It’s the designer dog du jour, but how did we end up with so many cavoodles, schnoodles and labradoodles? Alex Casey chats to breeders, owners and groomers about the era of the oodle.
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There may be an impending shortage of noodles, but Aotearoa has no shortage of oodles. The adorable teddy bear faces of “oodle” cross-breed dogs have appeared to take over the designer dog world, popping up everywhere from Lisa Carrington’s Instagram to Kim Dotcom’s wedding party. The growing popularity has also spawned countless Frankenstinian combinations. You probably know labradoodles, cavoodles and schnoodles, but what about bassetdoodles? Bernedoodles? Maltipoos? Shih-poos?
It is difficult to know just how many oodles are actually out there. Auckland Council was unable to provide data on the “oodle” cross-breed population, due to the fact that they all fall under the “mixed” category when registered. Trade Me data was slightly more useful, at least for demonstrating “oodle” appetites. Over the course of a week in January 2022, there were over 13,000 searches containing the phrase “oodle” – with the caveat from Trade Me that this may also include searches for “pool noodles”.
That number grew to 16,000 searches per week by March, with cooling temperatures surely reducing the craving for pool noodles even further.
Like fast fashion and politicians on TikTok, dog breeds have always followed some obvious societal trends. “You can trace it,” says Steven Thompson, director secretary of Dogs New Zealand, formerly the New Zealand Kennel Club. “Rottweilers were very popular in the early 90s, then you’ve got labradors and German shepherds which have always been popular, then there’s French bulldogs, which became extremely popular in the past five or six years.”
Thompson was unable to comment on the rise of the “oodle” mixed breed population, as Dogs New Zealand only deals with pedigree pooches. But Angela Anderson, managing director of Angel’s Grooming, can attest to the cross-breed takeover – although she prefers to call them “designer” or “custom-made” dogs. “Thirty years ago everyone had a German shepherd in the backyard, and now today everyone has three little designer dogs at the end of their bed,” she laughs.
Anderson estimates that when she opened her business 22 years ago, over 90% of her canine customers were pure-bred. “The other 10% were kind of whispered to me by the owner that they were a… cross-breed,” she says, dipping her voice to a volume so low that ironically only dogs could hear it. These days, the tables have turned completely. Over 80% of her customers are cross-breeds, and at least half of those are either oodle or bichon crosses.
To understand oodle growth, we must first understand oodle origins. The 1965 series Get Smart featured a labrador-poodle mix by the name of Fang, but it wasn’t until the 1980s that the labradoodle label was born. Australian breeder Wally Conron told the ABC he first began plotting the labradoodle after receiving a letter from a blind woman in Hawaii seeking a guide dog that would suit her allergic husband. By 1989, Conron had created a new cross-breed – “a dog with the working ability of the labrador and the coat of the poodle”.
One pup was sent to the woman in Hawaii to start its working life as a guide dog, and Conron found himself with two more pups from the litter, still in Australia. He knew they were clever enough to be guide dogs, but he couldn’t convince anyone to take them due to their mixed breed. Desperate, he went to the Guide Dogs Victoria PR department and asked for help promoting a new, non-allergenic guide dog. And he gave it a name to really sell it – the labradoodle.
From there, oodles went into ooverdrive. “I could not visualise the publicity that a cross-bred dog would get,” Conron told the ABC podcast Sum of All Parts in 2019. “Cars would stop and people would get out of the car and say to me, ‘excuse me, what sort of dog is that?’ I’d say ‘it’s a labradoodle!'” Inquiries began to flood in from all over the world as more and more people developed get oodle fever, and more and more breeders began mixing pure-bred poodles with other breeds to meet the demand.
A huge part of the oodle appeal is the fact they are lowshedding and therefore less allergenic than other dogs. The Spinoff spoke to half a dozen oodle owners, several of whom chose their beloved oodles for their allergy-friendly coats, commonly fleece or wool. “We had a cat and my daughter was allergic to it,” said one labradoodle owner, “so because labradoodles don’t moult we knew there was less chance of her being allergic. And he doesn’t drop hair, so we can have a pet but we don’t have to deal with hair everywhere.”
