The Problem of the Force-Free OTCH

One of the evergreen topics in competition obedience discussion (at least for now — I remain hopeful that in another ten to fifteen years we’ll finally have killed this one off) is whether it is possible to achieve an AKC Obedience Trial Championship (OTCh) via force-free training.

The simple answer is “yes.” It has been done. It will be done again — in the very near future, probably, since I know of at least two prominent R+ trainers who are closing in on theirs.

The complicated answer is “yes, but.”

The truth is, nobody who asks this question — which is, in fact, not usually phrased as a question but as an assertion that “you can’t get an OTCh without using forcible compulsion” — really cares whether someone else has done it. If they actually cared, they would already know the answer. We live in the age of Google. The answer is not hard to find.

But the people who ask this question don’t want that answer. What they want is to confirm their own belief that it is necessary to use force in pursuit of those titles, or at least that it is necessary for their own personal circumstances. Instead of saying “this is what I choose to do,” many of them will say “this is what I have to do.” They don’t want it to be a choice. A choice implies moral agency. Not a lot of people have the honesty to admit that they chose to use pain compliance when another option was available.

That’s why you’ll see so much goalpost shifting: “okay, fine, so that one trainer did it, but she was only able to do it because she had herding dogs.” Or: “okay, she did it, but it took her a really long time.” Or: “okay, so she got an OTCh, but she didn’t win the National Obedience Championship.” The line has to be moved to wherever it might make force “necessary” again.

This problem is not limited to competition obedience, by the way. You’ll see the same pseudo-innocent question being asked about IPO titles and regional/national/international competitions. You’ll see it asked about field trials. In any area of seriously competitive dog sports where R+ training is not already the prevailing norm among top trainers (i.e., in any sport other than agility and canine musical freestyle), some version of this discussion will pop up.

And arguing with people who ask that question is a waste of time. It is a huge waste of time.

The reason it’s a huge waste of time is that naysayers do not actually want to be persuaded that it’s possible. As a result, they’re right. If you don’t want to do it — and you don’t want to do it badly enough to first develop the necessary skills and then put in the long, long hours of work on top of that, then hey, guess what? It’s not possible. Not for you. Correspondingly, saying that it’s possible for Person A does not mean that it’s possible for Person B. You can never prove that it’s possible for Person B until that person actually does it.

(Corollary: do not claim that you could do it unless you have done it. Just don’t. This is, thankfully, a rare occurrence, but it makes me gnash my teeth on the infrequent occasions that I see someone saying that it would be “easy” to achieve that level of training with R+ methods. Saying that just shows a profound ignorance of how difficult it actually is to achieve an OTCh. Getting that title is not easy. Not with any method. Claim otherwise and you will be dismissed as delusional, and rightly so.)

Crooky doing his best impression of an armchair OTCh. Reality behind the keyboard: he barely got an RL1 and his scores sucked.

Now, having noted that it is possible to get an OTCh with force-free training, the obvious follow-up question is “well then, why haven’t more people done it?”

That’s a fair question. It is also one that’s impossible to answer, because each person has their own reasons and unless you actually survey each and every one of them individually (and they all answer you honestly!), we’ll never know what they’d say.

But here’s my guess.

1. The structure of the championship favors longtime competitors.

To earn an OTCh, you must beat all the other teams in your field and finish in first place at least once in Utility B, once in Open B, and then a third time in either of those classes. On top of that, you must also earn 100 points by beating other dogs on a schedule that varies depending on the number of other dogs you’re competing against.

Your absolute score doesn’t matter. The only thing that matters for the OTCh is whether you beat the other teams in the class.

In my opinion this is a pretty sociopathic way to structure a championship in a dog sport, but the AKC didn’t ask me for any input, so that’s how it is. You beat other dogs and handlers, and you beat them a lot, or you go home empty-handed.

One of the effects of this championship structure is that somebody who’s been doing competition obedience for 30 years has a pretty sizable advantage over somebody who’s been doing it for 3 years. More experienced competitors tend to have more refined training skills, more ring experience, and often more carefully selected dogs. This translates to a considerable advantage in head-to-head competition, which is what the OTCh is all about.

Most R+ competitors I know of, and I definitely include myself in this number, are fairly new to the sport (or, at the very least, are new to doing it this way). Their training mechanics often aren’t that sophisticated, in large part because they haven’t been doing it long enough to develop their skills to that level. Most people who have been doing it for 30 years, meanwhile, have been doing so with some degree of force. They have had a long, long time to practice, hone, and perfect their skills. In a purely mechanical sense, setting aside all value judgments, they’re better trainers. Consequently — and unsurprisingly — they beat the pants off the newbies.

It doesn’t mean their methods are better. It means they’re better at using those methods.

If you look at a compulsion trainer and an R+ trainer who have the same amount of experience and the same skill level and the same dogs, my personal experience has been that the R+ trained dogs are not at all handicapped in their performances. In fact, what I have personally seen is that the R+ dogs tend to be better. But there are not that many trainers out there with 30 years of experience doing it this way, and that makes a big difference at the OTCh level.

2. It is often difficult to find extremely skilled R+ trainers in a sport where that is not the norm.

If I want to train with an OTCh-level handler who uses compulsion-based methods, I’ve got my pick of two or three within decent driving distance of my home. If I lower the bar to UD/UDX handlers, I’ve got even more.

If I want to train with an OTCh-level handler who trains force-free, I have to train online, because the one and only R+ OTCh handler who used to teach classes in my area retired and moved to another state last year. There are other R+ obedience instructors in my area, to be sure, but they’re not OTCh handlers. Only maybe one or two are at UD/UDX level, and those are about two hours away — too far to drive for regular instruction.

And this is in an area with a strong, solidly entrenched culture of R+ training for other sports (for example: if I want to train with world-class handlers in agility, I’ve got no end of awesome choices within 90 minutes of home). I can only imagine how much worse it is for people who live in regions where there isn’t such a vibrant R+ dog sport culture.

If you want to compete seriously in a sport, you have to learn from the best. R+ handlers who want to compete at the top levels in obedience and don’t have a force-free OTCh instructor nearby have a couple of choices: (1) learn from the most motivational and least forceful of the mixed-method trainers in their area, then try to invent their own solutions to problems that their teachers would normally solve with force; (2) learn on their own (or online) and, to some degree, make stuff up as they go; or (3) switch over to mixed methods.

Options #1 and #2 impose some real, practical disadvantages. The Fenzi Dog Sport Academy is starting to fill in the gaps and make #2 much more feasible (and it’s beginning to build an impressive record of student successes to prove it), but there are still some things that are best learned (or discovered) via in-person classes. Thus, people who stick to their guns regarding training methods will likely be at a disadvantage not because their methods are inherently flawed, but because they don’t have mentors who can help them through the inevitable bobbles and weak spots that will pop up during a dog’s sport career. They’re slowed down by having to constantly problem-solve along the way (with the trial and error that unavoidably entails), instead of just taking someone else’s established solutions and implementing them.

Option #3, therefore, may seem like the only viable choice for a Seriously Serious competitor who would like to be force-free, in a perfect world, but doesn’t know how to make that happen and isn’t willing to risk failing in public as they learn to invent their own solutions.

