Doodles Part 2 – Alicia Hobson: The Bearded Retriever Project
Jessica Hekman: Welcome to the Functional Breeding Podcast. I’m Jessica Hekman, and I’m here interviewing folks about how to breed dogs for function and for health: behavioral and physical. This podcast is brought to you by the Functional Dog Collaborative, an organization founded to support the ethical breeding of healthy, behaviorally sound dogs. FDC’s goals include providing educational, social, and technical resources to breeders of both purebred and mixed breed dogs. You can find out more at www.functionalbreeding.org, or at the Functional Breeding Facebook Group, which is a friendly and inclusive community. I hope you have fun and learn something.
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Jessica Hekman: Hi, friends. In this episode I talked with Alicia Hobson of Bear Lake Bearded Retrievers. Alicia is the founder of the Bearded Retriever Project, which is developing a breed based on poodles, labrador retrievers, and golden retrievers. The dogs have a classic doodle look, and F1 poodle/retriever crosses can be bearded retrievers. Alicia has some great insights into the ups and downs of breeding doodle-type dogs.
So thank you so much, Alicia, for talking with us. I really appreciate it. And the first question that I always ask people is about the dogs that you have that you live with. What kind of dogs are they? Where did they come from? I had one breeder respond to that saying she had 15 dogs. So if you have 15 dogs, you don’t have to tell us about all 15.
Alicia Hobson: (laughter) Nope, I only have three.
JH: That’s easy enough then. Who are they?
AH: Well, my first one is a standard poodle. Her name is Sophie, and she is an absolute and complete diva. She knows better than me. And if I tell her to do something, and it makes sense to her, she will do it with flair. If I tell her to do something, and it doesn’t make sense to her, she will look at me, chastising me, and do whatever she wants.
JH: (laughter) It’s… You know it’s nice when they’re smarter than you and they know what the appropriate things to do are better than you do.
AH: Right. Right. And she does just. Just ask her. My other dog is a bearded retriever. He is 50% golden retriever from English lines. So the really lazy, heavy, thick boned… just lazy, good boy, happy all the time. And his mother is that standard poodle I just told you about, Sophie. So he is very good. He’s very easy. He just does whatever he’s supposed to do all of the time. And all he wants is just a kiss and a hug.
My third dog, she’s a goldendoodle. She’s not going to be part of my bearded retriever program. She’s part miniature poodle (although really I think it’s probably part toy poodle), part standard poodle, and part golden retriever. Now, the temperament between her and my other boy who could also be classified as a goldendoodle is like night and day. They’re related. His brother is her father. But her mother is part toy poodle, part standard poodle, and I believe the
golden retriever that was used on that side of her family tree was probably from field lines. And so she’s a lot higher energy. She’s a lot more enthusiastic. She acts like she’s five pounds, but she’s really 35 pounds. And she just bounces all over. Her favorite thing to do is play “the floor is lava,” and jump from furniture, to furniture, to furniture, then into somebody’s arms when they don’t know that she’s coming. So she’s fun. It’s like living on Sesame Street.
JH: That is a fun game. (laughter) I haven’t had a dog play exactly that game, but that game sounds awesome.
AH: It is great, yeah. I can’t really have her be in my bearded retriever program, because if she were a 50 to 60 pound dog, that game would not be great.
JH: No, it’s less fun at that weight for sure if you’re not fully expecting it. I have a dog who doesn’t leap into people’s arms unexpectedly, but he does kiss them unexpectedly. And so when we used to live in a place where there was a big, safe dog park that we went to, he would, from a distance, identify that someone was bending down to pick up dog poop. And he would sweep in and kiss them on the face unexpectedly while their face was far down. That’s that’s a little easier to live with than a 50 pound dog launching into your arms, but it was still very unexpected for people. (laughter)
Yeah, so we’ll talk in a second about exactly what a bearded retriever is. So I’m just gonna stick with the term “doodle” for now as a more sort of generic until we clear that up for people. So I first just wanted to ask how you got into breeding these dogs? How did you get into breeding doodles or doodle-type dogs?
AH: Well, I got into goldendoodles first because I got a standard poodle. My daughter, when she was about four years old (four or five), we had a cat and it became extremely apparent when I moved somewhere and had to keep the cat in my bedroom that she was extremely allergic to it. And so I ended up having to rehome the cat, and then decided my next step would be to get a dog. But I didn’t want to bring a dog into the family just to rehome it again. And I realized that she was allergic to things that shed. And so naturally, I decided to look at a low-shedding breed. And I didn’t want a tiny dog. I wanted a medium to large sized dog. I wanted something that would be great with the family, that we could take anywhere we wanted to go and just have a great time with. So we got a standard poodle.
And the standard poodle very quickly inspired me to start looking at other options. Because standard poodles are funny. They have a great sense of humor. They don’t listen all the time. They only listen if what you tell them makes sense to them. And I’ve been training dogs since 2003. Like, I was a professional trainer in 2003. And so it wasn’t the lack of training. I could have this dog 100% reliable on any obedience command I wanted to teach her. She would do it wonderful for maybe a year, two years. And then just overnight, she would forget what that meant. And she just wouldn’t do it anymore. Forget it. Not doing it. Doesn’t make sense anymore. And it just drives me crazy.
And so I started looking around at the other dogs, and when I first got my standard poodle I saw goldendoodles advertised. And they cost more than the poodles did. And I thought, “Why would I want to get a mixed breed when I could get a purebred, and it would just be better?” But then I started looking at those mixed breeds, and I thought, “Oh, hey. They might be onto something. Those golden retrievers, they’re good family dogs. They listen. You could tell them to jump off of a cliff, and if you told them to do it they would probably do it.”
And so I started looking at doodles. And my very first thought was, “Well, those are pretty. I like the colors.” And so I started checking out the Aussiedoodles. And I really thought that’s the direction I was gonna go. I was gonna breed Aussiedoodles because Australian shepherds are so smart. Herding breeds are my favorite. And the colors, the merle, the blue merle. It’s beautiful. So I was all set. I started doing a little bit of research. I started going to the dog parks. And then I met some. And that changed my mind right there. I was done. Because every Aussiedoodle or borderdoodle that I met, it was not an ideal combination of temperament traits. They were very obsessive. They were very bossy and extremely controlling. And they had no off-switch because when their owner told them to stop that, they knew better than them. So they weren’t gonna listen. They did their own thing. They were their own boss, and everybody was violating the rules. And so I changed my mind. I decided I would look for something that had a temperament that was more in line with the standard poodle. Something that was just a little bit more complimentary. And so that’s where I landed on goldendoodles.