A cavoodle owner felt the same way: “I had a cat that just shed everywhere, so I was determined I wouldn’t have dog hair all over me as well. The non-shedding was really important to me.” Another owner of a low-poo (lowchen poodle) said they had never had a dog before and didn’t know what it was going to be like, so one of the “biggest things” about getting a poodle-cross pooch was that it didn’t shed and it didn’t “smell like dog”.
The trade-off is that oodles come with high-maintenance grooming needs. Anderson says oodle parents can expect to spend over $1,000 a year for their dogs to be groomed about every six weeks from a young age. “They are often low shedding but that doesn’t mean they don’t knot,” she explains. “It’s a pain in the butt,” says one cavoodle owner of her dog Dougal’s grooming routine, “but he does come back smelling beautifully and looking really cute – he always gets a tie or a bow tie on him.”
Anderson thinks it is that bow tie-wearing cuteness has a lot to do with the oodle popularity. “I could name you 20 dogs that are anti-allergenic that we didn’t have to cross-breed to make,” she says, channelling Harlan Pepper in Best in Show. “Schnauzers are hypoallergenic. Maltese are anti-allergenic. Poodles are anti-allergenic. Bichons are anti-allergenic.” So why are these breeds not gracing Kim Dotcom’s wedding party? “Honestly it is just the more you see, the more you want.”
Rebecca Lomas is a well-regarded Christchurch labradoodle breeder, or “midwoof”, as she prefers. She picks up the phone after a busy morning – she has just farewelled one of her puppies to a delighted family, and the feeling is bittersweet. “It’s the hardest part of what I do, saying goodbye,” she explains. Still, she has plenty to keep her busy – Lomas has 21 labradoodle puppies in her care in Christchurch, and every single one is set to go to a new home across Aotearoa in the next few days.
Lomas first encountered the labradoodle when she adopted one of her own, back in Australia in 2013. “My daughter was about 15 at the time and desperately wanted a dog but I was allergic,” she says. “I thought I wouldn’t be able to bring a dog into my life and give it all my love, so I started researching which dogs would be appropriate for my skin type and the labradoodle quickly came up.” Kya was flown up from Melbourne to the Blue Mountains, and the rest was history.
“She sat on my lap all the way home for the two-hour car ride and I just fell in love with her.”
After spending a few years in the corporate world, Lomas felt another calling after she moved here to Aotearoa. “We loved our labradoodle and we wanted to make more of her, but we wanted to do it responsibly,” she says. Enlisting a mentor back in Australia – who, incidentally, wrote the code of ethics for the Australian Labradoodle Association – Lomas began to learn the nuances of breeding from the experts and started her business Labradoodle Lovers. “There’s definitely a lot to learn to make sure that you continue to breed thoroughly and thoughtfully,” she says.
That includes performing a series of rigorous tests on every breeding dog, including DNA profiles to identify any underlying genetic disorders that may be passed on, hip and elbow x-rays to check for dysplasia, and temperament assessment by an independent vet. Lomas works closely with a reproductive specialist in Christchurch, and gets together with a group of labradoodle breeders on Zoom once a month. It’s a lot of work, but she loves it. “I really, really do. I love breeding healthy puppies and seeing the happiness on the families’ faces.”
However, not all oodle breeders are like Lomas. The soaring price tag on oodle cross-breeds has led to a rise in “backyard breeders” – people who play fast and loose with both genes and breeding conditions. Anderson has seen the worst of it – cross-breeds that are heavily pregnant and heavily matted, some with gnarled feet turned the wrong way, and others suffering debilitating skin problems due to genetic factors. She once groomed a cross-bred poodle/shih tzu that only had one eye, a result of its eye sockets being the wrong size for its eyeball shape.
“There are so many people thinking it is a good idea to mix a poodle with anything without thinking about what it really means and where it is going to go,” says Lomas. “It is a bit mad scientist, like the guy from The Muppets going do-do-dod-do.” Anderson makes clear that it is not the dogs she takes issue with, but the breeders. “It’s not that I am against cross-breeding at all, I am against the same thing in pedigree breeders – they just need to be doing it ethically. These problems can arise with pure-breds as well, but if you’ve got proper testing then they should be identified early.”