The net effect here is that some of the Seriously Serious competitors, believing that force is necessary to win as a practical matter even if they don’t like it and accept that it’s not theoretically necessary, switch to alternative camps. This leaves a disproportionate number of less serious competitors in the R+ bucket. These people, who may be perfectly happy to continue playing for fun and who never wanted to chase after OTChs in the first place, may then be perceived as the best possible outcomes with R+ methods, simply because they’re the only ones left trying to do it.

3. Some R+ handlers get driven out of the sport by a hostile environment.

I think this is changing in obedience — either because the sport culture is finally starting to shift or because obedience entries have dropped to the point where nobody wants to chase away interested newbies anymore — but it’s definitely very much still true in bitesports (and possibly in field training, although I don’t do gun dog stuff so I am 100% speculating on that front) that there is a lot of entrenched hostility toward “cookie trainers” in some quarters. And that is still at least a little bit of a Thing in competition obedience, too. I’ve gotten the snarky comments on the sidelines at trials myself (and I wasn’t even competing!).

Some of this is a self-created problem: waltzing in and blithely making idiot mistakes while lecturing everybody else about how they abuse their dogs is not going to win a whole lot of friends in any endeavor. Don’t add to the problem, I implore you, dear reader. If you go into a new sport where you don’t actually know anything and don’t have any accomplishments (or, really, even where you do), please please please do not pull that crap.

But even if you are polite and respectful and humble, there’s going to be some hostility. Some people are threatened by the idea that it’s possible to succeed without inflicting pain on their partners. Some people legitimately don’t believe that you’ll get anywhere and don’t care to have you waste their time while you figure this out. Not everyone is gentle in expressing those opinions.

And sometimes that makes R+ handlers give up on the sports that are most hostile to them, because pretty much all of us are doing this for fun as a hobby, and it is not actually a whole lot of fun to have people constantly being dicks in your face about not putting a prong collar on your dog. Dog sports are hard. There’s plenty of disaster and demoralization to go around without your fellow club members adding to your woes. Everybody needs encouragement and support sometimes, and the people who don’t get it are likely to drop out. In some sports, those people are primarily the “cookie trainers.”

So they leave, and the perception becomes “lol those guys can’t hack it,” and the myth lives on another day. The more you have to be a pioneer for unpopular and under-explored techniques in a given environment, the fewer people are going to have the fortitude to stick it out.

4. It’s a numbers game.

How many people who start out in competitive obedience go on to get an OTCh?

I have no idea what the actual number is, but let’s say the answer is 1 in 100. Let’s pretend that one person out of every hundred people who takes a basic competition obedience class will go on to compete, and will keep doing it long and successfully enough to get an OTCh.

The other 99 people drop out because they lose interest or life gets in the way or their dog doesn’t have the capacity or they don’t have the capacity. Or maybe their first-ever Novice A run is a disaster and they get all humiliated and demoralized and nobody bothers reaching out to pull them back into the game, so they quit on the spot and never go back. Whatever. Something happens and they don’t make it to the top.

Now, how many of those people train force-free? Let’s say that the number is 15% (again, I’m totally making this up out of thin air, but we’ll just pretend that’s the number and run with it). So 15 out of those 100 people are R+ handlers, and the other 85 are not.

What are the odds that the one person in a hundred who gets an OTCh is also going to be one of the 15 people who trains without force? Not great! Especially not great in light of all the other disadvantages we’ve talked about!

If the numbers were swapped, and it was 85% force-free and 15% not, then R+ OTChs would soon become so commonplace that they wouldn’t be remarkable anymore — which is more or less where agility already is. (When was the last time you heard anyone ask whether it was possible to get a MACH without a prong?)

But instead, in this sport, the non-compulsion handlers are the minority, and they’re also a minority made up disproportionately of newbies with dogs who weren’t specifically bred or chosen for success in this venue (crazy pound mutt holla!), and so, not surprisingly, there are not a whole lot of them getting OTChs or winning NOC. There are not a whole lot of people doing those things period.

If there are only 15 people trying to do X without compulsion, and it would be no surprise if a randomly selected group of 15 people with identical skill levels, experience, resources, and dogs would not be able to do X with compulsion, then that is not exactly a fair benchmark. The fact that none of the 15 R+ people succeeded might not tell you anything other than that it’s unlikely that any group of 15 similarly situated people would do it.


I could go on — I do think there are some other things that factor in here — but if you ask me, those four points cover most of the big reasons that you don’t see more force-free OTChs. As the requisite knowledge spreads, access to excellent instruction improves, the sport culture changes, and the numbers shift, I expect that R+ OTChs will start to seem less noteworthy. They’ll still be awesome, because any OTCh is awesome, but it’ll become unremarkable in the same way that an R+ MACH is unremarkable. It’s a great achievement for dog and trainer, but it’s not like throwing the first bomb in the revolution.

So what are you to do, if you are an advocate of force-free dog training and firmly believe that it’s possible to achieve the highest levels of obedience without compulsion?

Simple. Not easy, but simple. Prove it.

That’s it. That is the whole thing. Do the work. Develop the skills. Campaign your dog. Show people that it can be done, because talking about it convinces no one.

Even if you don’t make it to an OTCh — as Pongu and I will never make it, because after some 18 months of training in competition obedience I’ve finally been forced to admit that my fearful dog’s mental problems prevent us from ever approaching that level — it is worth making the attempt.

Pongu will never have an OTCh. He will probably never have a CD in AKC obedience, for that matter. He’s a scaredy dog. Obedience, or at least obedience with the scores I’d like to see, is just plain too hard for him. Admitting this caused me a fair amount of heartburn, because I wanted so badly to go out there and prove that we could do it, and it was a bitter pill to swallow that we couldn’t.

But I don’t regret the training, because I did learn the skills and I did show my dog to top levels of competition (albeit in Rally, not obedience), and I did at least get to demonstrate that this approach works to push a pathologically fearful dog far beyond what any other method could have done. A lot of dogs like Pongu never even get to live semi-normal pet lives. Pongu went far beyond that. So we did get a success story. Not exactly the one I was aiming for, but a success story nonetheless.

And I learned enough to convince myself that yes, this can be done. I might not have convinced anyone else. Yet. But I’ll keep on learning, and I’ll keep on practicing, and someday, it’ll happen.

Because that is what we have to do, all of us, if we want to change the world.

Go Forth and Encourage

Just for a minute, I want you to think about who inspires you. It can be one person, it can be multiple people, it can be a group of people. Who inspires you to get up every day? Who inspires you to do better, to be better?

More importantly, who are YOU encouraging – who are YOU inspiring?


The dog world is complicated, even if your dog is “just a pet.” What do you feed them when there are so many options on the shelves, so many colorful bags promising that each one is better than the last? Which vet do you go to when each person has the best one in the entire area? Which trainer? Which collar? It can be dizzying.

This is why controversial trainers like Caesar Millan are so popular with the general public: they relate to the owner first instead of berating them how horrible they are for using prong collars, or how stupid they are for feeding Science Diet. They are charming, they validate the owner, their problems, and their feelings. You can be the best dog trainer on the planet, but if you’re rude to the people you’ll lose the dogs.

Now, imagine how you felt as a new competitor, before you knew everything – the world of specialized dog training and competing is even more dizzying. It’s downright cut-throat. People are cruel to their competition, often treating new people who have questions as if they are worse than stupid, they are in they way. They are a waste of time. It’s a wonder that anyone gets involved at all, much less stays involved.