JH: Goldens have, well the really good goldens have such lovely personalities.
JH: As I was telling you before we started recording, my first dog was a golden and his personality was just… He was amazing. I don’t think he’d ever been properly socialized. He sort of had grown up as a backyard dog. And he still, like he was just so fabulous.
So all right. So you started breeding these lovely creatures, and you refer to them as bearded retrievers, rather than as goldendoodles. So could you tell us a little bit about what the difference is and how you ended up there?
AH: Yeah, absolutely. So I got into goldendoodles. And I’ve gotten into it very slowly. I don’t have a big program. I don’t have 50 dogs. I started small and most of the effort I put into breeding is into researching and teaching and mentoring, and helping everybody so that as a community, we all grow and we all have higher standards.
So I started with my own little program, and I bred my first litter, and then I bred my second litter. And as I was getting everything together and also helping to educate other breeders and helping to just gather information for all of us, some trends started to really frustrate me a lot. As far as on the breeder side, our community has a Facebook group where we have a forum where we can ask anything and we can help each other and we can all learn and grow. And the posts that were being posted every day. I mean, it was just like a broken record. It was, “If I breed this dog to that dog, what color will it be? If I breed this generation to that generation, what generation will it be?” And those were the only two things that people cared about. That was it. That was the beginning and the end of everybody’s program. And it was really frustrating.
I would see people breeding dogs who could barely walk. I would see people breeding dogs whose temperament was absolutely outrageous. And I just couldn’t believe they were sending them home. And the only thing that anybody cared about was what color it is, how big it was, and what generation they should call it. And so I got pretty frustrated.
I started trying to reach out to the people in the group to teach them about structure, because when I started my own research and my own program, I had no idea about dogs’ structure, really. I knew a lot about training. I knew a lot about raising dogs. But I had never shown a dog. And I didn’t have any show dog mentors when I started. And so that was just like this big black hole that just didn’t really make sense. And so I just kind of ignored it.
And then as I was going through and researching health testing, and just really pushing others to do health testing too, I ran into somebody who used to show dogs. She used to be an AKC judge. And she was sometimes a little bit abrasive. And some of the other doodle breeders, they didn’t click well with her because she had very, very high standards about the structure of the dog, the temperament of the dog, the program, the ethics, the morals that everybody had, as they were breeding. And most of us didn’t meet her expectations. We didn’t know what they should be. And we didn’t know what they were. We just knew what we were doing. And we were breeding red dogs. (laughter)
Her reactions to things caught me off guard, and I didn’t understand and I wanted to. And so I reached out to her. And she became one of my mentors, a very, very, very, very valuable mentor. And now she’s a very close friend and I just adore her. She taught me everything that I know about canine structure and why it’s important and why we have to pay attention to that. And so I started kind of helping to spread that information, too. And everything just kind of started going in that direction. But the people that were in the group, the other breeders in my community, they just didn’t care. It didn’t matter. All that mattered was what color their puppies were, and how fast they could breed them. And I started getting frustrated.
One of the biggest reasons that color is a sore point for me is because when you look at goldendoodles, the very most popular color is dark, dark red. They see it on Pinterest. They see it on Instagram. They see it on Facebook, and everybody wants a very, very dark red goldendoodle. And most of them want a very small goldendoodle because those are easier to take care of. Now, the trouble here comes from the lines that people are using in order to produce dark red. You talked about golden retrievers and how a well bred golden retriever is lovely. A lot of them are not well bred.
One of the most obvious places to find a dark red golden retriever would be from field lines. And not even just field lines, but also from, I guess you would say, pet lines. People who buy field lines and then they say, “Hey, my dog has papers and your dog has papers. Let’s breed them, and we’ll have puppies.” So if you look around in my area (I live in Utah) most of the golden retrievers that you would see advertised over the past 20 years here would be dark red golden retrievers who at some point came from field lines, but really for the last 10 to 15 years of their pedigree, nobody’s really been doing anything with them. They just have registration, and therefore they should probably be bred, these people think. And so those are the golden retrievers that I see used a lot in goldendoodle programs, because they can produce very dark red puppies. And then when they want to bring the size down, they’re going to be looking at toy poodles, because they’re just tiny little things, and they can shrink down the size of those goldendoodles in very few generations.
Now, if you’re breeding goldendoodles, and you want them to be great companions, you probably are going to want a fairly laid back dog who’s very obedient, who has a really great off switch and really good impulse control. If you take an overbred, field line golden retriever and you cross that to a very small toy poodle, you’re probably not going to get that temperament. You’re going to get a lot of exuberance. You’re going to get a lot of drive. You’re going to get a dog who jumps around and plays “the floor is lava.” (laughter) And it can be very difficult to manage, but it’ll be beautiful.
And so I found myself getting really frustrated with that because as I was looking around, I was noticing that a lot of groomers, a lot of dog trainers, a lot of veterinary technicians and veterinarians, were saying that goldendoodles are crazy. Goldendoodles are neurotic, hyper, spastic messes, and people should stop breeding them.
I looked around at the people who were buying doodles, the people who were coming to me asking for puppies. They would ask me two questions: Do you have red? How much are they? And that was all the people cared about. That was it. And so I started getting really frustrated with the people who wanted to buy a goldendoodle. They only cared about how fast it would be ready, how much it would cost them, and what color it was. It was like they were ordering the phone case off of Etsy. They wanted buy one/get one free and free shipping delivered on Tuesday.
So, I would push those people away but I noticed that everybody else was just welcoming them in with open arms. “I’ve got 10 red ones, and they’ll be ready on Thursday. You should buy these ones.” Well, it’s really irritating, because then I would see people complain about those ones, and those ones would be associated with mine, because they’re all under that umbrella of goldendoodle. So while I’m doing my program with very carefully chosen golden retrievers, from very laid back temperaments from lines that came from Europe, that are just lazy dogs but so good. And then they were being compared with field lines bred to toy poodles. Extremely frustrating.
And so I had a lot of friends that were in the breeding community who were doing extensive health testing, who were very, very careful about the temperaments. They were using all of the same priorities that I had. Healthy structured. We wanted good genetic diversity. We didn’t want really high coefficients of inbreeding. We wanted healthy dogs that made great family companions. And we were always being lumped in with the people who didn’t care, who just wanted to turn out as many red goldendoodles as they possibly could at any means necessary.
