Helaine Olen,  February 23, 2015

The Labradoodle Racket

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Last week, a gorgeous black standard poodle named Flame came close to taking the “Best in Show” title at the annual Westminster Dog Show, but lost out at the last minute to the stunning beagle Miss P. Purebred dogs like these, not surprisingly, are costly companions. But “designer” cross-breeds often cost even more, despite the fact that they are just as likely to be plagued with illness as their single-breed ancestors. Why?

A beagle that can be registered with the American Kennel Club, but isn’t quite up to the show dog perfection of Miss P, costs between $500 to $1,500. Poodles and labs are most often about $1,000 to $2,000. But a labradoodle, a cross between a poodle and a lab, somehow costs about $2,500 to $3,000. How could a dog that isn’t even recognized as a breed by the AKC cost more than the sum of its parts, which in this case are the two dogs it is descended from?

Australian Wally Conron pioneered the labradoodle in the late 1980s. A breeder with the Royal Guide Dog Association of Australia, Conron was attempting to fulfill a request for a hypoallergenic seeing eye dog. It took thirty-four tries until mating a Labrador retriever and a standard poodle gave him what he needed. There was only one problem: people seeking seeing-eye dogs wanted pure-breed dogs, not mutts. Conron had a litter to move. Desperate, he came up with “a gimmick.” He dubbed the mutts “labradoodles,” and they sold immediately.

Over the next several years, other Australian breeders began to promote the labradoodle concept, including Beverley Manners and her daughter Angela Cunningham. They began crossing cocker spaniels and wheaten terriers, among other dogs, into their lines. They also began posting photos of their puppies on their business websites.

That sales strategy worked so well that, by the millennium, in-the-know Americans—most of whom had never actually been in the presence of a labradoodle—were ordering them online, based on pictures alone. For some, it was their first Internet purchase. According to the Los Angeles Times, writing about the “relatively new” labradoodle in 2001, buyers were paying about $1,200 for the dogs and spending another $1,200 or so on shipping.

Sure, you could get a domestically-bred labradoodle for less, but many breeders purchased their stock from Manners or Cunningham or other prestige breeders in Australia, so they could earn the right to call their dogs Australian labradoodles. It was like a designer label. For those dogs, the $2,500 price stuck, even if the closest they had ever come to Australia was their grandmother. And, in turn, the high cost of the Australian labradoodles allowed other breeders working with more pedestrian American stock to raise to their prices, too, often above $1,000. The higher-priced dogs made the labradoodles priced in the low four figures seem like a bargain—even if they cost more than a poodle or lab.

So why did the labradoodle catch on in the first place? Why not the more established cockapoo? Well, the Labrador retriever has been the most popular dog in the United States since 1992, and the labradoodle was pitched as the new and improved version. Proselytizers claimed the dogs combined the smarts and hypoallergenic hair of the poodle with the laid back and playful nature of Labrador.

But to the American Kennel Club, the arbiter of all things breed-related in the United States, the labradoodle was no more than an overpriced mutt. They wouldn’t acknowledge it with official papers. So labradoodle owners and breeders established their own registry, the Australian Labradoodle Association of America. And if a labradoodle buyer was feeling socially conscious, he or she could recall that the AKC was known to issue papers to dogs bred in abusive and dodgy puppy mills, and could feel righteous for not participating in “the system.”

This, however, was bullshit. Australian breeding dogs in the states are frequently cousins, as closely related as the royal families of Europe. Puppy mills began churning out labradoodles as well, causing diseases and conditions like epilepsy, skin allergies, and hip dysplasia. The situation was no better Down Under. Manners and Cunningham are dogged (ha!) by allegations of doggie mistreatment, as well.

During a nasty breakup with her husband, Cunningham’s labradoodles were neglected, to put it kindly. Eventually, Cunningham ditched a reported $75,000 worth of filthy, sore-covered, and underweight designer dogs at the Lake County Animal Shelter in Tavares, Florida, in 2006, before returning to Australia. Labradoodle lovers across the United States scrambled at the chance to adopt one of Cunningham’s dogs for the discount price of less than $20.

Today, Manners and Cunningham are both still breeding labradoodles, but they now call them “cobberdogs,” wishing, as Manners’s website says, to distinguish them from the labradoodles raised by other, supposedly unethical (but unnamed) breeders. And now the Australian Labradoodle Association of America claims to manage the largest database of labradoodles in the world, consisting of more than 25,000 dogs.

Conron, meanwhile, is now retired, but emerges every few years to say he regrets starting the whole thing. Careless breeding of trendy poodle crosses has resulted in many unhealthy and often unwanted dogs, he admits. As he told the Associated Press last year, “I’ve done a lot of damage.”

Helaine Olen is the author of Pound Foolish: Exposing the Dark Side of the Personal Finance Industry, a contributing editor for Pacific Standard, and a regular Slate contributor.

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