I am still wholly new to the competition world. I started approximately six years ago with a backyard bred pit bull, and he and I were going to conquer the world. It was tough figuring out the world of dog competition, and I thought I had what was a good group of people – until I became a real competitor. It wasn’t until I felt like I hit rock bottom (or rather, I felt like I was the rock on the bottom of someone’s shoe) and was ready to leave that I met people worth knowing.

In many of my social networking groups, I see discussions about clubs seeing less and less entries at shows, and I also see how some of these “newbies” are treated on the same discussion board. They are greeted with rude comments, they are mocked, and they are made to feel horrible for simply asking a question. Then I see how they are treated at shows – and it’s just about the same way.

Why are seasoned exhibitors treating new exhibitors like idiots? Why are we not stepping up to help them, to inspire them? Experienced exhibitors need to be ringside and be there to jump in and help a new exhibitor who is clearly struggling. We need to be there to be cheerleaders, to be a guide, to be encouragers. Even more so, experienced dog people need to be there to encourage the common “pet person,” even if they do not want to compete. We need to empower them to do better, instead of belittling them for getting a well-bred purebred instead of a rescue dog.

My group of people are not only my direct competitors, meaning that we are both in the ring chasing after that blue ribbon, but they are my greatest friends and my biggest cheerleaders. We give each other high fives for high obedience scores, and we cheer for each other when the other’s dog win best of breed. We celebrate the big wins, and we encourage the small victories.

These are the kind of dog people the dog world needs. We need to empower, we need to encourage, we need to befriend.

So, as you reflect on the people who encourage and inspire you, ask yourself, who is it that you encourage and inspire?


Listen up, guys: there is no such thing as a hypoallergenic dog breed.

The other day, I was listening through some back episodes of the Judge John Hodgman podcast (which, PS, is awesome and beloved by almost everyone I know, including my 85-year old grandmother: go check it out!) There have been a couple of dog-themed episodes of the show, and the one that popped up on my iPod, A Danderous Precedent (ep. 111) was one of them.  The case in the episode involved a nice couple who were interested in getting a dog, though the husband in the couple had what sounded like legitimately horrible and debilitating allergies to furry animals, and had also had a bad reaction to the allergy shots he’d tried (which ended up in multiple hospitalizations for anaphylaxis.) But they had solved the problem, the cheerful young couple proclaimed! They were just going to get a Goldendoodle, which was a breed that, according to some stuff they’d read on the internet, was totally hypoallergenic! Also, Husband Of Couple had grown up with a cocker-poodle cross and hadn’t had any allergy issues, so Cheerful Young Couple had decided that, QED, Husband would be OK with any poodle cross.  The verdict, incidentally, was semi-reasonable, though not perfect: John Hodgman declared that before they got the dog, they needed to spend a bunch of time with a lot of Goldendoodles to make sure Husband actually could tolerate them, and that they should make sure they had a Plan B in place in case it turned out Husband couldn’t handle the dog they brought home. However, even though everyone was nice and reasonable and thoughtful, this episode made me want to throw my iPod across the room. This is not the first time I’ve heard “I’m allergic, so I have to buy a [fill in the blank/probably a doodle]” argument–I’m sure it’s not the first time you’ve heard it, either–and I always find it maddening. Because here’s the thing:

There is no such thing as a hypoallergenic breed of dog.

If you happen to be interested in dog-science stuff, this should not be news to you: the intersection of dog allergies and breed/size/hair type has been studied for years, and overwhelmingly, the science indicates that breed and allergic potential have basically nothing to do with each other. The academic in me requires that I now link to some of those studies, though in many cases, you’ll need a PubMed or Lexus subscription to read the whole thing. However, if you’re interested, here’s a few, and you can at least read the abstracts in all cases:

  • Lindgren, et. al: “Breed-specific dog-dandruff allergens”. Journal of Allergy and Clinical Immunology, Volume 82, Issue 2, Pages 196–204, August 1988. Conclusion: “There was no significant correlation between [allergy-inducing] skin prick test results and symptoms related to a specific dog breed.”
  • Heutelbeck, et. al: “Environmental Exposure to Allergens of Different Dog Breeds and Relevance in Allergological Diagnostics”. Journal of Toxicology and Environmental Health, Part A: Current Issues, Volume 71, Issue 11-12, 2008. Conclusion: “Factors related to individual dogs seem to influence the allergenicity more than breed or gender.”
  • Johnson, et. al: “Dog allergen levels in homes with hypoallergenic compared with nonhypoallergenic dogs”. American Journal of Rhinology and Allergy. 2011 Jul-Aug; 25(4): 252–256. Conclusion: “No classification scheme showed that the level of dog allergen in homes with hypoallergenic dogs differed from other homes.”

Many reputable organizations and news outlets have been reporting on these findings and trying to debunk the ‘hypoallergenic dog’ idea: if you don’t believe me and don’t want to read a bunch of studies, here’s The New York Times, here’s our old pals at WebMD, and here’s the Mayo Clinic (though, Mayo Clinic, “just keep your dog outside!” is not actually a good solution to dealing with allergies).  Unfortunately, a lot of times, popular or casual journalists–your Dog Daily, your AKC blogs, your Dog Channel, your random piece on Yahoo! that your aunt forwards you–will start an article out by saying, “Some scientists say that there’s no such thing as a hypoallergenic dog” and then immediately pivot to “but here’s a list of breeds that may be a good call for allergy sufferers!”. This is obnoxious and confuses the issue, because, repeat after me: there is no such thing as a hypoallergenic breed of dog. There are no breeds that are ‘better’ for allergy sufferers, period, and to say otherwise is at best, misinformed and at worst, disingenuous. To understand why this is, we have to start by looking at the science behind what dog allergies actually are.

So What Does It Mean To Be Allergic to Dogs?

The biggest misconception about dog allergies is that allergy sufferers are allergic to the dog’s hair; this is why some dogs (like poodles) whose coats are similar in texture to human hair and who primarily shed into their undercoat, are mistakenly labeled ‘hypoallergenic’.  Another misconception is that the source of allergens is dandruff, dead skin cells that flake off the dog and float around in the environment.  There is a little truth in both of these things, but neither is 100% right: the biggest allergy offender is actually a sebaceous protein called Canis familiaris 1 (usually shortened to Can f 1). This stuff is present in the dog’s body and leaches out through the skin. Our bodies work similarly: if you’ve ever complained about your face being oily or you’ve gotten one of those extra-gross gooey zits, you’ve had first-hand experience with sebaceous proteins coming out of the skin in unpleasant ways.  Once the Can f 1protein is on the skin, it can stick to hair, which can then come in contact with human skin when the dog sheds or when you touch him (hence, the association with shedding); it can also stick to dried-up skin cells that fall off the body (hence, the association with dander). Can f 1 also shows up in urine and saliva; given that all dogs are a tiny bit gross, these things also have a way of coming in contact with human skin pretty regularly.

What’s the upshot of all this? Basically, it’s that Can f 1 is pretty much impossible to avoid, unless you have a dog that has no skin and does not produce urine or saliva (in which case, take a closer look: that’s either a photograph of a dog or one of those ‘invisible dog on a leash’ things you get at the fair).