So I launched the Bearded Retriever Project. What this was… Our goal was to kind of step back and not be part of the doodle culture that was just getting crazy. I mean, if you look at different breeds, there’s always a popular breed that everybody has to have right now. In the 90s, that’s when I started to really get into dogs. In the 90s it was labradors and golden retrievers. And, as a result, the labradors and golden retrievers in my area became crazy. The goldens were just very, very hyper. They were just out there. The labrador? Same thing. Very hyper, because everybody wanted a golden retriever. Everybody wanted a labrador.
And so these people who had no idea what they were doing, who didn’t know anything about dogs, didn’t show their dogs, they didn’t compete with their dogs, they didn’t really do anything other than throw them in the backyard and let them raise themselves, they said, “Hey, I have a golden retriever and I’ve spent a lot for it. And it’s got papers, so I should breed it. Everybody wants one.” And that’s kind of where I think the labrador and the golden retriever breeds, they’ve really, I would say, degraded on the whole. There’s still wonderful labs and goldens out there. But they’re harder to find because so many people have over bred them, and they filled the population with just very, very poor specimens.
Well, the same thing is happening with goldendoodles. And it’s happened from day one. They just have been immensely popular from the very beginning. And therefore, everybody wants one. And everybody sees everybody else having one and so they need to have what those guys have too because their dog is perfect. “That guy across the street with his goldendoodle, he looks so happy and his dog is so pretty, I need to have that too.” And so since everybody has decided that now they all need to have a goldendoodle, everybody else is saying, “Well, I have a goldendoodle, and you have a goldendoodle. We should breed them. Everybody wants one.”
And so that’s the same thing. I mean, if it wasn’t goldendoodles, it would be something else. Every breed that becomes incredibly popular goes through the same process where they’re poorly bred, they’re overbred, and nobody cares what it is that they’re producing. So the Bearded Retriever Project was really an attempt to just get away from that. We don’t want to be extremely popular. We don’t want everybody to want a Bearded Retriever. We want to be able to responsibly and carefully mold our lines without everybody else trying to destroy it before it even gets off the ground. We want to develop lines with dogs that have healthy structure. We want dogs that are health tested. We want dogs that have an appropriate temperament. And we want to build this into a wonderful companion breed, and it’s going to take a long time. It’s not going to be something that’s done in five years or 10 years. It’s going to take time, and in the beginning it won’t be very consistent. That’s okay. It’s a long term project. And it’s going to take a long time to get where we need to be. And that’s fine. That’s how it should be.
Our foundation breeds are the golden retriever, the labrador retriever and the poodle. We chose the breeds that do make wonderful family companions and wonderful service dogs. Dogs that are biddable, dogs that are intelligent and obedient, and dogs that are just pleasant to have around. Now, that doesn’t mean that just any golden retriever or just any labrador should be used in the program. It needs to be very carefully selected.
The poodle is included for the coat traits, because I think that things have changed a lot in the last 20 to 30 years. Before, dogs used to just be something that you bought. And either they worked on the farm, or you took them hunting and they helped to get your food, or they just went in the backyard, and they lived in the backyard and a dog house. And if you wanted to play with the dog, you went out there to his house and you interacted with him in his space. And then you could come in, wash your hands and move along with life.
But things have changed. Now, when you look around at dogs I think that society in general, at least in the United States, expects the dog to now be a member of your family. They need to be sleeping at the foot of your bed or on your couch. They need to be in your house all the time. And now they refer to them as furbabies. So they’re in your family. They’re sitting right by your dinner table whenever you eat. And so now the priorities are changing as to what people want to have in their dogs. A lot of people do suffer with allergies. And a lot of people don’t want dog hair all over their house. They want something low shedding. They want something that smells good, something that looks pretty and something that’s pleasant to be around. And so…
JH: And size, don’t forget size.
AH: That’s true. They want very, very small or they want medium to large. Now, for people who want very small, they’ve got a lot of options. They could look at shih tzus, yorkies, maltese. They could look at toy poodles. I mean, there’s so many very, very small companion breeds. There are not very many medium to large breeds that are extremely biddable and have the temperament of a retriever. There’s not very many. I mean, off the top of my head, I could think of one breed that’s friendly that I could have with any given group of 10 to 15 rowdy kids. It would be the standard poodle. They’re not the most obedient, reliable and biddable. Some are, a lot of them are not. And their coat is very, very dense and very, very curly. It’s not what a lot of people want. It’s not super soft to snuggle with. It’s very coarse.
And so I just think that people need more options. The dog breeds that were developed 200 years ago were not developed to be couch potatoes that want to snuggle and watch Netflix and then go play frisbee golf later. That’s not what they had in mind when they built them. And so I think that it’s time that we do create a couple new breeds, because times are changing and the dogs’ job is changing. And so that’s where the Bearded Retriever Project came from.
JH: I love that vision. It’s beautiful. And you as you’re talking about it, you kept saying “we,” so are there other people doing this with you?
AH: Oh, yeah. It started in 2017. And it started with me and a couple of other people who were… We were very active in this online community for doodle breeders. And we started out with about a dozen of us. We got together and talked about what our goals are. And a lot of it is just what I’ve told you. We want to develop a friendly companion breed that’s medium to large sized and low shedding. So we started with about a dozen. And we took about two and a half years writing a breed standard, and writing a code of ethics, and writing our constitution and our bylaws, and getting our dog breed club put together.
And one by one, a lot of them dwindled off. We ended up with about five or six of us. And we launched our breed club just very recently. Just in May, I believe, we launched that breed club. And so I would say right now we probably have somewhere between 12 and 20 members. We’ve kind of been dragging our feet a little bit trying to slow it down because we wanted to tweak a couple of things with our code of ethics and make sure that it was going to be something that was sustainable instead of just throwing it together and launching it as fast as we could and getting everybody to join. We just want to go slow, and we want to do it the right way. And it’s easier to backpedal and fix things if we’re very small. So right now, it’s not huge. I would say there’s probably between about 10 and 20 different breeders right now who are actively trying to breed to this breed standard.
JH: So it sounds like a really good number for where you are right now. And I like that you’re thinking carefully about not getting too big too fast. But I think you have very much the experience with the “doodle mania” of what happens when you get too big too fast.
