Oodles of Doodles

It seems as if every Marin neighborhood, park and hiking trail is full of them—fluffy, bouncy, floppy-eared dogs who gambol merrily about, tails wagging and tongues hanging out, as if they were escapees from the movie Hotel For Dogs.

A doodle, if you haven’t heard, is the latest pricy designer dog to create a craze in the canine cosmos: a mix of poodle with either Labrador (Labradoodle) or Golden Retriever (Goldendoodle).

A dog priced at $2,000 and up needs an affluent place like Marin to prosper, but doodle owners think the price is right for pooches with intelligence, a sweet disposition, and a propensity to shed less than the average mutt, a result of their poodle lineage. Doodles are also agile, seem to do well with families, children and other household dogs, and are easily trainable, mostly for what Trish King, the Marin Humane Society’s director of training, euphemistically calls their “over-exuberance.”

 That childlike vivacity, in fact, is a large part of a doodle’s charm, appealing to one of the doodles’ principal set of buyers—empty nesters who admit they acquired their dogs to help fill the void on that couch in the living room.

Betsy Jonckheer of Ross, who has an elegant shock of white hair, delights in telling you that she looks just like her Goldendoodle, Luke. The two are inseparable. “He’s been coming to Peet’s in Bon Air with me since he was weeks old, and to Glamorous Nails in San Anselmo, where I go to get my nails done,” she says. “And if I don’t bring him, they say, ‘Where’s Luke? Where’s your boyfriend?’

Sparkie Spaeth, who works for the Marin County Department of Health and Human Services and lives on the Peacock Gap golf course in San Rafael, got her Goldendoodle Maxx at the end of February when he was eight and a half weeks.

Although she had a dog when growing up and while her kids were growing up, her family has not had a dog for more than 30 years.

“We decided to get Maxx because my husband retired recently, I like to walk and I like to walk with an animal,” says Spaeth. “We’re empty nesters. My grandchildren and kids live across the country, and I thought it would be a good addition to our nest, and something to structure my husband’s retirement.”

Doodle Mania

Doodle numbers are up in Marin, say dog professionals, observing the influx of doodles in the county.

“We have them coming in droves,” says Kirsten Hrobsky, training director at Camp K-9 of Marin in Corte Madera.

In 2006, 4 percent of her doggy day care patrons were doodles. In 2009, that number reached 18 percent. “We’ve seen other ‘designer breeds’ increasing slightly,” says Hrobsky, like the schnoodle (schnauzer/poodle), “but it’s nothing to the extent of doodles.”

She says the increase is due in part to the dogs being intentionally bred now instead of, as in the past, being purely natural mixes between dog breeds.

Mary Powell, a registration specialist with the American Canine Hybrid Club in Arkansas, says the Goldendoodle was the most registered dog hybrid in 2007 and 2009. Labradoodles were third in 2007 and fifth in 2009. For 2010, Goldendoodles and Labradoodles are the second and third most registered mixes. (Just so you don’t offend the purists, doodles are not breeds; they are considered “hybrids,” like tea roses.)

“We have seen quite a lot more Labradoodles in behavior and training classes, up 10 percent over the past three years,” says King of the Humane Society.

San Rafael veterinarian Kristen Harris, of Marin Pet Hospital, says she is seeing 20 to 30 percent more of the mixes in the last few years, particularly Goldendoodles.

“Breed popularity can be very trendy,” says Harris. “But there are also some great characteristics about Labradors, Golden Retrievers, and poodles. People tend to be drawn to the mixture of these breeds.”

Today, Goldendoodles and Labradoodles have their own Facebook pages and entire websites devoted to them and have spawned other mixes, such as roodles (a rottweiler/poodle).

The Family That Doodles Together

Lily Shin and friend Helen Duan, both of San Rafael, founded the Marin Doodle Romp four years ago because the closest Goldendoodle organization chapter was located in San Jose.

Shin had just gotten Buddy, and Duan had gotten Buddy’s sister, Ginger, and the women wanted to connect with other doodle owners. Both dogs came from Santa Rosa’s For God’s Glory Standard Poodles and Goldendoodles, owned by Carina and Daniel Guillory, who say that 60 percent of their Bay Area business comes from Marin County.

