Unthinking prejudice against crossbreed dogs always makes my hackles rise, and there was a bad case of it last week in the Huffington Post - a piece written by Jody Thompson.
Thompson referred to "designer dogs" as "just mongrels", said that it was a terrible idea to cross breeds such as the Labrador and Poodle and stated categorically that such crosses were no healthier than purebred dogs. She also advised people that if they didn't want to get a rescue dog, they should go to a Kennel Club breeder.
Not surprisingly, a few Doodle owners took exception in the Comments section and I whizzed off an email to the Huff Post to ask if they'd like a "counter". The answer was yes, they'd be more than happy to consider a rebuttal.
So I wrote it and sent it to them over the weekend. But it turns out that Jody Thompson is the Huff Post UK's Blog Editor and as such has the say-so on whether or not to accept my piece.
This morning, she got back to me and turned it down, saying I had twisted and misinterpreted what she'd written. Ms Thompson says she is only interested in the piece if I take out the bits criticising her (she didn't think they were fair) and make it a more general article in defence of crossbreeds.
"I think you’re taking this a little too personally.
"I have been a journalist for 30 years. I have written for all the UK nationals and been a commissioning editor for two of them. Alternative views are the lifeblood of the free media because they generate interest and debate. Of course, I shouldn’t have to tell you that.
"Very unsettled to learn that the Huff Post censors in this way ie. employed editors who turn down material because they can’t tolerate an alternative view to their own. I mean, really, what’s the worst that can happen? Some people will agree with you; some people will agree with me. Don’t think the world will end.
"Your piece was on an area I specialise in and the comments to your piece make it clear that others interpreted it exactly the same way I have done. In other words, it is a fair challenge."
"I’ll publish both pieces side by side on my blog (two million pageviews by the way…).So here we go. First, you'll need to pop over to Huff Post for Thompson's article, which you can find here.
Let’s see what my readers think."
Six years ago, my documentary Pedigree Dogs Exposed revealed the horrifying levels of deformity and disease in purebred dogs. The cause? A century of inbreeding and pursuit of show-ring ribbons under the auspices of a Kennel Club stuck largely in the scientific dark ages.
We showed gasping Pugs, Bulldogs that couldn’t mate or give birth naturally, show-bred German Shepherds dragging wobbly back-ends, and Cavalier King Charles Spaniels screaming in agony because their skulls were too small for their brains.
The film had an enormous impact. The BBC pulled out of broadcasting the Kennel Club’s flagship show, Crufts (after 42 years). Crufts also lost its main sponsor, Pedigree. Then the veterinary profession, welfare organisations and three independent reports backed the film’s findings. The Kennel Club, finally, was forced to act to clean up dog-breeding.
The film is often charged with sending puppy-buyers in their droves to buy “designer dogs” - Labradoodles, Cockapoos and a host of other combinations often being sold under the “hybrid vigour” banner. There is nothing more likely to give a purebred dog breeder the vapours than to tell them how much some of these pups fetch. How very dare someone just chuck a Pug in with a Beagle and cop £800 or more for the resulting mongrel “Puggle”.
Yep, you’re allowed to charge money for a pedigree dog. But, the moment you take money for a deliberately-bred mutt you are by default morally and ethically bankrupt, however good a breeder you are; however healthy and personable the dogs themselves turn out to be.
.Jody Thompson, whose family owned a purebred Golden Retriever, joined in on the designer dog bashing in the Huff Post this week. She turned a snooty nose up at the “Dorkie” (Dachshund x Yorkie) she met on the train and advised everyone that if they could not be persuaded to take on a rescue dog they should go to a nice Kennel Club breeder. The message was clear - purebred is good; these half-caste crossbreeds and mongrels are inferior, not worthy - "...why even bother with a 'sort-of' dog," she wrote.
I hope Thompson is aware of what she’s buying into here. The reason purebred dog breeders hate designer dogs so much is because it undermines what they do... the belief, very deeply entrenched, that purebred dogs are inherently superior to mutts; that show-ring success and a pedigree as long as your arm somehow mitigate for trapping the poor creatures in tiny gene pools polluted by ever-spiralling rates of dysfunction and disease.
And if all this talk of purity and innate superiority is beginning to make you feel rather uncomfortable, you have a reason to be. It is well documented by canine historians that Kennel Club breeding as we know it developed alongside the eugenics movement.
Purebred dog breeders also love to tell you how combining two breeds will result “in the worst of both”. This makes little sense scientifically. Of course you can get some strange-looking results from crossbreeding, but on the whole Nature is a great moderator. A “dorkie”, or any other designer crossbreed, is likely to be a half-way house between its two parent breeds.