JH: Yeah, so you were talking about how the type isn’t too predictable right now, but it’s going to be. And I think that’s something that a lot of people who are breeding, mixed breed dogs are really interested in—the trade offs of predictability versus genetic diversity and sort of getting to where you’re going. How hard it is to get to a type that you fix, and then to stay there without narrowing your genetic diversity too much? Would you be able to talk to us a little bit about what that’s been like for you so far? And what the road to that final, fixed phenotypic type looks like for you?
AH: Yeah, absolutely. With the DNA testing that’s available right now, it is very, very, very easy to breed consistency. It’s very simple. However, a lot of people get so fixated on two or three genes and two or three traits, that they lose track of trying to balance this mix of these different breeds. And like I said, in my breed club, we’ve got three different breeds that we’re trying to juggle here. And the hardest one I would say is the labrador, because they’re a short-coated breed and short hair is a dominant trait. Our goal is to have a low shedding coat.
Now, the key to a low shedding coat… This is the million dollar question that the inventor of the labradoodle did not understand. The key to a low shedding coat is two copies of recessive long hair, and two copies of furnishings. That’s it. That’s all you need. If you’ve got long hair and two copies of furnishings, your dog will be as low shedding as a poodle. It doesn’t really matter how curly it is. And really no other coat traits make as much of an impact as those two loci.
So when people are breeding they’re looking for low-shedding coats as fast as possible. And so the goldendoodle breeders are going to take their golden retriever, and they’re going to breed it to a poodle, because poodles are, generally speaking, fixed for two copies of long hair, two copies of furnishings. And so they’ll take that first generation which is the most consistent generation in goldendoodles. Pretty much every single first generation goldendoodle will have one copy of furnishings, and one copy of what we refer to as improper coat, which just means they have that shorter face, the shorter hair on their paws, the coat like a retriever. So they’ll take that first generation puppy, breed it to a poodle and tell everybody that their pups are hypoallergenic. It’s not true. The dogs that have two copies of furnishings, yeah, those ones will be low shedding sure. But each puppy in that generation only has 50/50 odds of getting that combo. So that’s really the top priority.
And then when they want to breed again, and they want to keep the low shedding coat, they’re gonna say, “Oh, hey. I know. Let’s breed to another poodle because they’ve got just the genes I need. And then, by doing this, people can keep their program going without having to really study genetics, and they don’t really have to know very much. They just keep breeding to a poodle. But the frustrating thing is, pretty soon, these dogs when tested by Embark come back as purebred poodles. They’ve bred all the golden retriever right out.
So when I’m talking to the goldendoodle breeders and the bearded retriever breeders and the labradoodle breeders, I really try to encourage them to look at the big picture. And in that first couple of generations, if you breed those first generation dogs to each other, you’re going to get traits all across the board. You’ll have one litter that has the perfect low shedding coat with those genes that you wanted. And you also have some that have a retriever coat that sheds a ton. But you’ve got a really good blend of the different breeds that you’re crossing. And if you pick that one puppy in the litter that has the exact combination of genes that you’re looking for, and you add that to your program, that dog is going to be a far better breeding stock dog than one that just keeps getting crossed back to poodles over and over. You’ll be able to keep the structural traits you want. You’ll be able to keep a lot more of the temperament traits that you wanted from the golden retriever in the first place. But the trade off is you’re going to have no consistency at all in that litter of puppies and you have to find homes for the ones that don’t have the low shedding coats and you have to be honest about it and tell people, “Yeah, this little doodle puppy right here looks nothing like a doodle. But hey, it’s going to be a great dog. It’s going to shed a lot, so you got to be ready for that.”
But the trade off is you get this wonderful dog for your program that’s still pretty close to a 50/50 poodle/retriever blend. And it’s got the low shedding coat you need. It’s got all the genes that you wanted to take from the poodle. But it still has those other things that are harder to find in the retriever. And so what I found is that the breeders who are really breeding to develop their program, to develop their lines and to help develop a new breed, are interested in doing that cross. The breeders who are just trying to produce as many puppies as they can as fast as they can to sell them… And they’re not keeping any of them. They’re just selling all of them. They want the consistency right out of the gate. They want, well I refer to it quite often as just instant gratification. Their buyers want instant gratification, the breeder wants instant gratification. Everybody wants a final, finished project in two years. And short term that works out great, but long term, that’s not a great way to build your breed. You’re going to end up with poodle.
JH: So it sounds like, if I can just summarize it, that you can have a dog that is lower shedding but not as low shedding as it could be with the F1 cross. And so that ideal doodle type that everyone’s looking for takes two generations to get to, and it’s not going to be every dog in the litter. And so that’s why it takes genetic testing to find the dogs with the alleles that you want, and time and selection to start moving towards having litters with more of the coat types that you’re looking for. And of course, we didn’t talk about this, but of course, then you also have to balance it with, as you said, conformation, and obviously personality being a good pet dog. Does that sound right? Is that a good summary?
AH: Yes. And I would say also that the breeders who are trying to really focus on that are going to have much less consistency in those first couple generations than the ones who don’t care about that, but are only focusing on consistency.
JH: Yeah, it’s the trade off for everybody who’s trying to get somewhere where you have to bring in something that doesn’t look like your end goal. So as you are… If you were to imagine yourself breeding 10 generations down the road, and you start having the ability to have this fixed type where pretty much all of the puppies in the litter are at the very least going to have exactly the coat that you were looking for, and you’re able to start just focusing only on personality and conformation, then do you think you would be at that point still bringing in some purebreds to those lines? Do you imagine yourself continuing to cross in goldens, poodles and labs down the road?
AH: Absolutely. And I’m so excited for that day to come. That’s going to be just incredible when most of our dogs have most of the traits that we’re striving for. The biggest thing for us is we really, really, really want to put a high priority on genetic diversity. And so right now with the Bearded Retriever Club of America, we have absolutely no intention of ever fully closing our studbooks. And that seems like a radical idea. But you know, it’s really not. Before the kennel clubs were introduced, and it really wasn’t that long ago, every breed had basically open studbooks. You had to record what you were breeding, but I don’t think that anybody was really, really hard pressed to only breed from within this one gene pool. And that’s really what we want to go back to.