They’re Invisidoodles!

Thus: you’re not safe from allergens if you get a hair-not-fur dog, you’re not safe from allergens if you get a dog who doesn’t shed much, you’re not safe from allergens if you get a supposedly ‘low-dander’ dog, you’re not safe from allergens if you get a hairless dog, and you are DEFINITELY not safe from allergens if you buy a doodle puppy off the internet. At the end of the day, Can f 1 is everywhere, it wants to get on you, and unless you live in a hyperbaric chamber, if you get a dog….it probably will.

Poodles & Doodles & The Whole Kit ‘n Kaboodle

One of the things you might have noticed if you’ve been paying attention at all to the ‘hypoallergenic dog’ debates is that people seem to have a touching faith in the power of poodle genetics to instantly prevent allergic reactions. This was definitely the case with the couple in the Judge John Hodgman episode I was listening to: they were absolutely certain that, as long as there was a touch of poodle in the mix, any mixed-breed dog would have no problem living with a man who went into anaphylactic shock after getting microns of dog sebum in an allergy shot.  Common wisdom makes it sound like poodles are whatever the opposite of Kryptonite is: one dash of poodle and you’ll be protected from allergies for the rest of your life! That is hyperbolic, of course, but if you spend much time online looking at claims from doodle breeders, it starts to drift into sounding like fact.

So, let’s look at the science. Are poodles, in fact, magic? Are they even ‘hypoallergenic’ in the sense that people generally mean? There have actually been several studies on this: one of the most compelling to me has this whopper of a title: “Characterization of extract of dog hair and dandruff from six different dog breeds by quantitative immunoelectrophoresis identification of allergens by crossed radioimmunoelectrophoresis.” [Blands, et. al: Allergy, Volume 32, Issue 3, pages 147–169, June 1977].  This is an older study, but its results were pretty impressive and it spawned a bunch of other studies that basically replicated its findings. Short version: the study got large sample sizes of several different dog breeds, including poodles, and tested each individual dog for levels of Can f 1.  What it found is that levels of Can f 1 were WILDLY different among individual dogs, even within the same breed; they also found a broad spectrum of the allergen even among dogs who were related, which suggests that levels of Can f 1 are probably not genetic (thus, if you’re an allergy sufferer and neither of the two parent dogs trigger your allergies, their puppies might still make you sneeze.) Interestingly, this study also found that, among all the dogs tested, poodles had the greatest discrepancy in Can f 1 levels: that meant that a few poodles had some of the lowest levels of the allergen in the study, and a few poodles had among the highest levels.  So much for magical non-allergenic poodle coats!

If you’d like to see some more recent findings on the subject, the second study I linked above did a similar breed-specific test using fancier and more up-to-date technology: they got basically the same results.  Now, poodles are less sheddy than some other dogs, in the sense that they shed primarily into their undercoat.  However, unless you want a VERY matted poodle, you have to brush that coat out pretty regularly, which means that you are going to come into contact with all of that shed hair and those dead skin cells eventually: Danielle will tell you allllllll about that. And again, in terms of allergen production, poodles are all over the place.

So, if poodles do not actually have magic non-allergenic properties, why is it that doodles are hypoallergenic? The short answer? They are not. Yes, Labradoodles were initially bred in Australia with the intent of creating a guide dog who enjoyed the work and was hypoallergenic.  Guess what? It didn’t work.  Earlier this year, the behaviorist Stanley Coren interviewed Wally Conron, the person who initially crossed Labs and poodles for the guide dog experiment, for Psychology Today.  This article is pretty fascinating, so I’m going to quote it extensively:

Conron immediately discovered that since the Labradoodle is a hybrid and not a pure breed, the resulting puppies did not have consistently predictable characteristics… Even in the nature of their coat — the reason why the Poodle was originally part of the mix— there is lots of variability. Labradoodles’ coats can vary from wiry to soft, and they may be curly, wavy, or straight. Straight-coated Labradoodles are said to have “hair” coats, wavy-coated dogs have “fleece” coats, and curly-coated dogs have “wool” coats. Many Labradoodles do shed, although the coat usually sheds less and has less dog odor than that of a Labrador Retriever. In the Labradoodle there is also no certainty that the dog will be hypoallergenic. Conrad explains that the raison d’être for having these crosses in the first place was to prevent allergy symptoms, and that characteristic cannot be guaranteed by simply creating a Poodle cross. He complains, “This is what gets up my nose, if you’ll pardon the expression. When the pups were five months old, we sent clippings and saliva over to Hawaii to be tested with this woman’s husband. Of the three pups, he was not allergic to one of them. In the next litter I had there were 10 pups, but only three had non-allergenic coats. Now, people are breeding these dogs and selling them as non-allergenic, and they’re not even testing them!”

Jen has written very thoughtfully about the difficulties that exist both in finding a reputable doodle breeder and being a reputable doodle breeder, and I won’t rehash that here. What I will add is that even doodle breeders who are trying hard to keep their dogs’ coats consistent and low-allergen are not having much luck (at least in the US) getting consistency past F1. Here’s what that means in layman’s terms: let’s say you have a Lab dad and a poodle mom. Lab dad and poodle mom have a litter of five Labradoodle puppies, and all of them have perfect non-allergenic coats (this doesn’t ever happen, but let’s just pretend for the moment). Second litter: five more puppies, all with perfect coats. Terrific! However, for a breed to really take off AS a breed, you need to go beyond that. You need to have a second Lab/poodle pairing, and they also need to produce puppies with perfect coats, and then you need to breed one Labradoodle puppy from pairing one and one Labradoodle from pairing two, and all of their puppies need to have perfect coats, and then, once you’re dealing with the great-granchildren of the original pairs, then maybe you’ve got the foundations of a breed. Otherwise, when the original Lab dad and poodle mom die, you don’t have a breed; you just have a handful of puppies whose success can’t be replicated.  Getting past those initial first litters has been hard for doodle breeders; once you start getting into grandkids and great-grandkids of the initial pairing, the coats start getting all wonky again.

And that’s just the dilemma that faces ethical breeders who are at least trying to have some consistency: I’m sure nobody will be shocked when I say that the internet and the classifieds and the pet stores and the puppy mill brokers are freaking awash in doodles. The people creating those puppies are not working hard to create the perfect coat (and temperament, and health profile, and and and). They are happy to sell people on the myth of the hypoallergenic doodle, pocket the two grand per puppy they usually get, and use it to keep creating more dogs who cannot live up to the standards they’re sold under.

Well, my Aunt Mildred once had a Shih Tzu and I wasn’t allergic to him, so now I know I’m not allergic to Shih Tzus!

This is something that comes up a lot: people have a good, non-sneezy experience with one dog of a particular breed and, based on that experience, they decide that that’s the one breed they’re not allergic to.  In a way, it’s sort of sweet: people really, really want a dog, regardless of their allergies, and so they cling on to anecdata and the memory of that one dog that didn’t give them hives in a way that they might not do if they were feeling more rational.  However, we know from the studies we looked at earlier that there’s a lot of variance in Can f 1 levels between individual dogs even within the same breed. What this means is that Aunt Mildred’s dog may actually have had pretty low levels of Can f 1, enough that they didn’t trigger your allergies.  That said, the Shih Tzu you buy in an effort to replicate that allergy-free experience may be an individual who has a ton of naturally occurring Can f 1 and you can’t even go in the house with her.  Because you can’t make useful predictions based on breed, you can’t really use breed as a benchmark to decide whether or not you’ll be safe.