Labradoodle creator Wally Conron became so concerned by the rise in haphazard breeders and the health problems they can unleash that he called the labradoodle “his life’s regret”. “I opened a Pandora box and released a Frankenstein monster,” he told the ABC. Lomas is similarly worried about backyard breeders, and says the lack of breeding regulation has created a “scary situation” for consumers and animals alike. “It concerns me that there are so many oodle breeders out there that are putting breeds together without any consideration for the dog,” she says.
Organisations like Dogs NZ have a strict breeder code of conduct, but only allow pedigree breeders on their books, which means that cross-breeders are not held to any sort of industry standard. Dogs NZ’s Steven Thompson says the only two options that currently exist for people with concerns are the Animal Welfare Act, which imposes standards on the treatment of animals, and the Dog Control Act, which local government operates under. “There’s no specific legislation around dog breeding,” he says. “That’s a real gap in the market at the moment.”
There are no current plans to recognise the labradoodle, or any other “oodle” mix, by Dogs NZ or any other international kennel club. “This is not a quick process,” says Thompson. “Recognition of new pedigree breeds can take up to 20 years.”
For now, the way to combat the dodgy breeder trade is research – and lots of it. Anderson says she used to get regular phone calls from people asking about particular breeds and their grooming needs before they brought a dog into their family. “I haven’t had a call like that in 10-15 years, not one,” she says. “Now it seems like people just go straight to the internet, they go ‘that’s so cute’ and they take it home.”
Thompson also warns against getting sucked in online. “Do not click and buy on Trade Me because there’s a cute picture of a dog looking adoringly at you,” he says. “Do your research on the breed and the breeder. Ideally, before you make a purchase decision, you want to develop a relationship with a breeder.” He advises consumers to ask a lot of questions around the kennel operation, the breeder’s experience, the health testing of the parents and whether you can get a sales contract.
“For me, any animal is a great animal,” says Anderson. “It is just a matter of people doing their research. Talk to the breeder, ask to be put in touch with other puppy owners from that breeder – if they won’t match you up, that’s suspicious.” She also says people should ideally consult with a groomer and a vet before making any animal adoption decisions. Whether you are looking at a cavoodle, a spoodle or a groodle, the same research applies. “Breeder. Groomer. Vet. Those are the three essentials.”
The mixed-breed oodle has become the dog of the pandemic. An Australian pet insurer said more policies were taken out for cavoodles than any other breed last year and the year before. Several of the people spoken to for this story got their oodles just before the beginning of the pandemic, if not during it. “We had all this time for walks and stuff in lockdown so it felt like… why not add a dog into this little combo?” one owner said. Another saw the closed borders as a chance to finally bring an oodle home. “I travel a lot for work overseas, so when international travel stopped, I thought it’s now or never.”
Housing and size was another motivator cited by every oodle owner who had a small cross-breed (cavoodles, caschnoodles, low-poos), perhaps reflective of the end of that 90s quarter acre dream with the German shepherd in the backyard. “The kind of spaces that I live in are always very small in the city and it felt kind of unfair to have a big dog,” says one owner. “They’re pretty little and manageable, especially in the city it makes a lot of sense,” says another. A cavoodle owner in her 60s says they are the perfect size – “not too small and yappy, but not too big and muscly that they could run off with you.”
Nobody spoken to for this story knows quite where the oodle cross-breed phenomena is headed, but the trend is not looking likely to slow down any time soon. “It’s a tricky one,” says Anderson. “You can’t uncross a dog, so I think it will become more and more rare to see pure-breds around, which is such a shame.” One thing is for sure, oodles have already made their mark on this particularly bizarre chapter in history. “Oodles are probably going to date like mustard clothes or something,” one ca-schnoodle owner reflects.
“In five or 10 years time everyone’s going to be like ‘oh yeah, oodle? You must have got that around 2020’.”