We do have our foundation breeds. And at this point we are requiring that no other breeds be brought in. But if we run into a situation where our coefficient of inbreeding starts creeping up, the club will absolutely go back and take a look at that and look at some other breeds that we could bring in for some more diversity. So, absolutely, genetic diversity needs to be just as important as conformation and temperament because it’s very, very closely tied to health.
JH: Yeah, it is. It is for sure. And by the way, I’ll predict that if you keep crossing in from those three separate breeds, I think you’re not going to need to go out to a fourth breed. But it’ll be really interesting to see if I’m wrong.
But yeah. Just one of the things. We think of genetic diversity as being sort of magically connected to health where there’s this, this coefficient of inbreeding number and if it’s lower, your dog’s more likely to be healthy, and if the number is higher, your dog is less likely to be healthy. But I just want to sort of make the point, which I think you know, that it’s more than that. That part of this trade off between genetic diversity and type is that more genetic diversity does tend to be correlated with more diversity of type. And while that is frustrating for those of us who feel like we’ve gotten to the place that we want to be and now we want to just sit there, biology is dynamic. You can’t just sit there, and if you have more variety of type you have more things to select from, right? So that for your next generation you have a wider choice of, “Well, I want this line to go in this direction, and to be these really mellow, friendly pets. But this line, I want to be…” (Someone referred to “sports light” recently, right?) “And so this line I want to be slightly higher energy for those people who want a good pet. But they also want to do a little agility on the side.”
AH: Right, exactly. And with the Bearded Retriever Club we also have a very, very wide variety of sizes, too. We decided that it was, I don’t know, I would almost say it’s kind of toxic, how small people are wanting to breed these little dogs. And so if you have standard and you have mini, or we have the micro-mini, “I need it to fit in my purse.” (laughter) So when we were writing our breed standard, we deliberately did not split it up into different size ranges. We said no, no. We’re only going to have one size so that people can’t keep trying to focus on making this one variety more and more and more extreme. So we’ve got a height range of 16 to 26 inches. And I just think that if you can’t fit within that size range, just maybe the bearded retriever isn’t for you. You should look at a smaller breed or a bigger breed. And so, big variety there, we can use all three different size varieties of poodles. We’ve got our retrievers that are kind of right in the middle of that zone. And so we can kind of keep a lot of diversity that way, too, as the breed is developing.
JH: Did you see a lot of litters with puppies of a variety of sizes within the litter?
AH: Absolutely. I haven’t as much in mine. Like I said, my program is not very big. But in others that I’ve worked with, you can get a huge variety of sizes. And a lot of times goldendoodle breeders and labradoodle breeders will look at the size of the parents and tell all of their buyers that it’s going to be a range in between the size of mom and the size of dad. Absolutely untrue. What they’re not realizing is that half of the mom’s size genes came from her mother, and half of her size genes came from her father. And it’s the same way with the sire of the litter. Half of his genes came from one parent, half came from the other. So if both of these parents have, say, just hypothetically, a five pound toy poodle parent, and a 50 pound goldendoodle parent, well the puppies could be anywhere from about five pounds up to about 60 pounds. Huge range, and you just don’t really know.
One thing I have seen happening lately is I’ve seen a lot of breeders that have started to test entire litters with Embark so that they can see what size genes each puppy has. They can also see what shedding genes each puppy has. And they can set more realistic expectations for every family buying a puppy. It’s just a lot better than the giant gamble that they had before where they had to just pick based on which one has the prettiest face.
JH: Yeah, so I am actually really curious about how good the embark test is at predicting size in these mixed breed dogs. In what Embark would consider a mixed breed dog. Have you guys found that to be fairly reliable?
AH: Yes and no. It’s definitely a work in progress. And Embark is constantly improving their algorithms and their estimates are getting closer. Personally, I have Embarked two of my litters. And they were medium size litters. I had one of seven and I had one of six. So out of the 13 dogs that I tested personally, all of them were within 10 pounds and 10 out of the 13 were within five pounds. Most of them were within a pound or two.
JH: That’s actually not bad, yeah.
AH: Not bad at all. And my puppies now are between 18 months and two years old so they’re all pretty much full grown.
JH: That is good to know. So okay. The other thing I wanted to ask about as we’re talking about mixing in purebreds is whether you’re finding challenges with getting breeding stock. Because that’s one of the things that I hear a lot from people who are breeding dogs of different breeds together. That it can be really hard to get access to high quality breeding stock because the previous breeders don’t want their dogs to be used in mixed breed programs.
AH: Yes, it can be extremely challenging. And this is another reason that the Bearded Retriever Project just kind of wants to really distance itself from what the doodle group is doing as a whole. So what I have found is that a lot of people breeding goldendoodles, as I’ve mentioned, have absolutely no idea about conformation or structure, what’s healthy, what’s not, what’s desirable, why this isn’t… No idea.
And what I found is those who really do focus on that will join some conformation and structure groups. They’ll join some other breeding groups. They’ll join clubs where a lot of responsible breeders are getting together and talking about things. And they’ll get to know some of the other breeders. They’ll form friendships and social networks. And the breeders who do that, I have found, will have doors opening very quietly. There will be confidentiality agreements, whether it’s verbal or on paper. They won’t be allowed to say who was the stud of that litter. It’s got to be kept very hush hush. But as other breeders are noticing how hard some of the doodle breeders are trying to really develop good lines and really make great dogs, they’ll start to offer stud service or breeding quality puppies, as long as it’s not plastered everywhere that they’re doing it. Because when they do that they’re at risk of getting kicked out of their own breed club. And most of them don’t like doodles, personally. They don’t want one. They want nothing to do with it. However, they have a friend. They know their friend is working hard. They know that their friend really cares a lot, and they want to help them, give them a foot up, give them something that has a really great temperament or really great structure from just generations and generations and generations of healthy lines. So it does happen, but it’s harder and takes more work, and a breeder who is just out for instant gratification is not going to put that effort in.
JH: Yeah, hopefully as the bearded retriever project grows and becomes better known that’ll help normalize it and make it more of a thing that people are comfortable with—the idea of (selling) breeding stock to you folks. I think I understand the urge to not have one of your puppies used in an irresponsible breeding program. So I love that you have made this project so that it’s easier for people to see that the puppies are going someplace super responsible. And speaking, actually, of responsibility in figuring out breeding stock, we’ve talked a lot about conformation and personality, obviously the coat type, what other stuff do you look for in good breeding stock? I know a lot of people try to put titles on their dogs.
