'Have you got any advice?' my friend calls to ask, ahead of going to pick up their pandemic puppy.
'Well, um, as first-time dog owners, I’d say steer clear of spaniels and poodles… but it’s a bit late for that, ha!'
'Ha,' she says, thinking I’m joking and off they go to fetch their cute, Disneyfied cockapoo. What could possibly go wrong? He’s a small dog — they were very clear that they needed a small dog to fit in with their family— he’s friendly, he’s a hypoallergenic little ball of floof. He even looks like a child’s teddy bear.
A year on and Harvey the cockapoo is neither small nor cuddly, towering over both his spaniel and poodle parent. That harmless hypoallergenic coat needs professional strimming every other month (at £50 a time), else it forms dreadlocks. He’s remodelled multiple accessories, shoes, even furniture in his own inimitable style and his recall and behaviour is so atrocious, that the family are at breaking point. It’s either boot camp for the dog — or the Battersea Dogs’ Home.
As any countryman will tell you, the Labrador is born half-trained, the spaniel dies half-trained. Poodles were originally bred by the French to retrieve from water, but haven’t been used on a shoot since about 1698 — which shows you how utterly useless they are. I once fell into conversation with a delightful old boy in our local park, who, pointing at his standard poodle, exclaimed: 'You’ll have to speak up, my dear. She's eaten three hearing aids!'
Armed with this knowledge, the concept of crossing a cocker spaniel with a poodle is unfathomable. It's deeply irresponsible and downright mad. If cockapoos were barren, they would be a shoo-in for a doggy Darwin award. As it is they have swept across Britain like a wildfire.
The man who bred the first Labradoodle in the late 1980s has described it as his 'life’s regret'. Wally Conron, an Australian, wanted to breed an assistance dog 'with the working ability of the Labrador and the coat of the poodle'. But instead, he admits he created a 'crazy' Frankenstein’s monster.
Cockapoos have been around longer than the Labradoodle, since the 1950s in the United States, but started appearing here about a decade ago. If Covid was the Year of the Dog, as one newspaper headline proclaimed, then that dog was undoubtedly the Cockapoo. Parks and footpaths became overrun with these crazy, barking, bouncing balls of dropped knitting, running rings around their newbie owners.
Cockapoos are a breed that appeals to what the Duke of Edinburgh branded 'bunny-huggers' — but ignore the animatronic Steiff teddy bear look; appearances can be deceptive. Cockapoos demand an owner somewhere between Barbara Woodhouse and Wackford Squeers to keep them in line. They aren’t city dogs, either: they bark incessantly and, being the product of two working dogs, they need an hour’s walk twice a day. Their aforementioned locks are more high maintenance than J. Lo’s. And one delightful inherited trait from the poodle parent new owners won’t have bargained for is a sensitive stomach. Diarrhoea, in other words —as a response to stress, separation anxiety, a change in diet, a change in the direction of the wind. I’ve actually seen a Cockapoo have its bottom wiped by its owner, who whipped out a handy packet of baby wipes. Really, the clue should be in the name.
Being a cross-breed, there is no breed standard. Even puppies from the same litter may not look the same; instead of the cute curly-coated dog you thought you were getting, the pup might be the spit of one of its parents, or neither, or something else entirely. They’re notorious 'resource-guarders' — the reason they often end up in shelters, when their resource-guarding issues translate to biting their inexperienced owners.
If the cocker spaniel genes prevail, they’ll fall short of their hypoallergenic USP. With puppies now changing hands for up to £2,500, that’s one incredibly expensive mongrel.
As unscrupulous and unethical breeders flourish thanks to the pandemic (it’s thought a lot of these dogs are coming from puppy penitentiaries in Eastern Europe), many traditional British breeds are now classed as 'vulnerable'. Corgis, Dandie Dinmonts, Sealyhams and Fox Terriers are just some of the characterful breeds languishing on this list, with the Skye terrier the most vulnerable of all: just 27 puppies were registered in 2020.
Any of these would make a more worthy companion than the Cockapoo — a dog that should never have had its day. The Skye Terrier, Greyfriars Bobby, is commemorated with a statue for keeping faithful watch over his master’s grave. Somehow I don’t think we’ll ever see a Cockapoo immortalised in bronze. For a start, it wouldn’t sit still for long enough.