Living with a Labradoodle

Barket Place Trainer, Carole Zorzo, brings her unique understanding of life with a Labradoodle. “Designer dog” or therapy provider? Read on to learn more.

Therapy Dog? Family Pet? Crazy? The Labradoodle has been described in many ways and as the guardian of an Australian Labradoodle or Australian Service Dog(ALD/ASD) for the past 5 years, I have personally met with reactions from ‘he’s so cute and cuddly, a little bear!’ To downright indignation and dare I say, snobbery from those (thankfully the minority), who believe they don’t even have the right to exist! It’s safe to say however, that I can no longer imagine life without our boy, Baffi.

When I was asked to write this blog, of course I didn’t hesitate, but at the same time, I felt the importance of seeking the opinions of other Doodle guardians to get to the heart of what our Labradoodles mean to us and whether they are more than just those cute ‘designer’ dogs, a term that makes me cringe. It’s a needless label. The Labradoodle was created as a Service Dog.

I want to look at this breed, its history and ask “is bringing a Labradoodle into your home right for you?”

The History of the Labradoodle

Although the Labradoodle is widely credited to Australian Wally Conron in the 1980s, Labrador Retriever/Poodle crosses had existed since the 1950’s in the USA. They had been popular in the Entertainment World because of their cuteness, but also their intelligence and trainability. A Doodle called Fang, was a popular member of the cast in Get Smart, a US TV comedy show of the 1950’s and today they appear frequently on TV and movies (e.g. Annie 1982, A Star is Born 2018). However, there is much more to a Labradoodle than a TV star. Speed record breaker, Donald Campbell was most probably the first to coin the term ‘Labradoodle’, when writing about his Poodle/Labrador cross, Maxie, in his 1955 book ‘Into the Water Barrier’.

Wally Conron created his potential Service dog by crossing a Labrador Retriever and a Poodle for the Guide Dog Association of Australia. They had a blind client in Hawaii who needed an assistance dog, but whose husband had allergies. These were 1st generation Labradoodles, but because of the Labrador coat, there would be no non-shedding guarantee. Today, these Labradoodles are known as Standard, American or English Labradoodles or F1. With these there is less predictability, especially concerning the coat: those with Retriever type hair will shed, whilst those that inherit the curlier, tighter Poodle coat will shed less, but still can’t be guaranteed completely hyper-allergenic.

From Conron’s initial breeding, only one of the litter fitted the criteria – Sultan became the first Australian (Labradoodle) Service Dog. After Sultan, there was the desire from others to continue his work and a couple of other Australian breeders (Tegan/Rutland) developed a breeding programme, including six different breeds into the Labrador/Poodle mix:American Cocker, English Cocker, Curly Coat Retriever and Irish Water Spaniel. More controversy followed, but today TRUE Australian Labradoodles (ALDs) are multi-generational, bred Labradoodle to Labradoodle with a DNA and ancestry consisting of at least three of these breeds.

F1 and ALD…what’s the difference?

First generation Labradoodles, bred Labrador Retriever to Poodle, tend to be larger and a little more energetic, needing slightly more exercise than ALDs. They are the original cross (50% Poodle 50% Labrador Retriever) and they do shed – how much depends on their coat. They also benefit from having the Filial Hybrid Vigor, which indicates the least likelihood of health complications of all the generations.

There are several generational types of Labradoodle: F1,F2, F2b, F3, Multigenerational… but to explain the generational differences between each would be a whole blog post in itself! ALDs tend to be smaller and come in four sizes: miniature, small medium, medium and standard. Multigenerational Australian Labradoodles are bred over several generations of Labradoodle to Labradoodle.

All Labradoodles need a fair amount of exercise … both physical and mental stimulation. The Poodle is listed as one of the most intelligent dog breeds, in fact second only to the Border Collie – with the Labrador not far behind. Furthermore the Poodle is said to be the easiest dog to train. Those of us who have Labradoodles in our lives will know that they like to have fun, to work and they love to learn… a bored Labradoodle will seek out all sorts of mischief.

I see a lot of questions about Labradoodles being fussy eaters, mine isn’t…far from it. He is fed a fresh food diet plus home cooked from a slow feeder or various other enrichment sources such as Kongs and Lickimats. He will lick away until every morsel is gone and I can see him enjoying every bit. That’s just my boy though. He enjoys working for his food and I would suggest this is something worth trying if your dog doesn’t seem to eat with such enthusiasm.

Why a Labradoodle for me?