AH: Yes, a lot of people do try to put titles on. There has been a really big movement, and I would say it’s grown a lot over the last year, to find healthy structure. And I think that, as a community, doodle breeders have really made great strides already to understand those coat traits. Most breeders understand already how you achieve low shedding coats. And I told you the key at the beginning is just long hair and homozygous furnishings. That’s all it is. It’s easy. So I think that as a community, we really grasp that. And also as a community, we’ve worked really hard to teach people that generation filial labeling is not helpful, doesn’t give you anything, it tells you nothing about the dog. And so I feel like that has pretty much been achieved. Most of the breeders who know much have already accomplished the understanding that you don’t need to worry about filial labels. Coat traits are easy.
We’ve been pushing hard on health testing. And so now that’s a big thing that the doodle breeders are looking at is health tested lines. And we want health testing back as many generations as we can see. And so now that we’ve got structure, we’ve got health testing, we’ve got coat traits, as a whole, I would say most of the good breeders understand all of those things. And so temperament is kind of a hard one, because everybody loves their dogs, and everybody thinks their dog’s temperament is just ideal, and everybody should have a dog just like that. And so this is kind of where titling comes in. And in conformation shows I think that the titles help a lot with the structure too.
The challenge though, in the doodle community, is that getting titles, earning titles, involves going to performance competitions, and it involves conformation shows in the show ring. Well, the problem is that the people who are running and participating in performance competitions and conformation shows are breeders of recognized breeds who don’t like doodles. They hate us. Those breeders… You would be shocked at how out of their way a lot of breeders of recognized breeds will go to try to harass and bully doodle breeders.
We can’t be in their structure groups, because they will rip our dogs to shreds. I have posted my dogs that I know have really great structure. I’ll go in and post them just so that they can see what we’re doing. And I will have half of the people who react to my photos will be laughing at them. And then I’ll have a good chunk of them who are just angry. They’re just angry that my dog exists. And then they’ll be sad. They’ll be so sad that I bred that. And then they’ll go in and they’ll nitpick and just rip apart every single thing. And they’ll all say, “How can you judge conformation? You don’t even have a breed standard.” That’s not true. The Bearded Retriever Club has a breed standard. GANA for the goldendoodles, they have a breed standard. The Australian labradoodles have a couple different breed standards, I believe, for their couple different breed clubs. There are plenty of breed standards, really.
And so we’re not welcome there. We’re not welcome in any circles where recognized breeders congregate. And I understand why they don’t like doodles. There are a lot of things about the doodle community that I don’t like either, which is why I started the Bearded Retriever Club. But we’re still breeding dogs just like everybody else is, and we want to breed healthy dogs just like everybody else does. And we want to breed good dogs with great temperaments. But we’re not welcome there. So when you realize that we’re not welcome in any place where we could go to earn titles, it makes it hard for us to value them.
Our buyers don’t care about the titles. They don’t. None of them do. They want a cute dog that looks like the one they saw on Pinterest. They want a wonderful dog like the one that lives across the street. They care about how the dog looks. They care about how the dog acts. There is no title for sitting on the couch and watching Netflix. There is no title for just smelling good and being pleasant to be around. There are titles for therapy dogs, there are obedience titles, and I do think that those would be valuable. But when we try to balance that against the hostility that we encounter when we go to those places that have other breeders, it is not worth it to us.
It’s like the title is, I would say, the way that people would announce how high quality the dog is. But when they hate us, and when nobody else cares about it, that title doesn’t mean anything to us either as breeders. We value word of mouth. We value referrals. We value seeing the people who buy our puppies share their posts on Facebook, telling everybody about how wonderful that dog is. We value having everybody they know come to us to get their dog too because their friend has the most wonderful dog they’ve ever seen. Those are things that are important to us. But trying to tell people who hate us that our dogs are worth a lot, too, and that we want to go and compete, and we want to do a good job, is so hard when the people that we’re selling our dogs to don’t care.
And so it’s not really been something that we use to measure the value of our dogs. And that is something I would like to see changed in the next five years. It’s something that the Bearded Retriever Club is going to be really encouraging. And we’re going to be trying to get groups of our own breeders together so that we don’t feel like the whole environment is so hostile. We’ll try to start doing our own club activities. And we’ll try to start sponsoring our own events. But we’re brand new. It’s going to be a while before we’re ready to start doing that. We won’t have the numbers to be able to financially do that for at least a while.
JH: Well, talk to the Functional Dog Collaborative because that’s… And by the way, I would say I’m really sorry that that’s the way that things are right now. I hear you, and that is got to be super difficult to deal with. But that’s one of the things I’m hopeful for, that I really wanted the Functional Dog Collaborative to start pulling together different groups. And so yeah, you’re small right now. You should be small right now, but there are other small groups out there and hopefully we can start pulling people together. I’ve had a vision for a while of having annual get togethers. I haven’t really thought about it because we’re in the middle of a pandemic so it seems like not the thing to focus on right now. But I would love to see an annual get together of, you know, bearded retriever folks, and outcross folks, and sport mix folks. And have everybody get together. We can have some obedience trials or rally trials. No being a jerk allowed.
AH: That would be awesome. We would love to. I think a lot of breeders would be very interested in doing it. The biggest thing keeping us away is just this perception of complete hostility towards us. It’s like this little group of people is saying, “We hate you. You have to play by our rules, and you’re not playing by our rules. These are what mean things to us. A dog is only good, and it’s only going to prove itself, by doing these things that we value, but you’re not doing it and we hate you.” And so it makes us not want to do it.
JH: Yeah, I think that’s reasonable. And I think just walking away from it and saying, “You guys go do your thing. That’s awesome. You’ve got it. You’re having a great time. Go do it. We’re gonna go do our thing over here. It may look somewhat like your thing. It may look a little different in some ways.” And that’s hopefully what we can support as this initiative continues to grow.
Yeah, and of course I’m sure you know that there’s more and more online events now because of the pandemic. So I myself have been checking out online rally competitions, maybe I would start doing some of that. So I don’t know if that’s something… You’d still have to deal with whether the judge of the competition was judging the dog differently because they could see that it was a bearded retriever or a doodle. But I think your chances would be… I suspect that that would be pretty rare for that to happen. And you wouldn’t have to deal with the people on the sidelines being nasty to you.
