By Andrew Clayman
When Disney released its live-action film version of the classic cartoon Underdog this past summer, pet stores and dog shelters were already hunkering down for the inevitable mad rush on Beagle pups. It’s a similar phenomenon to that which accompanied Old Yeller or 101 Dalmatians, but in today’s overwhelming media landscape, fickle consumers are motivated by fads like never before—even when it comes to choosing and caring for a family pet.
“Whenever a dog gets introduced to the public, and it’s new and exciting to a certain degree, there’s going to be a number of people jumping on board simply because it’s a trend—not necessarily because the dog is what they want,” says Margaret Bonham, author of The Complete Idiot’s Guide to Designer Dogs.
These days, trends in the pet world have extended far beyond the influence of the latest popular film. In fact, it’s often the pets that celebrities are seen with off screen that wind up determining which pooch will become the “must-have” of the moment. This is particularly true if the pet in question is an expensive specialty crossbreed, or “designer dog,” such as Jessica Simpson’s Maltepoo (Maltese + Poodle) or Jake Gyllenhaal’s Puggle (Pug + Beagle). In the exploding business of designer-pet breeding, it comes down to a simple formula: the higher the profile, the greater the demand.
“Impressionable minds—and people who have too much time on their hands—want to emulate their Hollywood heroines or role models,” says Libby Williams, head of the New Jersey Consumers Against Pet Shop Abuse. “So, they will rush out to buy the latest trend, never taking into account that acquiring a companion animal is a serious, life-long, full-time commitment.”
For Williams, the designer or “toy” pet trade has become a serious problem, and one rather emblematic of modern society’s increasingly disposable values.
“Unique crossbred dogs and cats are the soup du jour,” she says. “The harm, in my opinion, is that the dogs are not allowed to be dogs, but are mere playthings—accessories to be cast aside when their novelty or popularity wears off.”
New York author and pet columnist Julia Szabo agrees with Williams, but doesn’t believe that celebrities, fashion, and pets make for an inherently bad combination.
“I’m a fan of fashion for the good it can do,” she says, noting that many stylish celebrities can help start positive trends by adopting shelter animals, or even homeless children. “But what’s happened in recent years is that the connection between fashion and pets has become seriously corrupted.”
According to Szabo, the trouble with trendy pets begins with greedy breeders and product manufacturers, who continue to cash in by promoting an imaginary “designer” line that conveniently changes regularly. This false marketing hurts pet lovers in the pocketbook, but the real victims, as usual, are the dogs and cats themselves.
“Every trend, no matter how hot, has a limited shelf life,” Szabo explains. “And so, last year’s pet model winds up traded in for this year’s, which is why we’re seeing so many Puggles and other designer-hybrid dogs turning up at shelters with greater frequency.”
Of course, along with the growing numbers of rejected designer breeds, there are countless more shelter animals that are ignored, merely because their mixed-breed status is labeled “mutt” instead of “designer.”
“That’s the real tragedy,” Szabo says. “Literally millions of new ‘trendy’ pets are being bred, and they’re taking the homes that would have gone to the millions of needy pets already in our country’s animal shelters.”
For Williams, the irony is that many shelter dogs and cats actually are “designer” breeds, in that they were born from the combination of two purebreds.
“I adopted an adorable Schnoodle (Schnauzer + Poodle) over 25 years ago from my local animal shelter,” she says. “She came with a $20 adoption fee and her low-cost spay fee was the same. Schnoodles today are no different than my Maggie was, but the price is now upwards of $500 or higher. It’s appalling to me what people will pay for a name or because someone in marketing says it’s a special breed.”
Both in her work as an author and Colorado dog trainer, Bonham has come to see designer breeding in both a historical and scientific context. She traces the high-price designer trend back to the Labradoodle (Labrador Retriever + Poodle), which was imported from Australia in the 1990s as a new breed of guide dog, but quickly morphed into something else entirely.
“A lot of the trendy stuff started because the prices were so high due to shipping, plus the fact that the Australian breeders were trying to make a new breed,” she says. “It really captured people’s imaginations. So, since then, a number of people, rightly or wrongly, have gotten into producing these crossbred dogs—some of them with the honest intent of producing a quality dog, some of them not.”
In the end, the best a consumer can do is ask questions and separate the facts of designer breeding from the myths. For example, it’s true that some breeders can give you a better assessment of an animal’s health than a shelter can (since the breeder has had the animal since birth), but the idea that crossbred animals display heterosis (or hybrid vigor), which is the best combined aspects of their heritage, has never been proven.
“If a breeder says, ‘Oh, they’re crossbred, so they’ve got hybrid vigor,’ run away at high speeds,” Bonham advises. “That is not how it works. You can get hybrid vigor with pea pods and stalks of corn. You don’t get it with dogs.”
Szabo has another bit of advice for any trendy folks thinking about purchasing a designer pet. “Go to your local animal shelter and adopt! If you want to make the ultimate fashion statement, save a life.”