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In Defense of Mutts

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERABy Tatiana Garrett

“What breed of dog is that?” is a phrase every dog parent hears often. People want to be able to categorize what they see and it usually stems from a good place. Someone sees a cute pup and thinks: “If I find out what kind it is, I can get one too.” Beyond the desire to label, there is also a common misconception that purebred dogs are somehow “better” than mixed-breeds. Unfortunately, animals in shelters pay the ultimate price for this misperception.

How bad are the purebred misconceptions? What are the traits that really matter in a furry friend and how should people go about selecting the very best pooch for their family?

Misconceptions

This spring, Best Friends Animal Society published the results of a national survey that found some very alarming trends:

  • 33% of respondents believe that shelter pets are less desirable than those from a breeder
  • Young adults are almost 50% more likely than others to purchase a pet from a pet store or breeder, rather than adopt from a rescue organization or shelter

Those that work in the animal welfare industry know that shelter animals make great pets. In fact, a comprehensive study done in Chicago in 2008 found that the most prevalent reason people sited for relinquishing a pet to a shelter was housing issues. Nothing wrong with the animal, but the humans had to surrender an otherwise great pet because their landlord said they had to, or the people had to move and chose to go to a place that wouldn’t allow pets, or a person simply got a pet in a building where they weren’t allowed.

Concrete data does not exist, but estimates say that anywhere from four to nine million animals are euthanized in shelters in the United States each year. For there to be any hope for true change, people—especially the next generation of pet parents—must learn that shelters animals make great pets. Period.

Personality Over Pedigree

Being nice, friendly, and good with kids are individual personality traits, not characteristics that can be scientifically proven to be connected to any specific breed of dog. Dogs were bred for jobs such as pulling sleds and hunting wolves. Heredity makes some dogs predetermined to have a high drive for hunting, retrieving, or pulling. Most people are just looking for a friendly companion and don’t have plans to build a dogsled team to compete in the Iditarod. Pets are trained to be “friendly” through socialization and pet parents willing to take the time to form a bond with a furry family member.

Finding a Best Friend

When anyone decides to welcome a new pet into the home, it is best to start with a site like Petfinder or Petango (they both allow you to search for adoptable pets near you) or to stop in to visit a local shelter.

Before seeking out a pet based solely on their looks, adopters should consider desired activity levels and discuss these sorts of preferences with an adoption counselor at the shelter. These folks are like matchmakers for the kind of love that comes with warm fur and a wet nose. They can find a perfect match for a cuddly couch potato or an athlete looking for a running buddy.

Some people can meet a million great mixed-breeds and still have their heart set on a specific breed. Those people should be aware of the fact that a study in the Journal of Applied Animal Welfare Science found that 25% of animals in shelters are purebreds and both websites listed above allow you to search by breed for adoptable pets. There are also breed rescue groups for just about every breed out there so anyone can do an internet search and possibly find someone fostering the specific breed that one is looking to adopt. With a little patience, anyone can adopt a dog of a specific breed and still be saving a life.

My Lessons

I have nothing against responsible breeders. I grew up with champion Borzois and one of my mother’s best friends was a breeder of Afghans and Maltese. My experiences have simply taught me that there is no need to pay a premium to a breeder to guarantee the bloodlines of an animal unless you plan on competing in dog shows.

While I was raised with champions, the sweetest and most loyal dog I ever knew was a mutt. She was a black and white Spaniel mix who was found by the side of a road in Fort Lauderdale by a woman who lived in a retirement village that didn’t allow pets. The woman brought her to the local shelter, but they said she would be euthanized because she was clearly old (she had a cataract in one eye and the start of one in her other). The woman brought this poor pooch into the shelter where I worked, but we were only licensed for wildlife. I listened to the woman sob as our intake staff explained why the wildlife hospital couldn’t help. She was on her way out the door to take the dog back to be put to sleep and I came out of my office, knowing that I was about to have a dog that I didn’t plan on having that morning. I named her “Schatzie,” which means little treasure in German—though she had been discarded like someone’s roadside refuse, she truly became my treasure.

Schatzie was with me for five years and everyday with her was wonderful. I swear it was as if she knew that I saved her life and she repaid me with gratitude in the form of loyalty, protection, and companionship. My little mutt was the best dog I ever had and whenever people stopped me to ask, “What kind of dog is that?”, I would boastfully reply, “The best kind: a rescued mutt.”

Tatiana Garrett grew up with Borzoi, a rescued Standard Poodle, cats, hamsters, parrots, rabbits, guinea pigs, and an iguana… just to name a few pets. She began her professional career with animals in 1995 at Brookfield Zoo. She has studied wild dolphins in Australia and rescued wildlife in Florida, but people are truly at the heart of her work. If it walks, hops, or slithers, Tatiana cares about it. She currently oversees the Humane Education programs at The Anti-Cruelty Society and hosts “Chicago Tails“ on Watch312.com.

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3 Comments

  1. Tatiana GarrettOctober 30, 2013 at 10:31 pmReply

    Also curious – in the many years I’ve worked with animals – I’ve never come across any research that connects personality (such as the “sweet natures” you mention) to breeds. Can you share any data?
    To be clear – I didn’t say that dogs are purely the product of their raising and I did say that I have nothing against responsible breeders (so I’m certainly not vilifying anyone). Just a tip though – I would steer clear of anyone that recommends an overall breed to be “good with children” without recognizing the importance of training and socialization. “Good with kids” is not a trait related to genetics/breeding; it is an individualized personality trait. Purebreds can be just as much of a “handful” as mutts.

  2. FetchOctober 25, 2013 at 9:56 pmReply

    Schatzie wasn’t a real mutt. she was probably sweet due to being a Spaniel cross. I can’t believe anyone can grow up with dogs and not know that a breed’s temperament is also part and parcel of what they were bred for, in a well bred dog anyway. Yes there are variations, but I have my Labradors not only for their trainability which was bred into them for their job as retrievers, but for their sweet natures and desire to please which was also bred into them to make them good companions in the field and keen to work as a team with you. There are other breeds that are more independent and other people like those, or more strong-willed, but I know to steer away from those breeds because that is not the sort of dog i like best. I have had good mixed breed dogs before and will again, but it is not fair to anyone to say that dogs are purely the product of their raising. There are strong breed-specific behaviours and traits in all breeds and in mixes of those breeds, and if the mix gets too random, it is hard to tell just what you will get in a pet. Perhaps young people are buying purebreds with a future family in mind, in which case it is important to go for a breed that is recommended for children, just a an example. Also, if that study was just based on what the people giving up dogs said, we will never know how many told the truth and how many lied about why they surrendered a dog. Far easier to say one is moving than to admit the dog never housetrained properly or bites the postman. I worked in rescue and took home a lovely dog and never regretted it, but I saw a lot who were handfuls too. People should have the choice to rescue or to go to a carefully-checked out registered breeder and not be vilified for either choice.

    • Tatiana GarrettOctober 30, 2013 at 9:15 pmReply

      Hi Fetch, Thanks for reading and commenting. How would you define a real “mutt”?

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