AH: You know, we almost expect that though, everywhere, in every niche we go to. When we do health testing, we’ll run into veterinarians who don’t like doodles, and they’ll fail them. We’ll test them somewhere else, and they’ll pass.
AH: It’s crazy. Things like cardiac clearances, hip clearances. We have to be careful about who we go to because there’s a huge bias against doodles. And it’s like they think, “Oh, doodle breeders don’t health test so we hate them.” We go do health tests, they fail us. “We don’t like doodles.” And so it’s just really, it’s hard.
And if we did online rally and online things like that now, number one, none of us will. I wouldn’t say none of us, but most of us don’t have a lot of experience in those performance things. Because we like companion dogs, and we just want to chill at home and snuggle with the dog on the couch. So if we started doing that, and then the people who were also participating have the ability to react… I mentioned before in the conformation groups, if we post our pictures we get about half of the reactions will be laughing, about a quarter of them will be angry, will have maybe a couple of likes, but then the rest will be crying. It’s really hard to want to put ourselves out there in something that we don’t have a lot of experience in, when the people who are doing it despise us mostly. And, those people are the only ones who care about it. It doesn’t prove our dogs are more pleasant to be around, doesn’t prove that they’re more laid back and fun. And our buyers don’t care at all.
JH: Yeah, and I think that’s fair. So I also as you were talking, I was getting a little bit distracted by trying to think like, because I love sports, right? So trying to think like, “Oh, how can I make it easier for them to get into sports?” But I never said, and I should have, that certainly a sports title is not indicative of whether a dog will make a good pet. And I think that’s something that’s really important to validate. As you said, it sounds like your standard poodle could excel in the obedience ring, because she would understand what was in it for her. But she’s not what the average pet owner, particularly with children, is looking for in a pet who’s just going to chill, and go along with the program rather than having their own opinions about how things should be.
AH: Honestly, my goldendoodle would do better because my poodle would only excel if she was in a good mood. My goldendoodle, my bearded retriever boy, Timber is his name, he would do anything I wanted on any day of the week, no matter what was going on. And I started doing some training with him on nosework. We got right up to the point where we were about to go enter a competition and I had to wash him out of my program. I did his hip testing and it just wasn’t good enough. And so then I was like, “Well, do I want to keep investing the money in training and going to these competitions where I’m not going to feel comfortable? Or, do I just want to sit at home and snuggle with my good boy and let him be a great companion?” And so far we’ve just been at home snuggling and being a great companion.
JH: Yeah. I think that’s totally fair. I think it’s important for people to recognize that sports and things like that are just not fun if you don’t feel welcome there. It takes all the joy out of it.
JH: We are starting to run long. But I really wanted to ask you, because I know you have some interesting insights, on how you educate your potential puppy buyers about what to expect from doodles.
AH: Yes, so if somebody comes up to me, I would say, at least nine times out of 10, the question is, “How much are they?” and “What colors do you have?” or, “Do you have red?” So at that point, if color is the top priority, then I know that this person is trying to shop Etsy for a phone case. They want instant gratification, and I don’t want to be a part of it. I don’t want my puppies involved in that. So I’ll ask a couple more questions to get to know them. But most of them I send on their way.
I don’t want to sell to somebody who’s just looking for something that will match the furniture and be an adorable accessory that they don’t have to put any effort into at all. So, I’ll start asking them some questions. I’ll ask them about what their lifestyle is like, what they’re looking for in a dog, what are their expectations? What other kinds of dogs have they had? Have they ever had the kind of dog that you have to brush and comb every day, or every other day? What are their expectations for shedding? Why do they want this kind of dog? And I’ll get to know them, and I’ll get a better feel for what it is that they think that they’re getting. Because that’s really important. If they think that they’re getting one thing and I’m selling them something else, neither one of us will be happy.
So I will go through all of that and find out what it is that they think they’re getting. I’ll ask them about their experience with grooming. And I will describe the experience of grooming the highest maintenance coat possible on a goldendoodle. And I’m going to be honest with you right now, the highest maintenance coat I’ve ever seen on a goldendoodle is still not as much of a pain in the neck as a standard poodle’s coat. Because they’re generally a little bit softer, they’re generally a little bit easier to maintain. They’re easier to cut.
I do my own grooming and my doodle coats are way easier to get through than the standard poodle’s is. The difference is that a standard poodle buyer goes into it expecting to have the dog shaved all of the time, except for some little pom poms by the paws and the mullet on their head. So they go into it expecting that, and doodle breeders think they’re going to have this mopsy, flopsy, shaggy coat forever, with no effort. And that is the difference. So I’ll go through and describe to them the general maintenance of line brushing, followed by line combing. And you might have to do this every other day. There are some coat types that you could do this every two weeks and they’ll never mat, but I don’t tell people that because I want to make sure that they’re prepared for the hardest coat possible.
And then once we’ve talked about that and they claim to be fully on board, I will tell them to start calling around to some local groomers. I want them to get at least three quotes. I want them to see how expensive these haircuts are. And then I want them to realize they need to do it every four to six weeks. Now there are some coat types… Like I said, we’ve got a lot of variety right now. There are some that can go every eight weeks. There are some that can go every 12 weeks. But I don’t talk about that. I want to make sure they’re prepared for worst case scenario.
So once we get through that, then I talk to them about what they plan on doing with their dogs. Is this dog going to be a dog that you want to compete in sports with? Because my puppy buyers, a lot of them, don’t realize how unwelcome doodles are in so many circles. And they’re excited to go compete and do sports. Great, then that’s fine. I’ll be watching for a puppy that has more drive and has a little bit higher energy to match up with those folks. Most of them don’t. Most of them just want a family dog to hang out with the kids or maybe they’ve just retired and they just want something cute to take across the country in their RV.
And so I’ll get to know them and decide whether or not I think that my dogs would be a good fit for that lifestyle or not. And my dogs are pretty consistent. I’ll have energy variations, like I said. My two dogs now, I’ve got one that acts like she’s from Sesame Street, and is ready to explode with enthusiasm. I’ve got one who as a puppy, the same age, was pretty much comatose about 20 hours of the day because he just wanted to sleep. And he was just the laziest dog you ever saw. So, I mean, there is a lot of variation.
But as long as the puppy buyers have realistic expectations of just how much work it’s going to be, as long as they know that they have to do dog training with this dog. If they’re going to get a smart dog they have to teach it how they want it to behave. And they have to put the work into brushing and grooming. And they have to expect that it’s going to take effort on their part. Then I’ll move forward and I’ll let them join my waiting list.
