According to Genesis 2: 19, God made “every beast of the field and every bird of the air…and whatever the man called each living creature, that was its name…” So, with this in mind, it is perhaps understandable that 2,000 years on the American Kennel Club is up in arms about 21st-century man (specifically, a 70-year-old from Wisconsin called Wallace Havens) taking creation into his own hands and putting together two very different kinds of God’s creatures from within the dog genus; namely a pug and beagle. Even the American Kennel Club would concede, however, that Havens was within his God-given rights to name the resulting progeny a “puggle”, which sounds sweet and appeals to Hollywood celebrities, thus ensuring he, the creator, makes large amounts
And so it was that a swarm of these poppy-eyed, flop-eared puppies with a cute breed name made its way across America and into the beautiful homes of Uma Thurman, Julianne Moore, James Gandolfini, Jake Gyllenhaal, Sylvester Stallone and many other rich and famous men and women. And so it also was that the puggle became the most fashionable dog on earth, even more fashionable than the labradoodle, and, as a consequence, the pure-bred dog-breeding
fraternity became very hot under their collective, purist collars.
Now, as inevitably happens with American crazes, puggles have arrived in Britain, following in the footsteps of their better-known fellow hybrids, labradoodles, a labrador-poodle cross first deliberately bred in the late 1980s and now owned by such famous people as Graham Norton and Richard Hammond. (It is worth noting at this point that dog types seem to be keen on puns and call these new dogs “hybreeds”.)
Unsurprisingly, all this is providing plenty to chew on for both the British Kennel Club, that strict, nanny-like guardian and watchdog, as well as the “pure-bred” breeders, who tend to be quite territorial over their respective gene pools.
Dr Jeff Sampson is the Kennel Club’s geneticist. When we meet at the club’s London headquarters in Clarges Street, one of the first things he points out to me is, “All dogs, even pure breeds, are bred for a purpose.” Michelle Kingsland, a beagle breeder from Portland in Dorset, who recites the same mantra, tellingly says, “especially pure breeds” rather than “even pure breeds”. Eddie Cumberland, a breeder of puggles as well as some good old working dogs such as labradors and spaniels, from Doncaster, phrases it thus, “What’s the problem? I mean, all dogs are bred to suit the needs of humans.” Shelley Hargreaves, a puggle lover from Poole in Dorset and the creator of the Pugglelove website, says much the same.
Kingsland employs the “bred for purpose” point to argue that beagles were bred to hunt (she takes hers drag hunting as well as showing them at Crufts), while pugs were bred as lap dogs. Never the twain shall meet appears to be her view. The puggle-breeding Cumberland argues that there is nothing wrong with putting a hound and a lap dog together for the purpose of creating a spirited but lap-ish-sized family pet, and Hargreaves agrees with him. She has yet to own a puggle but has given a happy home to a chirussell (a chihuahua crossed with a Jack Russell) called Ringo who possesses, she says, all the charm of a Jack Russell with none of the fragility of a chihuahua.
Back at the Kennel Club, Dr Sampson uses the “bred for purpose” argument to explain how it is that the poor old bloodhound, for instance, ended up as it is today, with its droopy red eyes and unwieldy jowls.
“In other words,” he says, “cross-breeding has been going on for hundreds of years, and not always with good results. We must remember that all dogs are descended from wolves.” Which, Dr Sampson is right, can be difficult to remember when faced with a be-ribboned Yorkshire terrier nestling in the handbag of a footballer’s wife. “Good point,” he replies, “but just look at the bulldog in that painting over there.”
We are sitting behind a huge mahogany table in the Kennel Club art gallery just off Piccadilly and he is pointing to a picture over my left shoulder. To my right is the monumentally large Crufts Best In Show trophy and, loath as I am to wrench my gaze away from it, I do turn to look at an oil painting depicting a particularly unprepossessing animal. “The bulldog is a pure breed, registered by us,” says Dr Sampson. “Yet its shape is far from ideal and even by the time that picture was painted, it by no means looked the way bulldogs were originally intended to look.”
I can see that there is a notable lack of animal magnetism; the bulldog’s hips are too slim for its torso, its front legs too bowed, its jaw undershot and its nose squashed up like a pug’s. In fact, the bulldog makes the fashionable new puggle look extremely well designed. Even the poor old bulldog/shitzu cross, created in recent years in America, looks happier in its own skin than this hapless dog, although if the American newcomer knew what its breed name was, it wouldn’t be nearly so pleased with itself. And this is where we return to the puns that the cross-breeders love so much. I’m afraid they veer towards the scatological, so, for the benefit of the squeamish, I will get this unpleasant tendency discussed and out of the way before moving swiftly on to some of the other problems associated with “hybreeds”.
It is plain to see by all that is decent and Barbara Woodhouseish, the bulldog/shitzu could have been called the “dogu”, or the “bullzu”, perhaps. But, no, they had to call it the “bull-shitz”. It would also seem that anything involving a poodle in the parentage mix must nearly always end in “poo”. A cross between a Maltese terrier and a poodle, for instance, will not be called the obvious, cuddly “moodle”. It will be called a “maltepoo”. The grotesquely named “cockapoo”, a cross between a cocker spaniel and a poodle, could so easily have been called a “pooker” or a “spoodle”, but it wasn’t. And pity the child who boasts at school about his new, dear little poodle/shitzu puppy.