However, what this means is this: unless you have the worst allergies on earth, there are individual dogs out there who are naturally low in Can f 1, and there are probably quite a few dogs out there who won’t trigger your allergies: you just have to figure out who they are. There are two good ways of doing this, and in my opinion, one of the best ways is to make friends with the people at your local shelter.  I want to be up front about this: my own bias is that nearly all casual pet owners and a whole lot of performance/sport people can find the dog they want in rescue or at a shelter.  However, I think shelters are especially good calls for people with allergies: you can meet adult dogs, you can hang out with them, in some cases you can take them on outings and in many cases, you can foster them for a week or two and see how you do with them in the home.  Some of the dogs are going to be Can f 1-heavy and some are going to be Can f 1-light, but the distribution isn’t going to be any different than it would be at a breeder’s, and you’ll have a bigger sample to choose from.  If you explain your predicament to whoever’s in charge of adoptions at the shelter, I bet they’ll be willing to work with you: if you bring a dog home for a trial week and it works out, terrific! You’ve found a dog! If you bring a dog home and spend three days sneezing, the dog gets a fun little vacation from the shelter, probably gets spoiled a little, and when you’re ready, you can try another dog.  If you are really, really set on a particular breed, you can always ask breeders if they have retired show dogs (usually ‘retired’ dogs are just a few years old) or if they have adult dogs who are looking for pet homes; then, you can ask if you can try them out in your home for a week or two.  The one thing I probably wouldn’t recommend is getting a puppy, either from a shelter or from a breeder: in almost all breeds, there’s a significant difference between puppy coats and adult coats, and your allergies may go haywire once your cute little puppy’s adult coat comes in.

I had a Portuguese Water Dog as a kid; have I built up an immunity to Portuguese Water Dogs?

First of all, sing it with me: individual dogs have different levels of Can f 1, so you may have a stronger allergic reaction to different individual dogs. Are you new?

Beyond that, however, is the question of whether children who were raised with dogs have a little more tolerance of Can f 1.  Interestingly, this seems to be a matter of some scientific debate.  One thing that is clear is that being raised with dogs has some effect on your tolerance level: however, some studies say that being raised with dogs and their weird hair and saliva and allergens and microbes helps bolster your immune system and makes it less likely that you’re going to develop adverse reactions.  Other studies suggest that being raised with said allergens and weird microbes can cause a child’s immune system to, more or less, have a total freak out and thus, the child become super sensitive and twitchy around those allergens. This study suggests that children who are born into households containing dogs often develop an immunity to Can f 1, but kids older than three get hypersensitized to it if a dog is introduced into their environment later. If you’re interested in this, you can find an excellent review of these different studies here. Regardless, the fact that you did fine with Polly the Portie as a kid doesn’t necessarily grant you safe passage among Porties from here on out.

What other things can I do to keep from sneezing all over my dog?

If you’ve got a dog already and you’re a little allergic, the good news is that there are lots of things you can do to help minimize the issue.

    • Wash your dog! There actually was a study done on this recently: it indicated that if you wash your dog twice a week, you will achieve “a modest reduction in the level of airborne Can f 1“.
    • Keep your dog away from upholstery, if at all possible. I am currently being squeezed into a corner on the couch by two of my dogs, and the third is upstairs snoring and shedding all over my bed, so I am not a good role model for this, but fabric tends to collect Can f 1 like gangbusters. If your dog is a couch hog like mine are, you can opt to throw blankets or couch covers over the top and wash those frequently. Also, if you can swing it, hard-surface floors are way better for allergy sufferers than carpeted floors. All of the allergy/athsma orgs recommend keeping your dog out of the bedroom, especially: if you are like me, good luck with that, but it’s probably pretty helpful.
    • HEPA filters. Here’s a lit review on those: it turns out that they’re pretty effective in helping cut down the levels of Can f 1 in the air. Many vacuums have them; you can buy them for your vents; you can get freestanding ones (often pretty cheap at thrift stores: I have three and I don’t even have allergies); if you’re feeling really fancy, you can get whole-house filtration systems.

And yes, that’s a lot of extra work, and it’s kind of a pain, and sometimes, late at night, you might find yourself looking at pictures of cute puppies on the internet and reading about how these guys have perfect hypoallergenic coats, and you might feel your fingers reaching for your credit card, because it is really nice to have a dog, even if dogs make you sneezy. But if you find yourself there, please, just close your browser and repeat after me: There is no such thing as a hypoallergenic breed of dog.

All About Farm Dogs

Farm dogs have been in my life since day one. My parents  had dogs at their hostel in the mountains. Granted, the hostel was in the rugged, remote parts of Poland, and the dogs didn’t have much of a choice on where to live, but they were farm dogs nonetheless.

Then I grew up to be a horse trainer and farms became the center of my life, along with the dogs that inhabit them.

Iko, one of the best farm dogs I know. She never wanders, protects the chickens and guinea fowl from the foxes, listens the first time every time, and doesn’t interact with strangers without an invitation.

I have met amazing farm dogs. Dogs who watch livestock. Dogs that work. Dogs that happily greet visitors and dogs who sleep quietly in the barn aisle without bothering anyone.

I have also met some dogs that really weren’t cut out for the role. Dogs who wander off the property. Dogs that chase horses. Dogs that kill chickens.

Of course, there are a variety of farm dogs, and their roles are all different. Some farm dogs are meant to do a job. Others are kept around primarily for companionship. Some farms are privately owned, and others are open to the public. Some farm dogs are just that. Others double as family pets. What makes a good farm dog varies from case to case, of course, but there are some things that seem to make or break a good farm dog across the board.

The one thing that doesn’t seem to matter much at all is breed. I have met good farm dogs in all shapes and sizes from Great Danes to miniature poodles. Yes, you read that right, I know a toy poodle who is an excellent farm dog. She lives at a local farm with a farm stand and is an excellent greeter for the clientele. She’s friendly without being obnoxious, but small enough that nobody is afraid of her, even people coming from the city who may not have much experience with dogs.

Of course, there are times when it’s important to have the right breed of farm dog. For example, herding breeds are definitely beneficial if you’re looking for a dog to keep your flock of sheep in check, and a chihuahua isn’t going to do much in terms of guarding your crops.

So what are the traits that seem to make a good farm dog?

1. The ability to learn boundaries.
The most obvious part of this trait is that a farm dog has to stay on the farm! It’s not very helpful if your farm dog takes off and has to be continuously retrieved from the neighbors’ (or the wilderness!) A runaway farm dog is a nuisance of course, but in truly rural areas, it’s much more than that. A dog that leaves a property in the middle of nowhere is likely to get injured or even killed. So a good farm dog has to be able to learn where the edges of the farm are, and know exactly how far he is allowed to roam. Unlike large suburban yards, most farms do not feature invisible dog fence at the edge of the property, and most farmers are busy farming and don’t have time to manage a dog on a leash. In my experience, the most successful farm dogs seem to be born with a natural tendency to stick around.

