide dog that could accommodate her lack of vision and her husband’s allergies to animal hair.
Conron knew right off the bat to use the Standard Poodle to fend off allergies, but the tricky part was finding a dog that could fulfill the guide dog role. Conron searched for a breed he could combine with the Standard Poodle, a dog that doesn’t shed its hair and is thought to be hypoallergenic. He found his answer three years later and after 33 dogs in the standard guide dog, a Labrador.
After the birth of the three Standard Poodle + Labrador pups, Conron dreamt up the name “Labradoodle” to garner the attention of the media and the public, and boy, did it work. News of the creation spread across the globe, as everyone wanted more information about this fascinating hybrid breed.
Fascinating, yes. A slippery slope, definitely.
The main motivator for crossbreeding is getting a dog that fits all the criteria outlined by the future owner, from the look and feel of their coats (i.e. straight, wavy, curly, wiry, etc), to their temperament and behavior. Unfortunately, puppies that result from crossbreeding are often plagued with unpredictable characteristics – the very thing we’re trying to avoid by crossbreeding in the first place.
Conron intentionally bred Poodle into the three puppies – one of which went to the blind woman in Hawaii – to achieve a non-shedding, hypoallergenic coat, but future breeding tests showed that these characteristics could not be guaranteed by simply involving a Poodle in the mix. Of the three initial Labradoodle pups, the woman’s husband was allergic to none of them. In the next test involving 10 pups, the woman’s husband was allergic to 7 of them.
This is where Conron’s objections to his creation stem from.
We’re crossbreeding dogs for particular reasons, but due to the uncertainty of crossbreeding, we are leaving a lot of factors, including the health and wellbeing of the dogs, up in the air. He also warns of breeders who advertise dogs bred with specific characteristics that don’t actually have those characteristics. It’s a game of genetic roulette, and somebody has to lose.
In a 2014 interview with Psychology Today, Conron said, “I opened a Pandora’s box, that’s what I did. I released a Frankenstein. So many people are just breeding for the money. So many of these dogs have physical problems, and a lot of them are just crazy.”
He believes consumers need to learn the background of dogs’ parents and avoid “bandwagon breeders” in order to avoid future health problems. He is also a big proponent of adopting. Wally Conron, who lives a simple life and never profited from his creation, has only ever bred 31 Labradoodles in his life, and that’s 31 more than he ever wanted to.