I love Poodles, my husband was not so keen and your choice of dog has to be a joint one. The first Labradoodle came into my life when I was a child in the 70’s and one of my family had an F1…I adored her. Latterly a local lady had an older ALD; I must have driven her mad with all my questions, but my heart was set on one and luckily my husband agreed! I researched breeders and read up all about the breed for over a year.

I asked for feedback from members of our own breeder’s group, where over the past five years I have got to know so many lovely Australian Labradoodle guardians. My research garnered about 40 responses and 10 of these were from F1 Doodle guardians.

One of the main reasons people choose ALDs is because they are non-shedding and are known to be excellent therapy dogs. There are quite a few amongst the Doodles on our breeder’s group alone… ranging from dogs who visit schools, residential homes, to companions where there are children with autism in a family. I also have a few ALD guardian friends whose dogs are therapy volunteers working with children who have extra needs, or Cynophobia, an overwhelming fear of dogs. Interestingly, every single one of those who responded to me with a dog working or volunteering in a therapy type role, has a female Doodle, so that may say something perhaps?

They all had (not surprisingly) only good things to say…. Labradoodles (all types) are ‘gentle, loving, easy to train, adaptable, good with children, playful, love swimming and agility’.

However, like humans, every dog is different – unlike a lot of Doodles in my survey, Baffi hates water for instance! Doodles generally are all of the above, but as I already mentioned, whilst they love lolling about on your sofa, they also need to ‘work’ and will keep you on your toes! They love learning and playing games – scent-work games in particular are great for them. They are also well known for inventing their own games, which may involve underwear (preferably socks) or food. There is a saying ‘Silence is Golden…unless you have a Labradoodle!’ Labradoodles are very quick to learn, whether it is a behaviour you do want… or maybe you don’t! You very much need to learn to speak their language. They are opportunists, so beware!

Baffi started to rush to pinch my slippers every time we got back from a walk. He would run off with one and think that incredibly clever; yes, I could have just put them away, but I decided to make a game – or job – out of it. I put the shoes in a downstairs closet and once he has had his lead and harness removed, I send him to get my shoes for me. It’s a double win – he has a job to do, I have my shoes – plus he gets a reward at the end of it. You have to be inventive… a true solution seeker with a Labradoodle !

Just like Poodles, Doodles are very stimulated by movement and can have a tendency to bark, when excited or for attention. If you reward them regularly for certain behaviours, either with food or toy and then suddenly stop, they will actually experience disappointment and you will be able to tell. They also don’t like too much repetition, so mix up your teaching and play and keep sessions short. Before I was wise to this, I may have kept sessions a bit too long and I saw two sides of Baffi: he would either get over aroused and jump up, or just walk off, depending on whether the games had been high or low energy. I now keep sessions short and end with a cool down. Real Dog Yoga is a go-to calming end to our play sessions. (Want to learn more about ‘Real Dog Yoga’? Check out our Barket Club!)

I asked Baffi’s breeder, a family who have loved this breed for 16 years, why the Australian Labradoodle? It was simply that after a lot of research into the breed, they were smitten and imported their first boys and girls from Australia. They have never looked back or stopped loving this breed.

For my own interest I had Baffi’s DNA tested recently. I already knew that his parents through to great grandparents were Australian Labradoodles, but I was interested to see what percentage of each mix is in his make-up. Before I got the results my feelings were mostly Poodle – he has all the traits plus the curly coat. Truly the only Labrador I see in him is his liking for food and his muscular, stocky build. As for Spaniel, Baffi has his nose to the ground, sniffing out foxes and deer on our early morning walks, but I confess to not knowing enough about Spaniels to determine the traits. Imagine how thrilled I was when I got the results and found my assessment of Baffi’s DNA to be spot on: 79% Poodle, 12% Labrador and 9% three spaniel breed mixes.

Doodles are great family dogs, but they can be excitable and many people don’t realise just how energetic they are and how much input you need to grow a good relationship with your Doodle. Sadly a lot do end up in rescue, along with similar Poodle crosses. This was especially evident for lockdown puppies. Doodles need a lot of time and like being with their humans, so can suffer separation anxiety, which was a big problem for many pandemic home-workers, who had not factored this into the teaching of their pup. If you haven’t got time to devote, a Doodle isn’t for you, which is another reason why they are really suitable for one person guardians or couples who are home most of the time.

There is also the maintenance. A fleece or curly coated ALD, especially if you want to keep the long teddy bear look, will need combing at home every day, plus a trip to the groomer every 5-6 weeks or your dog will become seriously matted. It’s no surprise that for many groomers Doodles and other Poodle Crosses bring the biggest problems, purely because guardians neglect their responsibility to the coat. Even if you do keep on top of it, it may be kinder to go for a slightly shorter cut, as hours on the grooming table is no fun for any dog.

