Friday, January 16, 2009

Presidential Pooch Search

Lately there has been much ado made over President Elect O'Bama's promise to his daughters that if he won the election they could have a puppy. The choice of the puppy has gotten more press coverage than the choice of any of his cabinet members. I guess we all feel strongly about our dogs, and the choices we make in our pets sometimes are a reflection of ourselves; so everyone has an opinion over what he should do.

You knew that I would have one,didn't you??? ;-)

There has been much discussion over whether the puppy should come from a rescue, a shelter, or a breeder. The decision is complicated by the fact that one of his daughters has severe allergies that have previously precluded allowing her to have a dog. In today's world, it is the current "in" thing to have a rescue dog. The sadder the story that comes with it, the better. There is almost a kind of reverse snobbery now; those who have a rescue sometimes feel superior to those who have obtained a pet through other means. But the end result is that a lot of nice animals have found homes, which is the good side of the situation (there IS a bad side to be considered as well, but that's another post for another day). So in many ways, choosing a "rescue" or a shelter dog of some sort would be the politically expedient thing to do.

However, it is important to realize that one of the most common (if not THE most common) reasons for pets to be turned into a shelter is that a family member has allergies. Now, sometimes this is just a convenient excuse to get rid of an animal that has become more of a liability than pleasure. But in many cases it is a legitimate issue. We know that it will be an issue in this situation, so choice of the dog becomes even more important.

While it would be nice to have a heartwarming story of the down and out stray who ends up in the White House, I think the bigger picture is being missed here. It is FAR more important that an appropriate dog is chosen in the first place, so that it doesn't end up in a shelter, than it is to obtain a dog from a shelter in the first place. Save one from the shelter if you can, but by all means DON'T fall victim to the poor choices that result in so many dogs ending up in a shelter in the first place.

One of the reasons that we have so many breeds of dogs is that there are as many specific needs and purposes for dogs as there are stars in the sky (well....maybe not that many. As many as states in the union, and then some, at least!). One of the reasons for developing breeds of dogs, and breeding purebred dogs in the first place, is to reliably reproduce certain characteristics that are important for that dog's end purpose. In other words, so if you need a dog to help you hunt, you don't want to pick a puppy that would end up better suited for herding sheep. It gives us predictability in how that cute ball of fluff ends up as an adult dog.

If you are pretty flexible in your requirements from a dog as a pet, a mixed breed may be the perfect dog for you. If end size, type of coat, and trainability for a certain task are not terribly important, then you have some flexibility if that puppy who was "supposed" to grow up to be medium sized ends up being a 95 lb behemoth. But the more specific your needs are, the more likely you are to be better served by a purebred dog with predictable characteristics.

I have had mixed and purebred dogs. I am very addicted to dog sports, and love training my dogs and competing in various sports such as agility, obedience, and tracking. Therefore, I have a pretty specific picture in mind when I choose the next dog as to temperament, size, coat, and other characteristics. If I were to choose a dog who was not AKC registerable, I would limit many of my options for competition as they sponsor more competitions in a bigger variety of sports than any other organization (there certainly ARE options for non AKC dogs, just not quite as many especially when it comes to tracking and obedience). In addition, I try to keep no more than two dogs at a time, and I'm not willing to "grow out and place" a dog who doesn't work out for me in most cases, so I must choose very carefully. Plus I live alone and my dogs come to work with me every day and travel with me often on the weekends, so there are definite size and behavior constraints in place. So I now own purebred dogs (shelties, in my case); I spend hours pouring over pedigrees and looking at other peoples dogs, and a new puppy usually took years of planning and decisions. I love this process, I like studying genetics, and I like "window shopping" for dogs. So it works out great for me and I don't foresee me choosing a different breed in the near future.

On the other hand, pretty much all I expect from a cat is that it be nice to me, nice to the dogs and to guests, and that it snuggle occasionally and make at least an occasional pretense of being grateful for me housing, feeding, and providing medical care. I see enough cats on a daily basis that I can usually recognize "my" type of cat when I see it. My requirements are fairly flexible and therefore all of my cats have been rescues of one sort or another. I figure I've rescued enough cats in my time to have as many purebred dogs as I want without a smidge of guilt ;-).

If ever there was a case where a purebred dog was the best choice, the O'Bamas are it. It is essential in their case that their dog have predictable characteristics, both for the health of their daughter and the long term future of the puppy.

In choosing the O'Bama's puppy, there are two good options available. The first option is to buy a puppy from a reputable breeder (reputable breeders NEVER sell their puppies through petstores!). A good breeder knows their lines and constantly is selecting for dogs who better fit the standard. They evaluate their puppies and choose the ones who best fit the standard to keep and continue their breeding program; but they can tell you how their "pet" puppies fall short of the standard and if it will impact on your needs (for example, proper coat texture will be very important to the O'Bamas since this is a major component to the "hypoallergenic" traits). A pet quality puppy from a good breeder is likely to be of far better quality than "pick of the litter" from a puppy mill or casual breeder. A good breeder also screens carefully for health in their breeding stock and betters your odds of having a puppy who is free of inherited diseases.

The second option would be to go with a purebred rescue and choose an adult pet. There are many such rescues across the country, often supported in part by the parent club for the breed. The volunteers who work with such rescue are usually fairly knowledgeable about the breed and very dedicated to making sure the dogs get into appropriate homes. Since the dogs usually are adult, variations from the standard which may make them less appropriate for a situation with allergies should be apparent and those dogs who don't have the correct, hypoallergenic coat can be eliminated from consideration. It is less likely that a puppy would be available through rescue, particularly in a less common breed, although sometimes they do end up in rescue.

