Sophie Jackson is a dog lover and trainer living in the UK. She competes in agility and obedience with her four dogs.
What Is a Cockapoo?
The cockapoo is a cross between a pure Poodle and a pure Cocker Spaniel, resulting in a hybrid that shares the traits of both parent breeds. The cockapoo has been named the most popular crossbreed in the UK by the website Pets4Homes. In 2018, they ranked fourth in popularity on the website based on searches and adverts for the crossbreed; in fact, they were the only non-pedigree pooch in the top ten and were more popular (based on user statistics) than their parent breeds.
The cockapoo's popularity cannot be denied, and it is easy to see why they are so well-loved as they are sweet, companionable dogs, easy to train and of a size to suit both urban and country homes. But with this popularity has come a downside because certain 'breeders' now see cockapoos as a way to make money.
Puppy farms, backyard breeders and other unscrupulous individuals are breeding cockapoos as fast as they can for profit. Many of these puppies suffer health issues, their parents are housed in poor conditions and treated like breeding machines, and the whole situation is not about the dogs' welfare, but about making money.
Cynical puppy farmers trying to make even more money from their puppies have started to offer 'novelty' or 'unusual' colours. These are advertised as 'rare' and 'unique' with a price tag to match. Many of these different coloured cockapoos are being advertised at prices beyond what you would pay for a pedigree dog and unwitting puppy buyers are paying £1000s for a poorly bred and unhealthy puppy.
That is where the blue merle or red merle cockapoo fits in. In recent years, these have been advertised as a rare cockapoo colour variation, causing huge controversy among reputable cockapoo breeders along with those who breed Poodles and Cocker Spaniels. Poodles and Cocker Spaniels are not recognised in any merle colour, so how can you have merle cockapoos?
What Does 'Merle' Mean?
The term 'merle' is used to describe a particular coat pattern where the colour is mottled and appears in places 'faded'. In some breeds, this is known as a dapple pattern, which gives a clearer idea of what the coat may appear like.
In a merle dog, there will be patches of solid colour (often white, black or tan), mixed with a paler colour (grey or light red). The pale colour is actually a result of a defect in the gene that produces coat colour. The hairs have incorrect pigmentation and appear much lighter. For instance, the grey colour of a blue merle is, in fact, black hair that has been affected by the merle gene and appears pale grey. This should not be confused with breeds that have true grey/silver coats (such as the Weimaraner) or pale reddish-brown coats. These are solid colours, not merles.
The hairs of a merle coat will often vary considerably in hue, with light grey almost white hairs, to darker grey. Individual hairs can consist of multiple shades and it is very distinctive. This applies to all types of merle (blue, red or sable). The merle gene that produces this colouration is technically defective and as a result, there are concerns that a dog with a merle coat may be more prone to certain health issues. Including a range of eye problems, potential hearing problems and possibly other health complications.
The merle coat variation is recognised in certain breeds, where it has been known about for many years and genetic studies have identified the gene responsible. These include:
- Shetland Sheepdog
- Border Collie
- Rough Collie
- Australian Shepherd
- Miniature American Shepherd
- Dachshund (where it is referred to as 'dapple')
- Great Dane (where it is known as 'harlequin')
These are breeds where the Kennel Club or American Kennel Club recognises this as a genuine colour variant and allow dogs of that colour to be registered. Neither the Poodle nor the Cocker Spaniel is recognised by these bodies as having the merle gene and this has sparked controversy over the merle cockapoo.
Why the Controversy?
No one knows entirely where the merle gene came from or when it first appeared in the breeds that are recognised to produce that colour. It appears to have been a mutation that possibly occurred at an early stage in the development of certain breeds. For instance, as it is found in numerous herding breeds, it may be that there was a common ancestor to all these dogs that developed the mutation and passed it to later generations.
Merle coats have not always been popular, and they remain less common in many breeds than the traditional colours (for instance, there are far more black and white border collie puppies registered than merle puppies). Merles are sometimes seen as 'fashionable over practical' and there is a tendency in some quarters for them to be regarded as less useful as working dogs.
Poodles and Cocker Spaniels were both originally gundogs and it is believed they may share a common ancestor at some point before the two breeds diverged. However, only recently have 'merle' Poodles emerged, causing some breeders to suspect that another breed has been mixed with a Poodle to produce the colour.