But learning boundaries is about a lot more than just staying on the property. A good farm dog also has to learn what areas within the farm are no-go zones.

For example, Herbie learned at an early age that she is not allowed in the riding ring. She can go in the barn and the tack room, and has even tagged along on trail rides, but there’s nothing more distracting than a loose dog running around while I try to school a horse.

Herbie leads the way on a first trail ride with a client horse.

Of course, the no-go zones in a farm dog’s life will vary from farm to farm. In some places, dogs aren’t allowed in offices or homes or crop fields. Once again, this often comes down to a dog’s safety. There are parts of a farm that are simply not safe for a dog. For example, my former bosses at the breeding farm didn’t allow dogs in any of the horse pastures because a mare with a foal at her side is likely to kill a dog, who appears like a predator out to kill her young.

A good farm dog sticks around the farm and stays out of places where it doesn’t belong.

2. General obedience
While a farm dog may not need to know all the intricate commands that a rally obedience dog learns, it is important for a farm dog to be obedient in general.

No, cute crowd-pleasing tricks like “high five” or “roll over” may not be useful in the day to day rural life, but basic commands like sit, leave it, and come here are vital and may save a farm dog’s life, or at lease prevent serious injury.

Life on a farm is always changing, and even with a good understanding of the day-to-day rules (this is the front of the property, chickens are not for chasing, don’t go in the horse pasture, etc.) a farm dog has to be ready to listen if circumstances change. For example, a dog who is usually used to guard the perimeter of crops has be able to be called off in the event that an expected guest makes an appearance.

A dog who lives in an ever-changing environment, usually off leash, has to have a dependable recall and reliably listen to whoever is in charge.

Cinnamon, an Australian Cattledog mix, watching over her flock.

3. Appropriate interactions with people
Of course, what defines an appropriate interaction will vary from farm to farm. In a public setting, such as a large riding stable, it is important to have a farm dog who is friendly, approachable, and well-socialized with people of all shapes and sizes. On a working farm, a good farm dog can’t be aggressive towards people, but a dog who is too friendly can be a nuisance and a distraction.

Several examples of the way farm dogs’ human interactions are shaped for their individual settings come to mind. Julio fails pretty badly at being a farm dog because he is easily kidnapped. He will get in a car with just about anybody, with or without an invitation. My boss’s dog, Iko, on the other hand, is very friendly, but won’t approach a stranger unless she is specifically called. My parents’ dogs, who lived in an area where dogs were frequently poisoned or otherwise incapacitated so they couldn’t raise the alarm on farm intruders, were taught to never, ever accept hand fed treats, no matter how tempting.

Tamboo, a farm dog in training, sees guinea hens for the first time.

4. Appropriate interactions with other animals
Similarly, farm dogs must interact appropriately with other animals. This means not killing or terrorizing the livestock or farm fowl. It also means not tormenting the barn cats or fighting with other dogs on the property.

Some farm dogs must learn more extensive animal interactions. They may need to herd sheep or watch cattle or guard ducks. In Iko’s case, she has been taught to kill groundhogs (a pest animal that digs dangerous holes in the horse pasture) and to chase off foxes and racoons (predators who pose a life threat to chickens, ducks, and guinea fowl).

An example of Herbie being a good farm dog is when she alerted Mike to an injured chicken that was hiding in the pony barn, waiting to die. Because Herbie led Mike to the chicken, she was able to get timely treatment and make a full recovery!

Herbie and her chicken, Henrietta

Regardless of the particular set of rules imposed on a farm dog, it is important for the dog to maintain the same appropriate interactions with or without supervision. The fact of the matter is that farm dogs spend a lot of time without a person watching their behavior.

And that ties into my next point…
5. Some degree of bravery
Being a farm dog is often not for the faint of heart. Farms dogs must deal with a lot of situations that house dogs often don’t experience. Loud engines, livestock, fires, strangers, and heavy equipment are all things that a typical farm dog can’t be afraid of. In some instances, farm dogs also have to live outside 24 hours a day, which means spending a night alone with the wildlife can’t be fear-inducing. A successful farm dog is one who doesn’t scare easily and who can sort of take it all in stride.

What dog breed is right for you?

Unfortunately for dogs (and for people!), one of the most common reasons for dogs being relinquished to shelters or rescues is not because there is anything wrong with the dog (or with the people), but simply because there is a mismatch between dog and human. A busy household that brings home a high energy breed and then doesn’t have the time to exercise it, resulting in a dog who destroys the house while everyone is away for the day is a good example. Or an elderly man whose well-intentioned child buys him a boisterous large breed puppy as a companion only to have the pup turn into a boisterous LARGE puppy, resulting in a dangerous situation for all. Or someone who depends on dog-park play as a way to exercise her dog bringing home a pit bull only to find out she doesn’t play well with other dogs.

All of these situations can end up extremely frustrating and potentially heart-breaking for the owners, and for dogs who get turned over to shelters, possibly life-threatening. And many of them can be avoided by being realistic about the type of dog who will fit into your lifestyle, as well as the traits that certain breeds are prone to.

So how do you avoid them?

1. Start with a list: What traits do you want in a dog? Do you want a couch-potato or do you want a marathon runner? Do you want a dog who is friendly with strangers or who is a one-person dog? Here’s the most important part: BE REALISTIC. Look at what your lifestyle really is. Even if the Border Collie you grew up with on the farm as a kid was the perfect dog, it doesn’t mean one will fit well into your 40-hour-work-week, small-apartment-with-no-yard adult lifestyle.

Do you legitimately have time to exercise that Labrador Retriever? Do you really want a protective dog when you have young children and their friends running through the house? When you say you want a smart dog, do you want a dog whose mind has to be occupied all the time or he’ll get into trouble occupying himself, or do you actually want a dog who is laid back and easy to train? Do you need a dog who plays well with other dogs?

Do you really want this?

Do you really want this?

Or is this a better match?

Or is this a better match?

2. Then make another list: What can you not live with? Again, be unflinchingly honest. Is an alarm bark when the mail drops through the slot ok but a dog who likes to announce every bird who flies past the house more than you can tolerate? How much fur are you willing to vacuum off the couch in an average week? Is it going to aggravate you having to scrub slobber off the walls? Can you afford to pay for a groomer every 6-8 weeks? Do you need a dog who is going to be good with kids and is it a deal-breaker if he is not?

Let me sing you the song of my people.

Let me sing you the song of my people.

3. Try a breed selector. There are a number of them available online, and some are better than others. Animal Planet has a nice one. So does Iams and Dogtime. The results you get are not written in stone, and you may get different results from one quiz to the next, but they can at least give you a jumping-off place and some different breeds to further explore to see if they are a good match for your lifestyle.

It is also important to keep in mind that while breed traits were developed with predictability in mind, all dogs are individuals. If you fell in love with your friend’s German Shepherd who has never met a stranger and loves everyone, keep in mind, that is not typical of the breed and that the pup you pick out may be suspicious and standoffish with strangers. It is really important to do your homework, especially if you are going to be getting a puppy.

Awww puppies!

Awww puppies!

