When Choosing a Pet, Consider a Mutt
Many people love dogs and enjoy keeping one (or more) as a pet. While going through the process of deciding what kind of dog to get, they frequently wonder which breed of dog makes the best pet. They become overwhelmed by the variety of breeds to choose from but, unfortunately, overlook the most underrated type of dog there is: the mixed breed. Although not an actual breed, this variety of dog usually makes a better pet than any pure breed of dog.
Most dogs that are featured in books, magazines and on television are purebred dogs, which are dogs whose parents are of the same breed. These include Labrador Retrievers, Cocker Spaniels, Poodles and hundreds of other popular and not-so-popular breeds. Each was created by people who wanted a dog with certain characteristics. Somewhere in history people discovered that after breeding two dogs with similar characteristics, the offspring often had those same characteristics (Coren 40). Through inbreeding (breeding mothers to sons, fathers to daughters, or even brothers to sisters), specific traits were isolated and after many generations of crossing these closely-related dogs, all of their offspring began to act and look almost identical to each other. A name was given to these analogous dogs and thus a new breed was created.
On the other hand, mixed breed dogs (also called mutts or mongrels), in most cases, are "randomly bred dog[s]" (Lemonick 67), meaning that people did not choose to breed them. These are dogs whose parents are either two different breeds or one or both parents are mixed breeds themselves. They have no specific desirable trait as purebreds do, but instead display characteristics of both parents, however different they may be. So, for instance, the Collie was specifically created to herd sheep and the Schnauzer was bred to chase and capture rodents; a dog that is a cross between a Collie and a Schnauzer may be good at both herding sheep and catching rodents.
Most people have been led to believe that all dogs will make good pets. When looking for a dog to own, they tend to choose the cutest puppy or a puppy that is the breed of dog that is "in style". For example, the popularity of the Collie grew enormously in the 1970s after the introduction of the TV, film and book superstar Lassie. But according to the American Kennel Club (the United States club of purebred dogs), in 1994 the Collie population was only half as large as it was in 1970 (Lawson 72). This popularity change is characteristic of many breeds of dogs that go into and out of style just as clothing does.
The truth is, with the exception of the group of dogs known as toys (which includes small lap dogs like Yorkshire Terriers and Toy Poodles), it is hard to find a breed of dog that was specifically created to be a pet. Most were bred to do something for people, such as guarding them or helping them hunt. Even though toy dogs were originally bred to be pets, through the years that goal was somehow forgotten and today they are bred more for their beauty and tiny stature. Now they are renowned for being nervous and prone to snap, especially at children. They no longer make the ideal pet.
So what kind of dog does make a good pet? First we must define what qualities a dog should have that would make it a good pet for a family or an individual. Of topmost importance, a good pet should be relatively healthy throughout its life. No one wants a dog that has to visit the veterinarian all the time or that has to continually take medication for health problems. A good pet should only need preventative medicine (such as pills taken to prevent infestation of a parasite known as Heartworms) and annual visits to a veterinarian for vaccinations and physical check ups.
Another important quality of a good pet is a friendly nature toward both family members and strangers. The worst dog a person can own is one that has an unpredictable temperament, especially toward children and strangers. Its good to have a dog that barks when strangers approach the owners home, but its not so good to have a dog that barks, growls and maybe even tries to bite visitors of the owner. What cannot be tolerated in a pet dog is one that tries to bite children, especially children of the owner.
While it is true that a dogs temperament is greatly determined by the way it is raised and the amount of socialization (exposure to many different people, places and situations) it receives, since these are things that the owner can control, I will use the assumption that the dog in question has been well raised and socialized. I will deal more with the inborn characteristics of a dog which are traits that it was born with and cannot be changed.
PUREBREDS VERSUS MIXED BREEDS
From a genetic point of view, mixed breed dogs are much healthier than purebreds. Through the years as dogs were bred for specific qualities, genetic diseases started appearing more frequently in certain breeds. Sometimes the disease was linked to a physical characteristic pertaining to the function the breed was developed for. An example of this kind of disease is seen in the breed of dog called the Chinese Shar-Pei. This dog, which was bred to be a fighting dog, needed to have loose, wrinkly skin that made it hard for the enemy to bite into its vital organs. Unfortunately, this type of skin is more prone to infections of the hair follicles (Lemonick 68). As more and more dogs with loose, wrinkly skin were bred, this disease became more and more common and as a result, today it is hard to find a Chinese Shar-Pei that is free of skin infections.
Other times, a disease that shows up in certain breeds can be traced to a physical characteristic preferred by breeders of the dog. Hip dysplasia, a weakness in the hip joints, frequently strikes German Shepherds. This disease has been found to be caused by breeding the animals to have low, sloping hind legsa characteristic favored by enthusiasts of the breed (65-67).
What it comes right down to is the fact that human beings are the cause of most, if not all, of the diseases that frequently show up in purebred dogs. Dr. Alfred J. Plechner, a prominent researcher of genetic problems in dogs says:
Some people have good intentions when they choose to breed dogs. They may want to breed their Cocker Spaniel to the neighbors Cocker Spaniel because they want their children to experience the "miracle of life". One of the dogs happens to have a hereditary eye disease known as Cherry Eye (infection of the eyelid) and passes it along to some of the puppies. Eventually, these puppies are also bred thus continuing the passage of this disease to many more dogs. The original owners really meant no harm and cannot be fully blamed for the problem. After all, someone sold them a Cocker Spaniel with Cherry Eye. Its all a matter of not being informed about these problems.