Adopting a purebred from a shelter is a possibility, but most likely a less satisfactory one. Often the dogs promoted as "purebred" by shelter personnel bear only a passing resemblance to the breed they are labeled as, and they may or may not show the characteristics that are the important reason for choosing them in the first place. A less common breed, such as the Portuguese Water Dog the O'Bamas are considering, does not show up often in the shelter, is likely not to be identified correctly if it does, and, should one be turned in, it often is "pulled" from the shelter if possible by the breed rescue. The breed rescues try to get representatives of their breed out of the shelters, firstly because they often are at risk for euthanasia, but also because they are often in a better position to carefully screen homes and match them appropriately. Waiting for a PWD to show up in a shelter, then making sure it would be an appropriate individual, could take months to years.

The other option reportedly being considered by the O'Bamas is a labradoodle or other "doodle" cross. It is important to realize that this is NOT a breed, but a mixed breed hybrid of two separate and distinct breeds. There are many fallacies being promoted about such "designer dogs" at the moment. One is that they are inherently healthier than purebred dogs and that genetic screening is not necessary due to hybrid vigor. This is absolutely not true. A crossbred is less likely to have an inherited disease that is caused by a single recessive gene, provided that it is a cross in which only one breed carries the recessive, and that it is an "F1" or first generation cross. However, if multiple genes are involved (as is most frequently the case), a dominant gene is involved, or a cross back of hybrids is occurring they certainly can have inherited disease which occurs in either or both parent breeds. In my experience the incidence of hip dysplasia and allergies, to cite two examples, in labradoodles and goldendoodles is every bit as high and possibly higher than in labs,goldens, or standard poodles themselves. Hybrid vigor does NOT affect inherited disease at all. It does have some effect on certain traits, the majority of which have to do with fertility and reproduction. Since most pet owners spay and neuter their pets, this is of no benefit to them. In some cases, hybrid vigor may result in larger size and faster growth as youngsters; this can actually increase the odds of skeletal problems. I also am a bit skeptical of the hypoallergenic claims for these dogs; for the goldendoodles in particular I have most often seen a coat that will likely need periodic shaving and certainly is not no shed.

And most importantly, while it is certainly in the realm of possibility that there are "responsible" breeders of such doodle crosses out there, selecting their breeding stock for a purpose and to certain guidelines, and doing genetic testing, I have not yet seen a single one. Instead, the vast majority clearly come from people who are in it to make a fast buck. I have never seen one with any kind of health clearances on the parents and they often come complete with a full complement of intestinal parasites and minor (and sometimes more serious) infectious issues which often indicate less than optimal care and maintainence of puppies and dams. In some cases I also believe that there are individuals who are adopting puppies of unknown parentage but similar appearance from shelters and then re-selling them as expensive doodles. Buyer beware!

I am hoping to do a series later on how to choose the kind of dog for you, and how to find one once you've narrowed the choice down. Check back!

So my vote is, purebred puppy from a GOOD breeder or adult potentially from breed rescue. I'm sure Mr. O'Bama has been awaiting my advice!


  1. As a breeder of AKC show line labs I agree in how a breeder knows their lines and would be perfect a person to find the perfect puppy for the president, but in my dealings with people over the last 13 years most of them do not want your advice, so I wind up turnning alot of people away, because I won't place my pup with a family I think is wrong for them. My last litter I turned down a very upset family because I would not give them breeding rights to the puppy they chose. She was a nice puppy but not of the quality that she should reproduce. I offered them another puppy that I thought would meet their needs if they wanted to breed. They did not want her because her coat color was a darker yellow. I explained that quality not color was the reason to breed a dog. They accused me of trying to sell them a dog that was sick or had something wrong with it, which I asure you it did not. So they stormed out of my driveway good riddance. I later had another person tell me I weaned too early because my 8 pups were not still nursing their mom into emmacitation at 8 weeks old. He left without a dog too. So thanks for educating folks on the fact that most good breeders are in the know about their dogs and to take their advice.
    As for doodles I can see no consistancy among the dogs. Some look more like retrievers some more like poodles. I have yet to see two with the same coat texture, and many wind up a lot larger that their parents. Not sure why that is. I see one that is going to push the 90lb mark and both parents are under 60lb. Also see the hip dyplasia that you are seeing too. I find it sad that these folks are so jaded as to think the hybrid dogs don't get problems too. Even though the purebreds have a smaller gene pool, all dogs get problems! Retrivers and poodles both get hip dyplsia people, why wouldn't their pups?

  2. YEAH!!!!! This is a GREAT Post! Thank you, Thank you. Expecting the general public to listen to a breeder would be a rediculous request (we have too much vested interest)- but for a VET to say all of this!!!!!! THANK YOU

  3. Thanks so much for this post. I hope that many people read it and begin to understand the complexities of dog breeds and breeding.

    When I heard the Obamas had promised their girls a dog and that one (or both?) of them had allergies, I was strongly tempted to write them a letter saying, "Just say NO!" My fear is that they will get a dog, the girls will have health problems, and the dog will wind up in a shelter. Not the image our new President wants, that's for sure. Better to break a promise to their daughters than to get them a dog only to take it away again.

    As for doodles, I agree 100%. I have no problem with mixed breed dogs, but big problems with those who charge hundreds of dollars for what is essentially a mutt, calling it a "designer" and stating that it is better in some way than the parent breeds. It is getting crazy - now you have "miniature Goldendoodles" and "cockapoo-poos" or "Yorkie-huahuas" for goodness' sake. Where will it end?

    ~Kathi, stepping off the soapbox now

  4. Very, very well written. It's so true what you have written. Its matches the hole world. Thanks for your wise word :o)