There are some great websites out there that give you the basics on each breed. I really like the one on Vetstreet. But nothing is going to be a better educator than spending some time around dogs of that breed. This can be tricky if you’ve fallen for an unusual or rare breed (like the Cirneco D’Elletna that I’ve recently been eyeballing), so seeking them out at dog shows and talking to people in the breed might be extremely important. What looks good on paper may not translate into a good match in the house.

It might also be important to let go of preconceived notions. Not all Labs make great family dogs. In fact, many of them don’t. Dalmatians look great on the movie screen, but they were bred to run next to a carriage all day long and thus are extremely high energy. Bedlington Terriers might look like cute little lambs, but they can be very serious vermin-hunting terriers. Not all pit bulls are dog-aggressive but it needs to always be in your awareness (and it’s not all in how you raise them.

And not all Border Collies are dog-friendly.

And not all Border Collies are dog-friendly.

To this end, it might be worth considering looking for an adult dog, whether a retired (or failed) show dog from a breeder or a pure or mixed-breed dog from a (breed-specific or all-breed) rescue or shelter. Adult dogs tend to be fairly “what you see is what you get”, and especially if you have a complicated, busy family (multiple dogs, kids, cats, whatever), finding the specific “right” dog for you- regardless of breed- is really what is going to make things work best in the end.

A good match makes all the difference.

A good match makes all the difference.

Confessions of a Dog Gear Hoarder: Ruffwear’s Front Range harness

OK, I admit it. I am a dog gear hoarder. It’s true. If anyone looked in my garage they would see enough canine related supplies to stock an entire boutique. And I don’t mean the cheap big box store stuff, either. I shop for quality made gear that will put up with all the hiking, swimming, off leash running, sports, and general madness that we participate in every week. I am also a sucker for good looking equipment; yes, all my dogs have color coordinating stuff! Every time a new and potentially interesting product comes out from one of my favorite companies, I will probably buy it for at least one of the dogs.

I’ve been a fan of dog gear company, Ruffwear, for years now due in large part to their outdoorsy gear that is also stylish. Since I always walk my dogs in harnesses for their well being, I’ve always been a little bummed that Ruffwear hasn’t made a lightweight everyday harness that I could quickly throw on my guys for neighborhood walks and park outings. I also like having a front clip option for River, who is a strong dog reactive dog that sometimes forgets how to walk politely. However, I will not use any products that restrict proper shoulder movement, which unfortunately happen to be most front clip brands on the market. My three dogs have had several harnesses each but none of them are even close to perfect.

Enter the brand new Front Range harness from none other than Ruffwear! This thing seriously has it all: back AND front clip options, comfortable but lightweight padding, non-restrictive design, fully adjustable, and even two places for identification. (Also, it looks damn good on my dogs.)






I love the ID pocket on top of the harness. It’s just a little velcro pouch to keep a tag in, but it’s a feature I’ve never seen before and I think it is brilliant! Now I don’t have to worry about my dog’s more expensive “tagline” tags getting lost on hikes, and they also don’t need to wear collars. On the inside of the chest plate padding, there is also a spot to write their name and phone number. Do note though that my 32-36lb dogs are both a size small; Ruffwear caters to typical outdoorsy medium-large dogs for the most part, unlike so many other companies. Just make sure you measure your dog before ordering!

Riv_harnessIf your dog is going to wear a harness while doing any actual exercise, it is most commonly recommended by sports vets to fit them in a product that will not restrict their natural strides. The Front Range has a large shoulder opening and fits high enough up on the neck that wearing the harness while running should not restrict any of their movements. Since my dogs often go off leash running and hiking while wearing their gear, this is extremely important to me!

Owen_harnessWhile the front hook attachment isn’t metal like most harnesses, it is still quite sturdy and works well. I have had the best results with using a double clip leash when I want the “no-pull” effects, rather than just attaching to the front. This makes the chest piece slide back and forth a bit less while offering excellent control when needed.

I also love that Ruffwear made it a point not to have the nylon straps touching any potentially sensitive areas on the dog. The neckline and arm pit areas are both covered so there shouldn’t be any rubbing even on short coated dogs. I also really like that it’s easy to take on and off due to the double clips on the top of the harness. The buckles are also stationary, so you don’t have to worry about adjusting the harness to fit your dog then having one of the buckles awkwardly sitting underneath a leg or something.

Owen_harness2All in all, I adore the new Front Range harnesses and have been using them almost daily since I received my order. The product hits all the right notes of functional yet still stylish and I’m sure will hold up well to all of River and Owen’s adventures. This dog gear hoarder is very happy – at least until the next cool product comes along!





The typical disclaimer: Ruffwear didn’t pay me to write this, I just really like their stuff! I did receive a discount on these harnesses as a professional dog trainer, but the opinions above are completely my own.



The Dilemma of Doodles

Because I’m one of those halfwits who occasionally sticks her fingers in electrical sockets to see the pretty sparkles fly, I thought today I’d do a post about doodles. Or, well, maybe not entirely about doodles, but using them as an entry point to a larger dilemma.

I know a lot of doodles. Labradoodles and goldendoodles are very popular as pets in my neighborhood, and there are a couple of them on the local competition circuit. Like any other group of dogs, some of them are nice and some of them are derpy and a couple of them are flat-out bananas. I don’t have strong opinions about them as a group; my experience with the ones I’ve met has been that they’re all over the place in size, temperament, and structure, and as a result it’s not possible for me to make a fair generalization about the dogs. I’ve met some that I really, really like and some that I really, really don’t.

I can, however, make a broad generalization about the breeders, and that is this: It is incredibly difficult to find a doodle breeder I would wholeheartedly recommend.

When prospective puppy buyers ask me where they can find a good doodle breeder, I come up blank. Every time. It doesn’t help that I live pretty close to mid-Pennsylvania’s puppy mill country, but even without that, I suspect I’d still have a hard time. All the doodle breeders I’m personally aware of exist on a narrow range between “grubby commercial puppy miller who is mass-producing dogs for money” and “loving but profoundly clueless BYB.”

Most of the doodle breeders I know of occupy an ambiguous space between those poles. Generally their breeding stock does not come from the greatest programs in either Standard Poodles or whatever flavor of retriever they’re using, and generally they don’t have multi-generational programs or do a lot of outcrossing to other programs’ proven dogs. It’s extremely rare to find a doodle breeder with verifiable health tests and performance titles on the breeding stock. If you can find a breeder with so much as OFA hip certs and a CGC on the breeding dogs, that right there vaults them to the top echelon of doodle breeders I’ve ever encountered.

Let’s be clear: I’m not saying that good breeders aren’t out there. I’m saying I can’t find them. And if I can’t find them, what hope does a well-meaning pet owner with zero “dog world” connections have?

This is a pretty good approximation of the face I make when someone asks for doodle breeder recommendations.

Instead, what I usually find is a breeder who uses untitled, untested in-house sires to service untitled, untested in-house dams and sells off all the puppies every cycle, frequently repeating litters but never holding anything back to see what they’re producing or continue moving the program forward. This isn’t necessarily indicative of a puppy mill, but it does typically flag a BYB. Serious breeders don’t generally breed without health tests and titles, strive to establish multi-generational lines, routinely hold puppies back to evaluate their production, and are always looking for the best possible outside dogs to strengthen and broaden those lines.

