The cockapoo (or cockerpoo, or cockerdoodle, or spoodle, or…) is the sixth most popular dog in the UK, according to a survey of over 20,000 dog owners! Its short curly hair, bounciness and love of people make it a great family pet. However, there is some argument regarding whether the cockapoo is a ‘real’ dog breed. So let’s look into this.
Dogs were likely the first animal domesticated by humans, at least 20,000 years ago. Artificial selection over many generations resulted in them differing from their wolf ancestors; humans selected dogs with beneficial traits (such as loyalty, good hunting skills, good at running, etc.) and bred them together. This made the beneficial traits more prominent and less useful traits less prominent. For hundreds of years, humans did this to create dogs for a specific purpose – hunting dogs for hunting, guard dogs for guarding, retrievers for retrieving, and so on.
Things changed when in the Victorian era it became fashionable to own a dog for other reasons. In particular, it became very popular to show dogs off at beauty pageants or pub competitions! Artificial selection ramped up and we produced many different kinds of dogs, from pugs to poodles, from Labradors to corgis, in efforts to be the most stylish Victorian! Most of our modern dogs originate from this trend.
The Kennel Club and Dog Breeds
Unfortunately, these kinds of competitions were highly unregulated! So in the late 1800s, sportswriter and vet John Henry Walsh wrote a number of books that categorised types of dogs and defined what they should look like. In essence, he had written the first book on dog ‘breed standards’. Soon after, the UK Kennel Club was formed, which started to record breed standards, competition winners, stud books and so on. Their aim was to create a standard for dog competitions nationwide.
Ever since, the Kennel Club has defined what exactly makes a dog breed in the UK (other similar organisations now exist across the world, of course – Ed.). To be classified as a pedigree dog breed, a dog must have parents of the same breed with proven lineage with the Kennel Club. A purebred dog needs only to be bred from the same breed, but not necessarily registered with the Kennel Club (meaning you can’t always be certain it is truly genetically purebred).
For example, a pedigree pug must have been born to pug parents registered with the Kennel Club and will have no non-pug ancestors as far back as records can show. This means that pedigree dogs often originate from a small population (which is why pedigree and purebred dogs have more genetic issues than mixed breeds), and makes it difficult for new breeds to be recognised.
Back to the Cockapoo
So what does this all mean for the cockapoo? We will refer only to the UK Kennel Club here, though all other major kennel clubs are in agreement: the cockapoo is not a ‘real’ breed of dog…
Now before any cockapoo owners start typing angry comments, let us explain! The cockapoo is not a breed recognised under the Kennel Club – this is because it is a mixed breed crossed with a poodle and a cocker spaniel. It has ancestors from two different breeds of dog, so can’t be purebred or pedigree. The UK Kennel Club does not have a breed standard for cockapoos, meaning there are no official guidelines for what a cockapoo should look like, unlike other official breeds. Dogs called ‘cockapoos’ are therefore hugely varied in size, shape, colour and temperament.
Many people disagree with the Kennel Club and argue that the cockapoo is distinct enough to be classed as a breed. Certainly there are now cockapoos being bred from cockapoo parents, making them more and more distinct as time goes on. Many people could point to a dog and recognise it as a cockapoo, in the same way as they may recognise a pug or German shepherd.
Genetics and Breeds
Genetically, all dogs are the same species, Canis lupus familiaris, and can freely interbreed. Studies have found that the genetics within a breed have fewer differences than between breeds. What this means is that purebred dogs of one breed (say Golden retrievers) will all have very similar genetics, but will all have very different genetics from another breed (say pugs). This is again as a result of the Victorians using a few ‘standard’ dogs to create their breeds – the genepool within breeds is very small as a result of over 200 years of selective breeding.
The cockapoo first originated in the 1960s. It hasn’t yet had long enough to become genetically distinct compared to other breeds. Furthermore, cockapoos are often bred with cocker spaniels or poodles, diluting the ‘pure’ cockapoo line that could lead to cockapoos being more distinct genetically.
Of course, one could argue that John Henry Walsh and the Victorian Kennel Club were selecting mixed breed dogs and calling them pedigree too. It’s only since then that the Kennel Club has ensured the genetics remain pure – go back more than 200 years and most dogs would be a mix of many breeds; even the most pedigree of dogs can only prove its heritage back 200 years or so. Isn’t this slightly hypocritical?
Will the Cockapoo Become a Recognised Breed?
According to the UK Kennel Club, they do accept new breeds of dog once they are distinct enough and breed standards have been established. The most recent addition was in 2018, with the Black and Tan Coonhound. They say it was accepted because of its proven pedigree (same breed parents) with a small group of ‘enthusiastic’ breeders.
What this means is that for cockapoos to be accepted into the Kennel Club in the same way as the Black and Tan Coonhound, a small group of breeders would need to maintain a small population of purebred cockapoos, being bred together for many generations (long enough to “breed true” – which takes a LONG time – Ed.). The Black and Tan Coonhound had a headstart on this, as it was first bred in the 1700s. Furthermore, the population of dogs called cockapoos is vast and varied. With unregistered breeding of cockapoos further complicating matters and making it less likely for cockapoos to be accepted into the Kennel Club.
Even if this was successful and the Kennel Club accepted cockapoos, most UK cockapoos would still not be of proven lineage and still considered mixed breeds. It could also lead to increased health risks due to inbreeding. Cockapoos are generally a healthy breed and it would be a shame to introduce genetic defects into their population to satisfy breeding standards.
Unless you are particularly interested in dog heritage, the Kennel Club’s opinion on cockapoos will likely not phase you. Most people would say that cockapoos are now a distinct breed. However legally and genetically, they are still a mix of a cocker spaniel and a poodle and will need many more decades of careful breeding to change that. But in the end, they are still friendly fluffy dogs, and we love them regardless!