When I was eleven years old, my family finally got the one thing that was missing from my Thomas-Kinkade-painting suburban childhood: a purebred Golden Retriever.
Depicted here as Air Bud, despite the fact that ours never quite got the hang of basketball.
We were naive about dog ownership and we had shitty, unreliable dial-up internet at the time, so we didn’t do as much research as we probably should have before committing ourselves to nearly a decade of living alongside a drooling 75lb furball with an unquenchable thirst for socks. We knew exactly two things about Golden Retrievers before we brought one home: that they have a ton of health problems due to “Egyptian Royalty” levels of inbreeding, and that they make excellent family pets, because they’re basically the dog equivalent of a mother’s warm embrace crossed with a teddy bear. Our only criteria for pets at the time was “something that probably won’t eat the children”, so we took our chances with the health issues and brought home a 10-week old Golden puppy named Goober.
Name changed to protect the innocent.
Goober was one of the best dogs who ever lived. He had the kind of weird, uncanny dog intelligence that you normally only see in movies where the dog dies tragically three-quarters of the way through; he knew to wipe his muddy feet on the welcome mat before he came inside, he knew all the rules of hide-and-seek, and he had a preternatural ability to figure out when someone was upset and bring them a pair of their own shoes, just in case the source of their problems was a devastating lack of Court Classics.
Behold, the one true source of joy for people everywhere.
Goober was never much of a watchdog. He barked in only three specific situations: when someone came to the door if the children were home alone; when he spotted someone on a rooftop and needed to immediately warn them of the dangers of falling; and when he was reminded that cats exist and there was nothing he could do about it. Otherwise, he was a silent and friendly companion, guardian and playmate to my siblings and I throughout our early childhood.
But when it came to his health, it was pretty clear that he’d fallen right out of the inbreeding tree and hit every single health issue on the way down.
And by “fell out of the inbreeding tree”, I mean, “was the product of an irresponsible breeder who didn’t care about the health of her dogs”.
It became painfully clear at Goober’s first vet appointment that we hadn’t adopted a dog so much as we’d adopted a collection of veterinary problems in a fur coat. He had hip dysplasia. His stomach had no ability to handle dry dog food; even expensive dog kibble caused immediate and painful bloat, a condition that can straight-up murder your dog. All of his food had to be pre-soaked in boiling water and allowed to cool to room temperature before we fed it to him, because this was the only way to prevent him from doing his best impression of a furry Hindenburg.
He often refused to eat for no apparent reason, turning his nose up at fancy wet food or even scraps of prime rib like he was a fussy 6-year-old being served cod tongues and toenail clippings. He gagged whenever he drank water, to the bewilderment of every veterinary professional who ever examined him. We had to put a great deal of effort into keeping his ears clean and dry, which did almost nothing to discourage his constant ear infections. His farts made grown men weep and killed most of our houseplants. He may have been the prince of our family, but when it came to his health, he was more of a sickly Spanish king.
For those of you who aren’t huge nerds, this is a reference to the decline and eventual extinction of the Spanish branch of the Austrian Hapsburg dynasty. Please clap.
Despite our vet’s warning that he probably wouldn’t survive his first year, he hung on for a total of seven and a half before succumbing to acute failure of the absolutely everything. In the wake of his premature death, we vowed that we would learn from our mistakes, and never own another purebred dog again.
And that’s when our experiments with designer dogs began.
We didn’t intentionally set out to own designer dogs. We had no desire to find out what happens when you stick German Shepherd ears and Corgi legs on a Poodle body like you’re trying to build the world’s least intimidating Sphinx. We just knew that dogs tended to be healthier when their parents weren’t siblings, and we happened to be in the market for a new dog in the year 2010 , a time when people were frantically cross-breeding designer Labradoodles, Puggles and Cockapoos like they were mashing the “randomize” button on a Sims Pets expansion pack.
And that was when we found Max.
Depicted here as a puppy, in the brief moments before dog-puberty hit him like a truck.
After years of living with a Golden Retriever, we were looking for a smaller dog that required less room and had a diminished ability to point its butthole straight at our faces. At the same time, we wanted to avoid the angry, yappy breeds that seem to live in a perpetual state of rage over having been bred down from mighty wolves into living Swiffer Duster refills.
You know the type.