Lots of doodle breeders also seem pretty happy to rattle off a number of myths ranging from “you get the best of both breeds in a hypoallergenic package!” to “there’s no need to health test the breeding dogs because hybrid vigor means the puppies will be fine!” There is a lot of marketing cant in this corner of the dog world. It’s often hard for me to tell whether the breeders genuinely believe this stuff (in which case they go in the Clueless BYB bucket) or are intentionally spouting snake oil to sucker their buyers (in which case it’s right on over to the Grubby Puppy Miller bucket). This, too, tends to poison my opinion of them as a group.

But even if you can find a program that avoids all those obvious red flags, it’s very nearly impossible to make the next cut from “meets bare minimum standards for potential acceptability” to “might actually be a good breeder.”

The big underlying reason for this — and here’s where we segue into the larger discussion! — is because doodle buyers are pet owners looking for good pets, and doodle breeders are primarily aiming for the pet market in their breeding programs. The Labradoodle might have been invented as a service dog, but very, very few of the people producing those dogs today (none, actually, among the ones that I have personally encountered) are attempting to breed for that purpose themselves. Their buyers aren’t looking for service or performance dogs, either. Everyone who has ever asked me about a doodle has been looking for a pet.

And it is just about impossible to identify a good pet breeder.

It really is. I wish this weren’t such an insoluble dilemma, but I don’t know of any way to reliably cut through the crap and find a good breeder who only produces pets.

The show and sport dog worlds are small and tightly connected. If you spend much time in those circles, you’ll quickly come to know who the good and not-so-good breeders are in Breed X doing Activity Y in Region Z, because people who are knowledgeable about that breed and that activity will see those dogs in action and be able to evaluate them accurately, based on the standards and values for whatever it is they’re supposed to be doing. Those people tend to know and talk to each other. If a breeder is doing a good job of placing puppies in active sport or show homes, and is also actively campaigning their own dogs, then pretty soon word will get out and, within a few years, they’ll have some kind of reputation in the relevant social networks.

The pet world, on the other hand, is very large and very diffuse. It has no clear tests or uniform standards. Everybody thinks their own pet is the greatest dog in the world (which is wonderful, except for when it comes to objectively evaluating breeders). Sometimes they’re right, sometimes they’re not, but separating accurate information from wishful thinking is a whole ordeal in itself. And that’s assuming you can even track down an owner who has a previous dog from the same lines, the dog is old enough to have been evaluated for common genetic health problems, and the dog is a fair representative of what that program produces on average.

The upshot is that there’s not much penalty if pet breeders cut corners — either deliberately or out of ignorance — and produce dogs with physical or temperamental faults. Even huge, notorious commercial breeders like Kimbertal, who have a very long track record of problematic dogs and questionable conduct, don’t seem to have any problem turning a profit year after year.

There’s also no incentive, beyond the rewards of one’s own conscience, for a pure pet breeder to get it right. Their kennel name won’t go on to glory if they produce a truly stellar dog. They won’t get any accolades from their show friends. They won’t have the joy of watching highlight videos of the dog they bred taking home the top prize at a big national championship, or winning a long string of impressive titles. The only reward is that, somewhere, a family will be happy with their stable, healthy, loving pet — and when that happens, the breeder might very well never hear about it, because a lot of people don’t bother communicating unless they have a complaint.

The result of these influences, I believe, is that serious breeders tend to gravitate toward the show/sport/working world, and less serious breeders tend to gravitate toward the pet market.

For most breeds, this isn’t automatically a huge problem. Pet owners can always buy overflow puppies from purpose-bred litters, choosing whatever purpose is most compatible with their lifestyle and preferences. If you’re in the market for a pet Labrador Retriever, you have your pick of lines and types to fit pretty much any kind of home, from sedate conformation champions to go-go-go!! field-line dogs who would love to spend their weekends duck hunting and their afternoons jogging ten miles a day. There’s no need to look for a breeder producing “just pets.” There will be someone out there whose purpose-driven program is established, proven, and produces the right kind of puppies for that home.

But when it comes to doodles, this is a significant problem, because the rules of most registries make it effectively impossible to prove the merits of the dogs in a doodle breeding program. There are no show or sport breeders in doodles, because the structure of those activities discourages competitors from specializing in that niche.

Doodles can’t be shown in conformation, so that’s off the table immediately. Foundation stock — the Standard Poodles and retrievers used to begin the program — can be shown, but that’s a dead end after the first generation.

Doodles can compete in performance, but in AKC events, they must be spayed or neutered first (because, as crossbreeds, they would have to be registered through the Canine Partners mixed-breed program, which requires that the dogs be altered). That also effectively bars breeding stock from participation past the founding generation.

This doodle COULD be great at sports. It might also just be a maniac. Without any track record in performance venues, who can tell the difference?

Some alternative sport registries do permit intact mixed-breed dogs — for example, intact doodles can compete in World Cynosport Rally — and that’s certainly better than nothing. But as a solution to this particular problem, those alternative registries are far from perfect. Access and availability tends to vary by region, and their titles aren’t as universally recognized as the bigger registries’ titles are. They’re also usually not as easy for prospective puppy buyers to verify with a quick online search.

These disadvantages are hardly insurmountable, but they’re real. They make it harder for hypothetical serious doodle breeders to prove the excellence of their dogs, and for puppy buyers to identify those serious breeders and distinguish them from the BYBs and millers that dominate this niche. Given that doodles clearly aren’t going anywhere — their popularity in the pet market has determined that they’re here to stay — this is not, IMO, a great thing for the welfare of the dogs. That old thought experiment about “what if we outlawed all the knowledgeable small-scale breeders and the only ones that were left were crappy commercial breeders and BYBs?” If you ask me, that’s pretty much where doodles are today.

So what’s the answer? I don’t have one. I wish I did, and I’d be thrilled if you’ve got one to give to me, but as I write this, I’ve got no solution. Again, I think that finding a good pet breeder, let alone a good pet breeder in a stigmatized niche, is one of the most difficult tasks in dogdom. It could have been the thirteenth task of Hercules, that’s how impossible it is.

But I think it would help if some of the stigma surrounding doodles was lessened. We gain nothing by pushing them away. I think it would help if the breeders who wanted to do the best possible job of producing those dogs were embraced by the rest of the community, encouraged to prove their dogs in performance venues, and held to the same standards as any other serious breeder. Health tests, pedigrees, careful tracking to see what they produced.

I also think it would help if puppy buyers had more good breeders to choose from. Right now, mostly what I see is buyers trying to the best of their ability to locate good doodle breeders, failing, and buying from the least bad BYB they can find, because that is the only option out there for them. All that does is incentivize more crappy breeders to produce more crappy dogs. (I realize that the temptation is to say “well then they shouldn’t buy doodles,” but let’s be honest: 99 out of 100 times, that’s not happening, and it’s also not really fair. If you had to choose between an iffy breeder producing a breed you love, versus an ethical breeder producing a breed you had less than zero interest in, which would you choose? Personally, I’d take a BYB GSD over the best-bred Pug on Earth any day, and I’ll make no apologies for it.)

Again: I don’t think doodles are going anywhere. There’s too much demand for them, and too much money involved. Someone is going to produce puppies to meet that demand. Right now, that “someone” mostly translates to “someone not very good at breeding dogs.” And that is, on several levels, not great for the dogs or the owners.

Therefore I, for one, would like to see that change.