According to Windswept Poodles:
"It is not a natural pattern in poodles. That means that the Merle gene had to be introduced into the poodle via another breed of dog. Whereas these dogs are very striking in colour, they are not poodles."
Spirit Standard Poodles shared a similar opinion on their Facebook page:
"BEWARE! A "new" colour-merle- is showing up in poodles! The breeders are falsifying papers to get them AKC registered. Merle is NOT a colour that has ever been in poodles! If you see a merle poodle, it is the product of mixed breeding, likely a herding breed. I know many of our fans love multi-colour poodles, so please help protect our breed and spread the word that people that breed merle poodles are scamming buyers, the AKC/UKC and hurting poodles."
There are only a handful of breeders producing merle Poodles, mainly in America, they argue that the 'merle' colour has emerged as a natural variant, but this seems highly unlikely. Poodles were originally gundogs, and looking at the wide range of old gundog breeds, none exhibit the merle gene. If this variant could appear in Poodles, it should also appear in retrievers, Spaniels and Pointers, as at some point in the past they shared a common ancestor.
The majority of Poodle breeders are certain this colour is not natural and that it has been created by mating a Poodle to a breed that does carry the gene. The main suspects are Shelties, collies and possibly Australian Shepherds. The reason for this has been argued to be financial, producing 'novelty' colours that can be sold for a higher price.
Similarly, the merle coat type (not to be confused with the roan colour) is not recognised in the Cocker Spaniel (English or American) by the Kennel Club (UK). The American Kennel Club does not recognise the merle pattern in English Cocker Spaniels, but it does recognise it in American Cocker Spaniels. The origins of this merle gene in the American cocker is hazy, especially as it is not seen in other spaniel breeds, or the English cocker.
It raises the question of whether another breed has, some time in the past, been introduced to the American Cocker Spaniel in the US. It should be noted that in the UK the American cocker is less common, and few are bred with Poodles to create cockapoos. Blue merle 'Cocker Spaniels' of English type are seen from time to time, and these are typically the result of breeding Border Collies and cockers. Again, this is not a colour considered normal for Cocker Spaniels.
You may be wondering if this all really matters? With a rise in the popularity of mixed breeds, this debate may seem a fuss over nothing. The trouble is that the merle gene does not just give the dog a pretty colour—it can carry an awful lot of unpleasant health consequences, especially when unscrupulous breeders start to put money over the welfare of their dogs and puppies.
The Unhealthy Merle
The merle gene does not just affect a dog's coat colour, it can have an impact on other aspects of the dog, notably the eyes and ears. Research is still ongoing to understand the full range of complications this gene can cause, but there is growing awareness that merle dogs can have more health problems than their solid colour littermates.
A condition known as iris coloboma is found almost exclusively in merle Australian Shepherds and Miniature American Shepherds (one of the breeds that may have helped create the merle Poodle) and is a defect present from birth. The condition is caused when the iris (the coloured part of the eye) fails to develop properly. In minor cases it may appear as if a notch is missing from the dog's iris, in severe cases there may be a massive hole in the iris, making it appear as if the dog does not have an iris at all.
Minor iris coloboma usually does not affect the dog, but severe cases can cause the dog to suffer discomfort in bright sunlight and squint. In a performance dog, this could cause issues with them competing or training in summer. Some dogs may even need to wear doggy sunglasses to help the condition. A dog with even a minor iris coloboma should not be bred from.
Vision problems are just one potential health defect associated with the merle colour, according to the American Dog Breeders Association, the merle gene "is associated with deafness, eye defects, and problems with the dog's immune system." Continued below:
"...The specific cells that become the pigment producing cells come entirely from the same area of the embryo (neuronal crest) that the cells of the nervous system comes from. It stands to reason, that if you have defects in genes associated with colour genetics you can have nervous system defects because both cells are derived from the same neuronal crest. This can explain why it is likely that certain dilute or patterned dogs, such as extreme piebalds, albinos, etc. as well as those that have the merle [gene] are prone to sensory, neurological and/or immunological problems."
No wonder then that poodle breeders are anxious about introducing the merle gene into their breed, with all the health complications it can potentially bring with it. But even more serious is what happens when two merles are bred together. This produces double-merle puppies that have serious health issues and are sometimes sold to unwitting puppy buyers.