The Guillorys sell standard doodles (50 to 85 pounds) for $2,000 and medium-size (25 to 50 pounds) at $2,500. The smaller dogs are pricier because they are bred through artificial insemination. In contrast, the Marin Humane Society charges a $250 adoption fee for puppies up to six months and $150 for a dog up to 10 years old. (The Guillorys sell a pure- bred, neutered and trained poodle for around $900, and an American-style Golden Retriever for around $1,000.)

Shin was so pleased with Buddy she bought two more doodles from the Guillorys this year, one for her brother and one for her daughter, who got married in 2009.

 “All the family came for the wedding,” Shin says. “From Korea, Saudi Arabia, all over. And they met Buddy and went goo-goo gaga over him and wanted to steal him. They weren’t paying attention to the bride and groom at all. So when one of my brothers moved back to the U.S. and bought a house in New Jersey he wanted to get Buddy’s sibling. Last June, he got Buddy’s brother, Bear, and I got Spartan for my daughter’s first wedding anniversary.”

Birth of the Doodle

The first doodles were created in 1989 by Wally Conran, who was working for the Royal Guide Dog Association of Australia. He was contacted by a blind woman whose husband was allergic to dogs. Conran crossed a Lab, a reliable guide dog, with a poodle, with its tightly curled coat, hoping to create an easily trainable dog that would not shed too much. Three puppies were born, one of which proved to be allergy free.

Though Marin Pet Hospital’s Harris says dogs that don’t shed are a myth, most doodle owners beg to differ. Some chose their doodles primarily for that reason, and while Labradoodles and Goldendoodles are not completely hypoallergenic, they do seem to produce less dander. (First-generation doodles usually shed more than a mix of first generation doodle bred to another poodle.)

Mai-Liis Bartling of Novato, who recently retired after a 31-year career with the National Park Service, got her Labradoodle, Harper, as a puppy. “Our whole family is allergic to cats and we hadn’t had a dog for a while because my son, who’s now 16, is allergic to dogs. My husband researched online and when we saw a Labradoodle, we said, that’s what we want.”

Bartling’s son is not allergic to Harper. “She sheds a little but nothing like our previous dog,” Bartling says. “No hair everywhere. If you comb it, a little bit will come out but it’s not the same as fur, it’s hair.” 

Kerry Bortel and her husband, attorney Aaron Bortel, got their big snowy-white doodle Spike several months ago because they “wanted an allergen-free dog.”

“We used to have an Alaskan Malamute and when I put my face in its fur it really irritated me,” says Aaron. “This dog doesn’t bother me and it’s the most affectionate dog ever.”

“And it doesn’t shed, which I love,” says Kerry. “With our other dog I was vacuuming every day, and he died, and then we got Spike and all of a sudden I realized I had gone a week without vacuuming and it was fine.”

Shedding Light

Experts warn prospective owners that not all doodles are truly hypoallergenic. “Many have been showing up in shelters when their owners find out that they are allergic to them,” says Camp Canine’s Hrobsky. “I had more than one client ask me about their dog’s coat because they purchased it as a ‘hypoallergenic’ breed, but the dog shed,” says Hrobsky. “This was unfortunate as a number of dogs were re-homed or given to shelters because they weren’t what the owner had wanted.”

Grooming is also a key factor in taking care of these dogs, says breeder Carina. “I feel there is a lot of misinformation about Goldendoodles being hypoallergenic and completely shed free, and that they are low-maintenance dogs. It’s not true. I try to tell owners, yes, they’re very low- to non-shedding dogs, but the trade-off is that they need regular grooming, especially if they have a long coat, which most people like the look of. It requires a lot of brushing at home and going to groomers every four to six weeks.”

King of the Humane Society adds, “To have a dog that is like a Lab and doesn’t shed is great, but the problem is it doesn’t always work out that way all the time. There’s no guarantee that the mix will produce a dog with the no-shedding of a poodle and the temperament of a Lab. It’s the new fashion. They have tons of energy. Labradoodles are very sweet and make good family dogs but only after age three because they can be very scattered and destructive before that. People like their looks. It’s like dating a guy because he’s really cute. It doesn’t mean he’s going to be a nice guy. But he’s cute. What you have to realize is you’re going to get the whole package.”

Doodle owners don’t seem too worried.

“I’ve had many dogs in my life but I have to say this is the best dog I’ve ever had,” says Shin. “They are the most loyal, and gentle and smart, and they don’t shed and they’re not hyper. They’re just so cuddly; as big as they are they want to spend all day on your lap kissing and hugging. They’re great with children, don’t bark and are easy to train. What more can you ask for?”