NEW YORK (MONEY Magazine) - My daughter Julia and I often go to a local pet store to play with the puppies. Usually we see Labs, beagles, maybe a schnauzer and a bunch of Yorkies, all sleeping in a big pile of fluff.
Not the last time we stopped by. There in the back, looking like the preening winners of some exotic dog show, were something called Yorkipoos. Next to them were schnoodles, and Maltipoos, and Peekapoos and puggles. They were expensive, they were unusual, they were unbearably cute.
Across suburbia, new breeds with funny-sounding names are capturing hearts and wallets. Most mixes are one part poodle because poodles tend to be hypoallergenic and not to shed, a godsend for any dog lover who has allergies or likes to wear black. Poodle offspring can inherit this owner-friendly trait, even when one of the parents isn't a poodle.
This got breeders thinking...if the hypoallergenic gene can be passed along, why not other genes? Poodles live longer, have better eyesight and are more intelligent, agile and energetic than most breeds.
But not everyone wants a poodle, so breeders are trying to borrow the good traits and pass them along to all kinds of other breeds. Are the owners of these mixes paying a lot for what are essentially mutts?
Basically, yes -- but mutts without many of the annoying and sometimes expensive problems pedigreed dogs have. Golden retrievers, for example, are lovable but have hip problems. Poodles, for all their hypoallergenic virtue, can have bad skin and too much energy.
But a goldendoodle has the potential to be more relaxed, shed less, have great hips and skin and be hypoallergenic -- the perfect dog.
Perfect dogs are pricey dogs, however. The new mutts cost every bit as much as their purebred ancestors, and many breeders and stores nevertheless maintain long waiting lists.
Labradoodles (Labrador plus poodle), for example, can fetch $2,500. That's a lot of money, but people seem to be willing to pony up for a dog that won't leave its coat everywhere around the house. Plus, there's an element of fashion to the new mixes -- having the first Labradoodle on your block is a little like owning the first Prius.
Hillary Messer of Briarcliff Manor, N.Y. already has a nine-year-old golden retriever and recently bought a Labradoodle.
"I wanted to be able not to vacuum my house every day," she says. "And besides the shedding, I wanted a dog that wouldn't die young of cancer -- my first golden died at age eight. A dog is a big investment of money and time, and it was important to me to be sure I got a calm, child-friendly dog, which I did."
Not that all mixes are created equal. Glenn Zeitz, a vet in Ossining, N.Y., says mixes are "often fantastic," but cautions that "often" isn't "always." Here are a few tips for making sure yours is a winner.
Find a good breeder
The best first step is to go online. The breeders are all there, and once you find a few who sell the kind of dog you want, ask for as many references as they have and call every single one.
Are there scammers out there throwing together any two dogs they can find, trying to cash in on the mixed-breed trend? Probably. So even if it requires a weekend trip, try to visit the breeder to make sure the puppies are being handled frequently and are living in clean, well-ventilated kennels, says Miriam Fields-Babineau, a professional trainer and the author of "Training Mixed Breed Dogs."
A sure sign of a good breeder is one who asks to meet you, says Daisy Okas of the American Kennel Club (AKC). They should seem as skeptical of you as you are of them -- many breeders of popular dogs have their pick of buyers, and good sellers will make sure their dogs always go to the best possible homes.
The problem with pet stores is that instead of buying from good breeders, many buy from puppy mills that churn out dogs in large numbers, explains Zeitz, the vet.
"[Some] puppy mills don't follow any proper breeding responsibility. They will breed closely related puppies, sisters and brothers, even mothers and sons. And that can lead to health problems."
Meet the parents
Or at least inquire about their heritage. According to the AKC, the basic definition of a purebred dog is one that has at least three generations of purebred parentage.
Even if you don't give a yap about AKC regulations, the ancestry issue is worth considering because it's the link to what many people believe is the problem with mixes: inconsistency. Purebred dogs fetch high prices because they tend to have all the traits the breed is known for, and healthy purebreds produce the best mixes.
"You should always get documentation on the parents' health," says Fields-Babineau. That includes tests for genetic defects common to their breeds -- for example, hip dysplasia in bigger dogs like German shepherds and Labs -- as well as heart, thyroid, eye and blood-chemistry tests.
If such problems are in the parents' bloodlines, they can be passed along. Get the results in writing. There's always the chance, of course, that you could breed a healthy, purebred schnauzer to a healthy, purebred poodle and end up with a schnoodle that has each breed's less desirable qualities. But a puppy born of high-quality dogs has the best chance of inheriting only high-quality traits.
Get a guarantee
For any dog, but especially a mix, ask for a one- or two-year money-back guarantee. This may sound cold -- we're talking about a warm ball of fluff that sleeps on your pillow, after all -- but 15 states now have puppy lemon laws for good reason.
If the dog ends up with any minor undisclosed health problems, you might be able to get the breeder to pay to have them fixed or buy the dog back or give you a replacement (in the case of a serious ailment).
It's not a scenario anyone wants to think about. But, as Okas notes, even when it comes to irresistible puppies, "It pays to be a smart consumer."