The people to be blamed most for the problems facing purebred dogs are those who breed dogs with only one purpose in mind: to make money. These are the people who run "puppy mills" where dogs are bred indiscriminately and repeatedly. The animals often live in "disease-infested breeding factories" (Brennan 13) where the amount of deaths can be greater than the amount of births. Most of the time, too much inbreeding occurs and genetic problems are magnified. Unaware people buy these dogs (many times from pet shops) and sometimes carry on the genetic problems by breeding their dog. As a result, close to a quarter of all purebred dogs in the United States have some kind of serious genetic problem (Lemonick 65).
To find a dog that isnt as likely to have these genetic problems, you should look toward the "breed" of dog created by nature, not a human being: the mixed breed. While some individual mixed breed dogs may still have some sort of genetic problem, most disappear when two dogs with totally different genes are crossed. Many veterinarians agree that the mixed breed dogs they have as patients generally have less health problems than their purebred counterparts (Malone 43). This phenomenon can be better understood if you remember the Darwinian theory, "Survival of the Fittest". Animals that prosper are those that are the healthiest and those that are the healthiest will mate to carry on a healthy bloodline for their species. Because the dogs themselves choose their mate instead of people, the products of mixed breeding are sounder, more healthy puppies.
Another disadvantage of owning a purebred dog is the fact that aggressive behavior has also been found to be genetic. Although more often seen in more traditionally vicious breeds such as Rottweilers and Chow Chows, this temperament problem can occur in virtually any breed of dog. It has been found to result from inbreeding and even a dog that seems docile can "turn" and attack its owner, or even an infant or child (Brennan 13).
Aside from the genetics of the dog, there are many other reasons mixed breed dogs make better pets. Because they were not bred for a particular trait, most mixed breeds tend to display the good features of both parents. The mother may be a Golden Retriever, a breed that is renowned for being an intelligent family dog but which is also prone to hip dysplasia, cataracts, epilepsy and diabetes. (Walkowicz and Wilcox qtd. in Gewirtz 33). The father may be a Cocker Spaniel which, although prone to Cherry Eye, skin infections and ear problems, is also a good dog for the family. The resulting puppies are most likely to be friendly, intelligent, family-oriented and free of the diseases that may strike their parents. Even further, if one or both of the parents are mixed breeds themselves, the puppies have an even better chance of being free of genetic diseases and may display even more positive characteristics that were part of their ancestors.
Another advantage of obtaining a mixed breed dog as a pet is the fact that in many cases, you are saving its life. Unfortunately, in our society, dog ownership has become a status symbol dependent upon what type of breed you own. The fancy poodles are stereotypically owned by rich, elderly women; Golden Retrievers customarily have a home with yuppies; and Rottweilers and Pit Bulls are commonly a symbol of power with single males. Mixed breed dogs are traditionally viewed as dirty, ugly mutts kept by people who cannot afford a purebred. As a result, many mixed breed dogs end up at animal shelters and pounds, unwanted and homeless. Liz Palika states:
Since the majority of dogs that end up at animal shelters are of mixed breed heritage, by adopting a mutt, it is likely you are saving its life.
Because mixed breed dogs are often unwanted, they are also inexpensive to buy and sometimes even given away for free. Compare this with the price of a purebred dog which can range from the hundreds to even thousands of dollars and you can easily see yet another reason to own a mixed breed. When a dog is adopted from a shelter, the price is usually under one hundred dollars and may include some vaccinations and even the spaying or neutering (surgically altering a dog so it cannot reproduce) of the dog. You are definitely getting more than what you pay for when you decide to own a mixed breed instead of playing a sort of "Genetic Roulette" (Gewirtz 28) when buying a purebred.
Animal columnist, Mike Capuzzo says that "mutts are the Hondas of the dog world. Theyre cheap, reliable and what nature intended in the first place" (qtd. in Lemonick 70). While most dogs turn out to be fine pets, why take any risks when you are almost guaranteed an excellent pet in a mixed breed? Why risk paying hundreds of dollars for a purebred, just to pay hundreds more in veterinarian bills when the dog gets sick? Dont risk the fact that your purebred may turn on you or your children unexpectedly one day. Try to put aside all of your worries about "keeping up with the Jones" when deciding what kind of dog to obtain as a pet. Above all, dont ever feel embarrassed about owning a mixed breed dog. If anyone sticks up their nose to you and your dog, proudly refer to your pet as one owner of mixed breeds does: tell them that you own an "American Domestic" (Malone 42) and remember that it is the best breed of dog there is.
Brennan, Mary L. and Norma Eckroate. The Natural Dog. New York: Penguin, 1994.
Coren, Stanley. The Intelligence of Dogs. New York: Bantam, 1994.
Gewirtz, Elaine Waldorf. "Genetic Roulette." Dog Fancy Feb. 1994: 28-33.
Lawson, Deborah. "Purebred Trends." Dog Fancy March 1996: 70-72.
Lemonick, Michael D. "A Terrible Beauty." Time 12 Dec. 1994: 64-70.
Malone, John. The 125 Most Asked Questions About Dogs (and the Answers). New York: Morrow, 1993.
Palika, Liz. "Adopt a Dog." Dog Fancy Jan. 1994: 36-38.