Meanwhile the bullshitz fetches prices in excess of $500, while the puggles, having made their way across the Atlantic to Doncaster, are being sold by Cumberland for £1,500. In some cases, demand is pushing the prices up even further than this, which is where the real trouble starts as the less scrupulous puppy-farm breeders scramble on the bandwagon.
Big money can attract bad practice, and this is what concerns the pure-breeders most, although Dr Sampson says he believes some of the more vociferous objectors have simply had their noses put out of joint because they now can’t charge nearly so much for their pedigree puppies. Michelle Kingsland, however, worries about the psychological health of the designer dogs.
“After all,” she says as we peer and coo at a 20-strong heap of writhing, nuzzling beagle puppies (£800 a piece), “you have a beagle, which was bred for hunting and he has a long neck so that he can reach the ground easily and wide nostrils so that he can sniff. The purpose of his large ears is to surround the scent, and the dog is able to go all day, all weathers, all terrains. So you take that dog and you put it with a breed that was bred specifically as a lap dog and what happens? It’s a disaster. Pugs can suffer from heat stroke, they have a heat intolerance, a very short neck, short nose. You don’t get a happy medium, you get an unhappy dog.”
Dr Sampson, though, begs to differ. He says it it doesn’t work like that. “The genetics of the behaviour in any dog breed are likely to be seriously complex. You are not looking at a single gene that determines ‘pugness’. It is hard to put yourself in the mind of a dog, but I don’t think a pug worries about having a squashed nose.” Dr Sampson does not like to anthropomorphise.
So, while the breeders of pedigree papillons that are mated with poodles, for example, might justifiably be appalled at the notion of calling the progeny of such a union a “papipoo”, they would be mistaken in worrying about the dog’s mental health. Doggie wellbeing concerns do, however, as Dr Sampson puts it, “bring us back to the money. The large sums being fetched are attracting people who may not understand much about dog-breeding and then
the health of the dog certainly is affected,”
“If you are a responsible labradoodle breeder, for example, there are a set of health screens that you should undertake before you mate two dogs together. Labradors can inherit hip dysplasia and eye problems. Then there are the less scrupulous breeders who buy a couple of bitches and breed litters in successive seasons.”
The way that the Kennel Club is attempting to address this problem is by appealing to the puppy-buying public never to buy from a puppy farm. “Always visit the establishment where the dogs have been bred,” says Dr Sampson. “Ask to see at least the mum of the litter . . . Don’t buy a puppy from a pet shop, don’t buy a puppy from a third party.” In other words, if it’s a mobile-phone job – a “meet me at a motorway service station” arrangement – don’t go near it.
The Kennel Club, to the horror of many pure-bred breeders, is also considering registering some of the new hybrids in the interests of keeping track of their puppy-farm breeders. “We are already criticised for registering the pure-bred progeny from puppy farms, but we do it because this means that we actually know where the breeders live, and can communicate with them, contact them and work with them in the same way that we work with bulldog breeders to see if we can improve the breed,” says Dr Sampson. “If we don’t register them, it won’t stop them being bred and we will lose total control. The way forward is not through legislation but education. Tomorrow, for instance, I will go to a mastiff meeting to discuss their weak hindquarters.”
Eddie Cumberland, however, questions the motives for wanting to register some of the hybrid dogs, and says, “It’s important to remember that for every unregistered dog, the Kennel Club is missing out on £12 per pup. Mind you, if it did register the puggle or the labradoodle, I would, as a matter of course register mine. But in the back of my mind I would wonder if the KC was doing it for the revenue.”
Shelley Hargreaves says she created the Pugglelove website because she “encountered such hatred towards the breed when I made an innocent inquiry on the internet about where I might get one, and it seemed so unfair. I had really checked the dog’s characteristics and thought about whether it was the right dog for me.
The Animal Health Trust [a veterinary charity] says that genetic diversity is a good thing and often leads to healthier dogs. So I started the website to put the record straight.”
It wasn’t long, however, before the pure breeders were reacting negatively to pugglelove. Even the beagle breeder Michelle Kingsland, an extremely charming and easy-going person when I met her, e-mailed Hargreaves a photograph of a puggle with unnaturally bowed legs in an attempt to deter her. Hargreaves responded by posting the photograph on the website and appealing to anyone who might like to give the poor dog a home. Hapless rejects of this sort do end up in rescue centres and are frequently being cited by the designer breed opposition.
Hargreaves urges prospective puggle owners to consider a visit to a rescue centre first. “I am very aware of the high price problem,” she says, “and the unscrupulous breeders. But it’s a fashion thing and that is what happens. Puggles make very good pets and, of course, all dogs are bred for a purpose.” Quite.
Back in Wisconsin in the US, Wallace Havens breeds 3,000 puppies a year and, while there is no suggestion that his dogs are not beautifully reared, his business is to make large amounts of money. He is currently championing the next craze dog – the mini-Saint Bernard. It looks like a Saint Bernard but is only the size of a shitzu.
Any concerned Saint Bernard breeders, however, can relax; Havens may be keeping the recipe for this new designer dog a secret, but he has revealed that no actual Saint Bernards have been involved. This will also, I imagine, despite Dr Sampson’s insistence on not anthropomorphising, come as a tremendous relief to any worried little shitzu breeding bitches out there.
Get alerts on Life & Arts when a new story is published