JH: Sounds like some difficult hurdles to get over, but appropriate ones, because I’ve heard a lot of feedback from groomers that people buy doodles and are unprepared for what the coat maintenance is going to be like.
AH: This is true and false at the same time. Now, this is fun, because remember those people from the 90s who all had to have a golden retriever, and they had to have a labrador retriever, because those are the best family dogs. They’d go get one, they’d get the cheapest one they could find. They would play with it for a couple of weeks, because it was adorable. But it would pee on the floor and so they would very quickly move it to the backyard. Never do another thing with it. These are the same people who also want to buy goldendoodles. They want to get the dog that’s adorable, they want to do absolutely nothing with it, and then they just want it to be as good as the one across the street where they work really hard and on training and grooming and everything.
So, these buyers come in and the breeder… I mean, I know that not every breeder will do this, but I know that a lot of breeders do. They’ll tell them about the grooming, They’ll tell them about the training. They’ll tell them about how often they need to brush and comb and how often they need to bathe and take to a professional groomer. And it will all go in one ear and right out the other while this person buying a puppy is thinking about how cute that is and it’s going to look so perfect sitting right there on that sofa.
So the breeders will tell them. They’ll tell them over and over and over and over. And I’ve had this happen with my own buyers. I started a Facebook group and I nag at them every single day for the first six months. I talk to them about what they need to be doing. I talk to them about milestones they need to be watching for, and training they need to do, and behaviors they need to teach, and grooming they need to be doing. I send them videos. I give them links to all the tools. And then three months later I will see my buyers go into these little Facebook pet groups and say, “Oh, I had no idea. We’re supposed to be doing that!” And I’m just exasperated! “You did too have an idea. I told you 25 times!” People don’t listen.
And so the groomers are getting that. But you know what? The groomer could tell the same person the first time they come in, they can give them all these instructions. They’re just going to go to a different groomer next time. And they’re gonna say, “I had no idea!” They did. They just don’t listen. Anybody who’s literate could get on the internet and see that doodles need to be groomed. So basically I would just say that if anybody is interested in getting a dog, I think that the very least that they could do is research the very basic minimum requirements for that pet. They could do that for a guinea pig. They could do that for an iguana. They can very easily do that for a goldendoodle and see everywhere they look that they have to brush its hair. It’s just a given. And anybody who can read has no excuse for not knowing that.
JH: The whole owner education thing is so hard that it’s just a tangle that I don’t know how to untangle. I’m sort of tilting at windmills right now. We’re trying to untangle the other side of it, right? The producing good dogs side of it. And it’s so interconnected with having responsible owners available to put these dogs with and it’s hard. It’s a hard question. It sounds like you are giving it your all, which is fabulous.
So as we’re moving towards wrapping up, I wanted to ask you where you see the future of bearded retrievers and doodles? We’ve talked a lot about some things that are less than ideal right now. What would your ideal future look like?
AH: My ideal future would be, 10 to 20 years down the road, when someone goes to their veterinarian, or their dog trainer, or their groomer, with the current dog that they have and they say, “Hey, I was thinking about getting a doodle because they’re so cute.” My dream future would involve that professional that they’re going to for advice, telling them, “Oh, you know what? You should look up the bearded retriever, because bearded retrievers are healthy dogs. They have a great temperament and they’re low shedding. And when you get a bearded retriever, you can count on having all of these traits that you’re wanting.” And I would just look forward to the bearded retriever being the next family dog like the other retrievers have been. But one that just doesn’t shed as much that.
JH: I like that. The idea of it being just like… And that’s why you named it the bearded retriever, it’s just like a golden but it doesn’t shed it as much as a golden. Because goldens do shed.
AH: Yep, they sure do. And a lot of bearded retrievers do right now, too. But in 10 to 20 years, I think that most of them probably won’t. And you know, some of them will, because we’ll still be crossing in golden retrievers and labrador retrievers here and there to bring in the traits that we need to keep the breed balanced. And that’s okay. We’ll just have different coat types. But, it’ll be easy to find what you need in a bearded retriever. It’ll just be the modern retriever that retrieves your keys instead of your ducks. Because there’s a grocery store now. (laughter)
JH: I like that, yeah. And they should be pretty easy to find homes for. There are certainly plenty of people who don’t mind the shedding, just as there are people who do. So if people want to find out more about you and your breeding program where would they go to do that?
AH: I’m on Facebook. I’m in all of the bearded retriever groups. My own program is called Bear Lake Bearded Retrievers.
JH: It’s COVID-19 right now so no one has puppies available. What’s your status on having puppies at some point in the future?
AH: It’s all up in the air because I’m not going to settle. I told you before, I’ve got this little goldendoodle who acts like a muppet and plays “the floor is lava.” She’s not appropriate for my bearded retriever program. Her little brain is a toy poodle brain, and her puppies need to be smaller than her. That’s what I’ve decided. She’s passed her health testing. Her temperament is wonderful. She’s an absolute delight. But her puppies need to be smaller than she is, not bigger. That’s what I’ve decided. And so right now, I’m still currently searching for the perfect bitch for my program.
My last litter was about 18 months ago. And I’ve been looking and searching for 18 months now to bring in the perfect female for my program. I co-own a stud with family and so I just need a new girl. My female, she’s retired. And so, I don’t know. But once I do get a new female for the program, it’ll be two years from then before I have another litter with bearded retriever puppies.
JH:Yeah, fair enough. Good luck. I know finding breeding stock can be super hard. So good luck.
AH: It’s really really hard to find nice…
JH: It’s hard. Even if people want to give them to you, it’s hard.
AH: It could be a minute, but I’ve got this really great community in the Bearded Retriever Project. And I know people with puppies, and I know people with really good puppies who do things the same way I do. And people I have absolute, complete faith in. So reach out to me, I can point you in the right direction.
JH: Fabulous. Well, thank you so much for talking to me, Alicia. I really appreciate it.
AH: Oh, you’re welcome. Thanks for having me.
Thanks so much for listening. The Functional Breeding Podcast is a product of the Functional Dog Collaborative and was produced by Sarah Espinosa Socal. Come join us at the Functional Breeding Facebook group to talk about this episode or about responsible breeding practices in general. To learn more about the Functional Dog Collaborative, check out www.functionalbreeding.org. Enjoy your dogs.
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