The "puggle," a cross between a beagle and a pug, has become so trendy, David Barber boasts, that a list of proud new owners of the designer dog sounds like an Oscar night lineup.
Jake Gyllenhaal, James Gandolfini, Sylvester Stallone and Julianne Moore are just some of Barber's recent customers -- and new puggle owners.
"They've become popular to the point where 90 percent of requests are for this breed," says Barber, of Puppy Paradise in Brooklyn, N.Y. "It's like mixing a Versace bag and a Coach bag together -- what do you get? You get the best of both without adding any of the problems."
Puggles are undeniably cute -- and, Barber claims, his $950 puggle pups escape some of the genetic afflictions (bulging eyes) and character flaws (stubbornness) that sometimes plague purebred pugs and beagles. The mixed pup has been riding a wave of popularity after being featured on the cover of the New York Post, appearing in a "Good Morning America" segment and being mentioned in an episode of "The Ellen DeGeneres Show" when Gyllenhaal appeared as a guest.
But the popularity of puggles and other designer dogs, such as labradoodles (Labrador Retriever-Poodle mix) and schnoodles (a Miniature Schnauzer-Poodle mix), has become a contentious topic among communities of dog owners. Some argue the mixed breeds aren't breeds at all, but simply overblown, overpriced mutts, while others decry popularizing specially bred dogs when thousands of dogs languish in shelters.
"The problem with designer dogs is people might think they're trendy -- and that's not a good reason to buy a dog," said Susan Smith, community relations manager for the Franklin County Animal Shelter in Columbus, Ohio. "And before they put down, say $1,200 for a labradoodle or puggle, they should look first in a shelter because they can probably find the same type of dog here."
Smith says her shelter often houses mixes such as puggles, labradoodles and other unique blends of dogs. They may not carry the designer dog label, but she says the mutts are just as cute as any pooch that has been featured lately in the media.
Garry Garner, president of the American Canine Hybrid Club, says he gets loads of hate mail every day, accusing him of glorifying new breed mixes. His company offers $20 certificates of authentication to people who can demonstrate they are owners of the offspring of two different purebred dogs.
"With a mutt -- there is no documented background, whereas with designer dogs, we have pedigrees as parents," Garner explains. "We know exactly what the mix is."
As for the hate mail, Garner says he has a stock reply: "We're thankful we live in America where we have freedom of choice."
Lisa Peterson, spokeswoman for the American Kennel Club, bristles at the notion that any designer dog can boast a noble background and rejects the claim that designer dog mixes are any healthier than purebreds.
"None of the new designer dogs would qualify as purebreds," she says. "It would need a whole list of qualifications, including a parent club, generations of photographed, documented dogs, and generations of health records. It usually takes decades, if not centuries, to register a purebred."
She adds she has not seen any scientific study demonstrating that mixed breed dogs are any healthier than purebreds.
"We would say 'buyers beware' to customers who believe designer dogs are the best of both worlds," she says. "With a purebred, you know what kind of coat quality you're getting, what kind of temperament, what kind of gait … all of this is documented and guaranteed. With designer dogs, there is no guarantee how the puppies will turn out."
Peterson also warns that the popularity of a particular mix might encourage "backyard breeders" to take a stab at producing the novelty puppies. Left to amateurs, such puppy mills can lead to poorly bred pups and animal cruelty.
But Barber, who says he worked with a breeder seven years ago to first develop the puggle blend, stands by his animals and says he has never gotten a complaint about his designer dog mixes from their new owners.
"The dog is wonderful -- everybody loves the look, he is adorable, attractive, cute, personable, he's got a wonderful disposition. He makes you laugh every time you're with him," he says.
That said, Barber encourages people to look in a shelter first, as he says, "By all means, save a life." But he likens many shelter dogs to cars bought from a used car lot.
"When you take it off the lot -- you don't know if you'll get problems," Barber said. "Ninety percent of the time, dogs are in shelters because people have had problems with them."
Smith, of the Franklin County shelter, says all the adoptable dogs are screened for health and temperament problems. Still, she says she can't deny the power of a trend.
Puggles and Labradoodles aside, Smith says her shelter is always getting specific requests. Recently, dogs orphaned by Hurricane Katrina have been in high demand. She says people want the dogs in order to feel they're playing a part in the post-Katrina recovery.
"We had some New Orleans dogs but we quickly adopted them out. So when people call asking if we have any Katrina dogs, we say no, but we have a lot of Ohio dogs," she said. "What can you do? People are always interested in what's new and current."