A “dorkie” won’t have as long a back as a Dachshund (something which contributes to a 25 per cent incidence of back disease in Dachshunds) and it will be longer-muzzled and have a bigger mouth than a Yorkshire Terrier, reducing the risk of the often severe peridontal problems that blight Yorkies.
A first generation cross of these two breeds is likely to suffer from fewer single-gene disorders, too. Both breeds can suffer from eye problems - but they’re different ones caused by different recessive mutations. For the pups to be affected, both parents have to pass down the same mutation; much less likely if they are different breeds.
In common with all crossbreed dogs, Dorkies are also statistically likely to live longer - a year or more extra on average (Longevity and mortality of owned dogs in England - O’Neill et al, Veterinary Journal, December 2013). This is good evidence of the hybrid vigour enjoyed by crossbreeds and many studies confirm it.
Ironically, purebred dog breeders deny the science while enjoying the benefits of it on their plates. Your morning toast? Very likely to be bread made with hybrid wheat. Your steak for supper? It may say Aberdeen Angus on the packet, but it only has to be 60 per cent purebred to be allowed to use the moniker. Same goes for eggs, chickens, corn-on-the cob and lots of other types of food.
The reason farmers use crosses is because the wheat grows stronger, the maize grows sweeter, the poultry thrives better and the cattle grow bigger. Indeed, the hybrid vigour so dismissed by dog breeders is one of the things keeping our farming industry afloat (if barely). That’s not to say that farmers don’t maintain purebred lines too – they do. But it’s often a more expensive business because the yield is less; fertility often diminished.
Insurance company data also confirms the crossbreed health benefit. Most charge lower premiums for crosses and mixed breeds. This isn’t because they’re “anti-pedigree” – an accusation often levied at anyone who dares sing the health-merits of the average mutt. Nope, it’s the financial bottom-line that cuts the ice with the actuaries. They’ve calculated the risks by looking at their data (ie claim history) and priced their premiums accordingly.
And yet despite all this, Jody Thompson berates designer dogs because they are “fashionable”, apparently unaware that the most currently-fashionable dogs are purebred Pugs, Bulldogs and French Bulldogs - dogs with faces so flat and nostrils often so pinched that many spend their whole lives in a state of oxygen deprivation.
Worse, Thompson urges would-be buyers to eschew designer dogs (“just mongrels” as she calls them) and go to a Kennel Club breeder of purebred dogs for their puppy.
But the issue here is not whether a dog is purebred or crossbreed. This is a question of responsible breeding independent of a dog’s genetic provenance.
Are there shocking breeders of “designer” dogs? Yes.
Do they make exaggerated claims about their health, happiness or hypoallergenic properties of their dogs? Absolutely.
But the same applies in purebred dog breeding too. Worse, the latter is given a veneer of respectability by an organisation that presents itself as a welfare organisation when it is actually nothing of the sort. The Kennel Club is a trade association; the equivalent of the Tobacco Manufacturers Association; there to defend the breeders’ not the dogs’ best interests.
Certainly, a Kennel Club pedigree certificate is no guarantee of anything - over 80 per cent of licensed volume breeders (puppy farms) in Wales register at least some of their dogs with the Kennel Club and there are no health-test requirements for the majority of breeders. Even the KC’s Assured Breeder Scheme, although better than it was, has holes in it. There are breeders within it still indulging in the kind of inbreeding that would make your hair frizz and few mandatory health tests; none at all for some of the most blighted breeds.
Dogs are amazing creatures. I have nine sitting here with me as I write this - a mix of purebred and crossbreeds; loved and treasured equally; none better nor worse than the other. The difference? I know the Flatcoated Retriever at my side has a 50 per cent chance of being dead from cancer by the age of nine (and many of them die long before that). The mutts? They might live to 15 or they could be dead at four. Their muttness does not make them immune to illness. But at least I don’t have to experience the cold curl of dread that I feel every time I look into a Flatcoat's eyes.
Despite popular perception, I am a huge fan in principal of the selective breeding that has produced the extraordinary variety of size, colour and ability we see in our dog breeds. Watch a Saluki run, a collie gather sheep, a spaniel bust a drug-smuggler or a Golden Retriever guide the blind and it is surely hard for anyone’s heart to not sing.
It’s just that we have to breed ‘em smarter - and that means learning from, not trashing, mutts. In particular, we need to drop the “purity at all costs” meme and recognise prejudice towards mutts for what is is: a distasteful legacy from the early 20th century that has no place in a science-savvy, welfare-conscious society.