What about life expectancy? If you believed everything on social media you would think that Doodles (of all generations) are susceptible to every disease imaginable. I repeat that every dog is an individual; of the guardians who responded, there were a high number of Doodles aged between 11 and 15 and even two aged 17. If you are considering a Doodle, just like any puppy make sure the breeder is reputable – a list of such breeders can be found via the Australian Labradoodles Association UK (ALAUK) and that all necessary health checks have been carried out. A good breeder will be there to support you after you have brought your puppy into your home.

There is some evidence that Labradoodles can be prone to hip dysplasia, cruciate ligament problems, allergies, Addison’s disease and especially ear infections… so far we have had none of these with Baffi. Even though the best scores in any puppy of any breed are sought after, remember these can skip a generation. Of those who responded to me, ear infections were by far the most common problem, with a few diagnosed with Addison’s.

What happened to Wally Conron? Now in his 90’s, a few years ago he created a stir when it was widely reported when he claimed the Labradoodle to be his ‘life’s regret’ and that he had created a Frankenstein dog. It all sounds very dramatic and bitter, but quotes can and often are, taken out of context. He wasn’t saying all Labradoodles are crazy, disease prone, unmanageable dogs, instead he was referring to the craze for the breed that followed his initial breeding. This craze led to unscrupulous breeders and puppy farms that not only bred Labradoodles without genetic testing and health testing but also created other totally unsuitable Poodle crossbreeds without considering the consequences. After Conron’s initial breeding, the dogs were not popular because most people were only interested in pure breeds, so it was decided to call them the Labradoodle and suddenly they were too popular for their own good, which led to the poor breeding practices to which Conron was referring.

Is a Labradoodle for you?

I’m not going to just say “of course” because taking on any puppy (or adult dog) requires a lot of consideration and research. Plus Doodles can be high maintenance. Think about your lifestyle: would he be left alone a lot? Do you have the time to commit to teaching, playing and generally being with him? Do you have very young children who might not understand that overly arousing their Labradoodle pup is going to probably lead to a harder to handle adult? Can you devote the time and cost needed for grooming? Research thoroughly and talk to reputable breeders. They should be asking questions such as these of you and you should be asking questions of them about the environment in which the puppies are raised and for screening records, hip and eye scores, ancestry records. Once you commit, visit the puppy at least once before bringing him home and ask to meet the mother. With Baffi, we actually saw both parents.

Do your research well: if the main reason that you are considering a Labradoodle is because of allergies, it may be worth considering other non- or minimally-shedding breeds such as Schnauzers, Poodles or Shih Tzus, which may be better suited to your particular lifestyle.

Would I have another Doodle? Yes I would. I think when we got him and despite all the research and both of us having grown up with dogs, having responsibility for our own was a new learning curve and with a Labradoodle, maybe even more so. Baffi ‘differs’ from most (but not all) of the dogs in my research for this piece. He can be anxious and lack confidence and there could be particular reasons for this behaviour. Whilst he has no separation anxiety whatsoever, I believe his personality has really benefitted from us being able to devote a lot of time to his teaching, playing and well-being. I’m not sure he would have done so well in a busy household, but on the other hand there is the debate of nature over nurture, so who knows, he may have thrived.

I had the dream that my Labradoodle, would volunteer as a therapy dog, but whilst Baffi’s gentle nature surfaces around older people and children, he is over exuberant with some adults, especially females who have what he perceives as ‘excitable’ voices. Sadly, he would never pass the therapy dog test. He has however been MY therapy, helping with my own anxiety especially recently through the lockdowns.

Above everything, he is a very loving, joyful, devoted dog, who went from a younger boy who was, admittedly, hard work – to an adult dog who is never far from our side. He has learned to play more appropriately with other dogs, rather than crazy chasing everywhere, except with another Doodle/Poodle… I swear they have their own Club! Yes he can be obstinate and determined, but he is intuitive (I’m convinced he can read my mind!) and there isn’t a mean bone in his body. I can without hesitation say he’s changed our lives for the better. I hope that if you are considering a Labradoodle that in some way this has helped, or at least prompted you to ask how this breed would match with your lifestyle. Take a look at breed specific forums and ask lots of questions. Labradoodles are wonderful dogs, but as with every breed you need to ask yourself many questions before committing, the main one being “is this the right dog for me?”