So when we found an ad for a litter of puppies that was half-Beagle, half-Shih Tzu, we thought we had found our ideal dog. We didn’t have much experience with either breed, but quick search on YouTube uncovered numerous videos of Beagles expertly escaping from locked cages like nimble dog ninjas, alongside videos of confused Shih Tzus who were unable to escape from rings of empty pop cans. We figured that the genetics of both dogs would cancel each other out, giving us a semi-quiet, medium-haired dog with only average escape-artist abilities. Unfortunately for us, that’s not quite how genetics work.
Gaze upon what should have been.
As Max grew from a puppy to an adult, it became pretty obvious that he wasn’t a seamless blend of two complementary breeds, so much as he was the jarring, mismatched set of traits that you would get if you put on a blindfold and drunkenly hurled darts at picture of his parents. The two halves of his genetic lineage went together like peanut butter and industrial floor cleaner. If you stitched together random pieces of road kill and reanimated the result in a lightening storm, you still could not create a more unfortunate-looking mammal than the ungodly genetic abomination that we brought into our home. When it came to dog breeding, man had finally flown too close to the sun, and the misshapen animal before us was proof of our melted wings.
Somebody owes 10,000 years of selective breeding an apology.
Instead of having medium-length fur – or fur that resembles just one of his parents – Max has random patches of long and short hair all over his body that grow to whatever length they feel like. He has the squished-in face and jutting underbite of a Shih-Tzu, and a mouth full of Beagle-sized teeth that couldn’t quite figure out which direction they were supposed to grow into his head. His ears are long and floppy like a Beagle’s, his tail is curled back like a Shih Tzu’s, and he has webbed toes, which are not typically found in either breed. The howls he makes sound like evolution itself lamenting its failures, and when he breathes, he sounds like a vacuum cleaner trying to suck up a Costco-sized pack of socks.
At his absolute best, he looks like a tiny buffalo with mange. At his worst, he looks like a stuffed Beauty and the Beast toy made entirely from discarded pubes.
Putting his hair in pigtails didn’t fix anything. Sorry, buddy.
The fact that Max looks like a dust bunny with an autoimmune disease might be almost charming if he had a friendly and lovable personality, but Max seems to believe that his sole purpose in life is to make everyone as miserable as his chromosomes make him. To date, he has been banned from two vet’s offices and every dog groomer he’s ever encountered. Due to his flat and uniquely misshapen face, Max cannot be muzzled, and it turns out that very few dog-related professionals are willing to sacrifice their fingers for the sake of making sure his anus is properly coiffed. His last set of vaccines required two sedatives to get him on the table, four veterinary techs to hold him down, and one therapist to help my mother cope with witnessing it. Springing an injured coyote from a rusty trap with your bare hands is less dangerous than trying to trim this dog’s toenails.
Of course, Max doesn’t behave like a feral mongoose all the time – if he did, we would have turned him loose to terrorize the Alberta wilderness he came from a long time ago. At home, Max is a standoffish but peaceful dog who is content to keep to himself and enjoy the occasional scratch behind the ears. This changes the moment that someone gets between him and his favourite foods – namely carrots, firewood, or used earplugs. He also spends a great deal of time licking up dropped birdseed underneath the bird feeders, although we’ve never been quite sure if he does this because he enjoys the taste of cracked corn, or if he’s simply trying to put himself out of his own misery by contracting botulism.
Efforts to prevent Max from eating any of these items are futile. Although he is shaped like an angry loaf of bread, Max inherited every ounce of his Beagle mother’s agility, and thus he cannot be contained by the like of fences, leashes, walls, floors, doors, windows, chains, harnesses, loud noises or prayers.
Dogs were never intended to live on the same diet as a sparrow, and sure enough, his eating habits have dire gastro-intestinal consequences for him. Dog poop is unpleasant at the best of times, but there’s no way to emotionally or psychologically prepare yourself to own a dog whose turds look like unwrapped granola bars. Shitting out a birdseed log cause a lot of unnecessary butthole exfoliation, which in turn causes a great deal of irritation, which means occasionally having to corral Max into the minivan with an upturned chair so we can drive him to the vet to find out if he’s bleeding because he just pushed out a Nutri-Grain bar or if he’s actually got butt-cancer this time. This process is an endless cycle that causes a great deal of suffering for everyone involved.
