It’s pouring with rain the afternoon I visit Charlotte McGrath’s Singleton property, Tamaruke, in the Hunter Valley. She’s ready with a large umbrella, and takes me into her gatehouse, where three adult labradoodles shelter from the storm, along with two litters of puppies (or 14 little bundles of energy). There’s a lot of money running around here: labradoodles are the breed of the moment, and each puppy is worth at least $1,400. The puppies whine and squirm over one another to get to the hugs and it’s hard to let them go. But all of these pups are spoken for, and there’s a waiting list 30 deep.

Charlotte is one of only 14 breeders registered with the Labradoodle Association of Australia. The spotless gatehouse is filled with doggy accoutrements, and the dogs run to greet her as soon as she opens the door. Charlotte points to a soaking wet dog.  “Smell that!” she says. Obediently I lean over the dog and sniff. “You can’t smell anything, can you?”

This odourless, low-maintenance coat is one of the reasons people love labradoodles.

Homemade dogs

A cross between a Labrador retriever and a standard poodle, labradoodles are the first and best known of the ‘designer dogs’ that have appeared in the last couple of decades. They were first bred in 1989 by Wally Conron for the Guide Dog Association of Victoria, for a woman whose husband was allergic to dog hair. Conron thought the poodle’s woolly coat might make the dog hypoallergenic. Although the woman got her dog, the Association found that less than 35 percent of the labradoodles they bred were non-allergenic, and dropped their breeding program. This hasn’t stopped the public clamouring for the dog – or stopped other breeders jumping on the poodle cross bandwagon.

“What are we up to now?” snorts Charlotte, as we settle in around her big kitchen table. “There are schnoodles, noodles, spoodles… People think poodle crosses are the answer to everything.”

Charlotte is a bright, energetic woman, whose day job is working for the Department of Primary Industries and Energy as a mine safety manager. Every morning she gets up at five o’clock to release the dogs, mash their food, and then scrub their bowls and the kennel. Charlotte also breeds horses; she currently has 18, and will bring the numbers back up to 45 now the drought has broken. “It’s all about time management,” she says, shrugging. She also has two part-time staff: Kym, a veterinary nurse, and Sarah, and is building state-of-the-art stables on the property.

Sarah, Kym and daughter Tamara drift in and settle themselves around the table for a cup of tea. These are all animal people, who can talk dogs for hours. Charlotte is horrified to learn I share my small flat with one cat, and tries to convince me I can’t live without a dog. “Just move!” she insists.

Husband Mark, who gets blown in from the rain, is a cattle breeder. The two labradoodles in the house come over for some affection. “We rotate the dogs,” says Charlotte. “They all come inside for a couple of days, to get used to the interaction of the family.”

The dogs, the tea and the conversation make it a cosy way to spend an afternoon—until the conversation turns to backyard breeders.

When desire turns to cruelty

Puppy farming, where bitches are forced to produce litter after litter, makes Charlotte livid, as do people who believe they can make a buck by crossing their pet with another breed.

“I was walking the dogs,” says Charlotte. “This lady came out of the crowd and told me she’d bought two labradoodles from a pet shop. At ten months, neither of them could walk because of hip problems.”

These kinds of stories have made crossbred dogs highly controversial. The owners and breeders of pure breds positively sneer at them: “I call them nothing more than designer mongrels,” wrote one dog-lover on a dog forum. Literary heavyweight Sonya Hartnett weighed into the debate when she wrote a long, anti-designer dog piece in The Age earlier this year, saying “it is difficult to see the phenomenon of dog designing as anything other than a mercenary exercise”.

Charlotte believes that cavalier methods are breeding dogs with health problems. “These backyard breeders are risking people’s money, and their lives,” she says.

She bred Labradors for many years before switching to labradoodles six years ago, and says she did her homework. “I had one strong female Labrador and for three months searched for a really good poodle,” she says. “After that first litter, we started infusing with multi-generation dogs and followed the guidelines, checking for genetic strength.”

Crossbreeding isn’t easy, which is why Charlotte talks a lot about ‘multi-gens’ and ‘genetic strength’. The hope is that the best of each breed will emerge in the new dog, and that pedigree-specific diseases will be replaced by hybrid vigour. But crossbreeding can go horribly wrong and magnify the problems of each breed.

“We health check all of our dogs before we breed from them,” says Charlotte. This includes DNA testing, with results sent to a central database. “You can’t lie about your pedigrees or breeding stock. We set a benchmark to stop any genetic problems occurring. We also guarantee our dogs for two years – the buyer gets a full refund or a replacement puppy.”

Unless the puppy is destined for breeding, it will be de-sexed at six weeks, partly so it can’t be used for uncontrolled breeding purposes. Other puppies are put into the carer program. “People apply to be carers,” she says. “We visit their home to determine the security, and then we will put them on the waiting list and offer them a puppy we want to breed from. We retain breeding rights for that dog for four litters, or five years of age, and then we de-sex the dog. We still own the dog. It’s never for sale, but stays with the carer.”

One lives with the Dean of Macquarie University. Others spend their days in waterfront properties, with another on a yacht. This is fitting, considering the labradoodle adores water. Charlotte has also sold puppies to the USA, New Zealand, Hong Kong and Japan. Her labradoodles have excited so much interest that a Japanese business even came out to Australia to see if they could secure the rights to distribute the dog in Japan.

“They came with an entourage, a camera man, a link up from their hotel room and two personal assistants,” says Charlotte. “They wined and dined us and had three day meetings. The dogs blew them away, especially after we took four or five dogs swimming by the river. They couldn’t believe the dogs didn’t need to be blow dried, but could just be towelled off.”

Unfortunately, the deal fell through. “I didn’t have enough control over where the puppies were going,” says Charlotte.

It’s getting late, so it’s time to go. But on the way out, I can’t resist having another play with the puppies. Charlotte’s right – life’s definitely better with a dog. As long as it’s healthy.

This article first appeared in Bark! magazine in 2006.

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