The Dangers of Double Merles
It might seem logical that if you want to produce a litter of merle puppies you should breed two merle dogs together. Unfortunately, there is a serious health risk to future puppies when you breed merle to merle.
When two merles come together there is a 1 in 4 chance of their puppies carrying two copies of the merle gene (hence becoming a double-merle). When this occurs, the health complications can be enormous. Most double-merles suffer some form of hearing or eyesight problem, usually serious enough to cause deafness and blindness. In many instances, the eyes simply do not form, or the eyeball is very small. There is a similar lack of development with the ears. A double-merle is also typically albino, with a pink nose and pink eyes (if there are any eyes). There can be other health complications which result in the limitation of the dog's life expectancy.
Naturally, these unfortunate puppies require the care of a specialist as they cannot function in the same way as a normal dog. They often end up in rescue or are euthanized by the breeder. Unscrupulous sellers may attempt to find buyers for a double-merle pup without telling them that the dog is deaf or blind.
Some 'breeders', despite being fully aware of the risks of producing double-merles, will still perform a merle to merle mating as the resulting litter will usually have more merle puppies in it, than if a merle was breed to another colour, and thus they hope to make more money. A good breeder will never mate merle to merle, and will not charge more for a merle puppy than an ordinary colour.
Equally, there can be an issue with 'cryptic merles'. These are dogs that appear to be solid in colour but actually carry the merle gene. Tests are now available to determine what colour genes a dog carries, but if these are not done, then a cryptic merle could be bred to a typical merle and thus result in double-merle pups.
The risk of double-merle cockapoos appearing due to ignorance or deliberate attempts to produce more merle puppies is a real welfare concern and has heightened the controversy of merle cockapoos, making many genuine cockapoo breeders unhappy about this new colour. To learn more about double-merles and their health issues you can check out my other article: The Double Merle Dog.
Should I Buy a Merle Cockapoo?
You now have all the information you need to make an educated choice about whether to buy that cute merle cockapoo puppy you have seen, and ultimately the decision is yours, but just to recap, here are the most important points to bear in mind before you decide:
- Most pedigree Poodle and spaniel breeders do not believe the merle colour exists in these breeds.
- A merle cockapoo is likely a mix of more than just Poodle and Cocker Spaniel. There could be sheltie, collie or something else in the mix.
- Many merle cockapoos are sold for high prices by unscrupulous breeders as they are a 'novelty' colour.
- A merle cockapoo may have more health issues than commoner colours, including vision and hearing problems.
- Merle cockapoos may suffer immune system and neurological problems, and may not live as long as other cockapoos.
- Double-merle cockapoos are usually blind, deaf or both. Sometimes they look like a normal merle and thus are sold to unwitting puppy buyers.
This article is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge. It is not meant to substitute for diagnosis, prognosis, treatment, prescription, or formal and individualized advice from a veterinary medical professional. Animals exhibiting signs and symptoms of distress should be seen by a veterinarian immediately.
Mosaic on July 24, 2020:
Merle Cockapoos have been around more than a few years! I've bred Merle Cockapoos since 2009. My dogs are genetically health tested and cleared by Animal Genetics, Pawprints or Embark. There are NONE of the breeds you mentioned in my lines.i also have an AKC cryptic Merle Toy Poodle that is genetically health cleared. Merle is a DOMINANT gene and not carried. It can be hidden in many colors: buff, red, sable, Parti and apricot. There are 27 types of Merle. Deer have been known to be white with spotting and also albino. It is a mutation. So quit trying to tell the public Merle can not be in the Cocker or Poodle.
Biostatistician here on July 16, 2020:
So I agree that there are many scammers in the world and many scammy dog breeders. However, I think it is useful to point out that it WOULD be possible for a Merle mutation to appear naturally in poodles in recent history. Mutations occur all the time in nature and it is common to pass down mutations in genes that are not deleterious to survival.
In fact, it would not be very challenging to determine experimentally whether the poodle mutation comes from another breed or whether it arose naturally. All you would need to do is sequence the poodle Merle mutation and compare it to the mutation found in herding breeds. If the sequences are the same, you can be confident that the gene was introduced by a herding breed. If the mutations occur in very different places on the gene, then you can be reasonably certain that the mutation arose naturally in poodles in recent history.