This is the closest I’m going to come to illustrating that.
After a few years of living with a bad-tempered mutt who shits particle board, we decided that perhaps Max just wasn’t interested in human company. Maybe the scamper of tiny paws was what we needed to warm his cold, birdseed-encrusted heart. So we hit the “puppy” section of Kijiji again, and we came back with Baloo.
Depicted here as a puppy, in the brief moments before dog-puberty made her the size of a truck.
We’d had quite enough of small dogs this time around; if our next dog was also going to be horrible, then we at least wanted to make sure that she was too big to hide from the consequences of her actions under the couch. My parents had always been fond of Newfoundland dogs, but they were still wary of purebreds. So when we found a litter of Newfoundland/Rottweiler/Labrador Retriever mixes, the opportunity was too good to pass up.
Unlike her adopted older dog-brother, Baloo grew into the sweetest 130lb collection of drool, teeth and hair that any family could ask for. She looks like a dog that could reasonably exist on this earth, with her only obvious physical defect being her resemblance to a medium-sized bear. She produces enough dog-slobber to affect the local water table and she will cause a small panic among the neighbours if she ever breaks free from the yard, but she’s a good-natured gentle giant who leaves nothing to be desired as a pet.
Baloo is the closest that any of us will ever come to owning a real-life Pokemon. This is not because she battles other animals and lives in a plastic ball, but because she is only capable of knowing how to do four things at a time. Teaching her a fifth thing forces her to delete an essential piece of knowledge from her brain, leaving her permanently adrift in a brave new world where she knows how to roll over on command but can no longer remember where her food bowl is. Training her is not just difficult – it’s an act of open cruelty.
The only thing that cannot be deleted from Baloo’s brain is her unwavering belief that it is her duty – and her duty alone – to defend our home from threats. The obvious downside of this is that when it comes to detecting genuine threats, Baloo has all the nuance and fine judgement of a motion-sensing floodlight. The upside is that no family in all of Canada has ever been safer from parked cars, domestic cats, squirrels, shadows, insects, wind chimes, rain or the existence of scarves.
Putting on a hat makes Baloo think that you’re a completely different person, so we are also quite safe from versions of ourselves with warm ears.
Baloo’s vigilance was tolerable when the family lived in the suburbs – back then, it made some amount of sense to have a large dog around to discourage burglars. Now that my parents have moved to a house in the middle of the Canadian wilderness, miles from the nearest neighbour, Baloo’s dedication to safety mostly involves her getting into high-stakes violent encounters with species she has never seen before in her life.
She also murders birds that get too close to the house, a feat that is as physically impressive for a 130lb dog as it is disgusting.
Once Baloo has decided that the feral raccoon in the yard isn’t here to steal our garbage, but is instead planning to disembowel the entire family in our sleep and feast upon our steaming entrails, there is no way to discourage her from going after the threat. Treats, toys and promises of belly rubs all pale in comparison to the opportunity to dash out into the yard and take her rabies vaccines for a test run. The only way to stop her is to throw yourself on the proverbial sword and physically tackle her to the ground, at great risk of personal injury. After my parents had to shell out hundreds of dollars to get 90 porcupine quills surgically removed from Baloo’s face, the family made a pact that we would all risk grievous bodily harm by hug-tackling Baloo whenever necessary. Healthcare in Canada is free for people. It is not free for dogs.
Also, since Baloo already knew four things at the time of her porcupine fight, she was not able to learn that porcupines are dangerous. She will bite another one at her first opportunity.
Despite the fact that Max and Baloo fell off opposite ends of the “weird dog genes” truck, they have a relatively easy and affectionate relationship. Baloo takes Max everywhere with her, sometimes by force if necessary. She has learned many important dog skills from him, like how to eat large pieces of lumber and how to make howling sounds that resemble a foghorn.
Max eats bits of firewood. She once ate an adirondack chair.
Max, on the other hand, seems to be mostly interested in humping Baloo at every opportunity he gets. Thankfully, there’s no chance that this union will produce any offspring. For one thing, the dogs are fixed. And, perhaps most importantly, Max rarely humps the correct end of Baloo.
It’s the ciiiiiiircle of life.
We love our dogs. But our long, ongoing failed experiment with designer dogs ends with them.