NEW YORK (Reuters) - When someone plunks down $2,500 for a dog, you might think they're investing in a purebred pup, its pedigree stretching back generations. But not Cecile Desmond of Hopkinton, Massachusetts. She was happy to part with that much cash for Percy, a shaggy creature that some hound snobs at this month's Westminster Kennel Club dog show might label a mutt.
Okay, not just any kind of mutt, but a "Labradoodle," a cross between a poodle and a Labrador retriever.
"I was focusing on the fact he was non-shedding," recalls Desmond, a real estate attorney. "My son has allergies and asthma, and I was concerned that he'd be allergic to a dog."
More than three years later, Percy the pricey pooch has lived up to his non-shedding promise. Desmond and her family couldn't be happier. And it turns out that when you cross poodles with other popular breeds, you get much more than trading runny noses for funny breed names.
Poodle mixes, or "Doodles," seem to be wagging their tails and barking with glee, even in the aftermath of the Great Recession.
U.S. kennel clubs do not keep sales figures for mixed-breed dogs, but if there's one hot category in the canine set, doodles are it. "Doodles are 100 percent here to stay," says Wendy Diamond, an animal rescue advocate and founder/editor of Animal Fair magazine.
And that is in a U.S. pet industry that generated an estimated $50 billion in 2011, up 10 percent from 2009, according to the American Pet Products Association.
Even so, don't expect to see doodles strutting at the February 13-14 Westminster Kennel Club show. Because doodles are mixed breeds, Westminster doesn't recognize them; ditto for the American Kennel Club (AKC), which at this point recognizes 174 varieties dating to its 1884 founding - but not doodles.
"It's a trend people have bought into who want something different," says AKC spokeswoman Lisa Peterson. As for why doodles aren't accepted as breeds in their own right, "Designer dogs do not breed pure to type, and each of the offspring will: One may be tall, one may be small, one may have a poodle coat, one may have a Labrador coat."
Goldendoodles (a golden retriever mix) and Labradoodles constitute a new wave of designer dog that has leapt in popularity since 2000. They join more established poodle mixes such as cockapoos (cocker spaniels) and schnoodles (schnauzers).
Doodles now fetch as much as $3,000 per puppy for many reasons: their shaggy, cute looks; their high energy and playfulness; and their robustness (known in animal genetics as "hybrid vigor") that comes from crossing two distinct stocks to get the best of both breeds.
"A lot of people don't want a poodle, because it's the pedigree with a pedicure," Animal Fair's Diamond says. "People who are into poodles are into arts, wine and culture. But when you cross that with a Labrador - and guys who are into Labradors are into sports - you get a fabulous mix and a fabulous dog."
Folks buying doodles and betting on the poodle's non-shedding coat may not always get what they want. But Harrison Forbes, a nationally recognized dog trainer and animal behaviorist, counters that "the coat of the poodle is a very strong dominant gene."
He adds: "No dog is hypoallergenic truly, but it's not like mating a bulldog with a Great Dane; that could be a disaster. Breeding with poodles has been a really big success. It's turned out to be a very good mix."
It's also been very good to established doodle breeders, who screen prospective buyers carefully. "We have a questionnaire that people fill out in advance, so we can match the right puppy to the right people," says Erica Wagenbach, who breeds goldendoodles with her husband at Sunshine Acres in Wolcott, Indiana, halfway between Chicago and Indianapolis.
Michael Wagenbach utilizes his background in genetics (he worked with seed beans in college at Iowa State), "and we thought there was a lot to be offered in breeding hybrid dogs-to enhance the health and longevity, promote sound temperament and improve the genetics," Erica says.
As doodle breeders go, the Wagenbachs are old hands. When they started in 2002, "only a handful of people were doing this. Now there's been an explosion, in part because they are such wonderful dogs."
Doodles certainly aren't cheap. A Wagenbach farm pup might fetch anywhere from $500 to $3,000, and raising one includes expenses dog owners know too well - from regular veterinarian visits to dog food, pet supplies and obedience training. Desmond says her doodle runs up $200 to $400 in annual vet bills, and goes through one $40 bag of dog food every three to four weeks.
The Wagenbachs won't release sales figures, not wanting to encourage unscrupulous breeders with a puppy mill mentality. Judy Hahn, who runs the Gleneden puppy farm in Berryville Virginia (about 65 miles west of Washington, DC), says she sold between 35 to 50 Labradoodles in the last year, for an average price of $1,800 each.
"We screen our dogs for genetic problems and take the same care in breeding that people take with top show dogs," Hahn says. She may take the breeding seriously, but it's all fun when she sponsors annual "Doodle Romps" in the fall, where Gleneden puppies and their owners return to the farm.
"It's like a family reunion," she says. "They just run and play Frisbee and we've never had an altercation between any of the dogs, which says a lot."
She does have a warning for potential doodle owners, though: "This is not a dog for couch potatoes. They're active; they like water, they like boats, they like to go to the park. It's a go-anywhere, do-anything breed."
Editing by Lauren Young and Andrew Hay