Monday, September 10, 2012

What breed is my shelter dog?

I am weekly asked the question “so what kinds of dogs do you have?” People don’t ask this about cats. But it is the first question they ask about a dog. We use a dog’s breed as shorthand to tell us the dog’s size, color, build, and to make predictions about its temperament and energy level.

I usually describe my dogs as a “golden” (one word) and a “32 pound something or other, probably a border collie/retriever mix“ (11 words, and I didn’t even get her color in there). Some dogs, like my golden, can easily be pointed to and called a purebred, even if they aren’t registered (which is the technical definition of a purebred). But once you start mixing purebreds, it rapidly becomes surprisingly difficult to predict the heritage of the puppies. Traits that you think of as the defining characteristic of a particular breed, like that rich golden color, are often recessive and disappear in the first generation of mixed breed puppies. Look at pictures of puppies of known mixed breed heritage and you’ll be surprised again and again at how impossible it is to guess the parents’ breeds.

Now, I do make guesses about breed heritage when I describe my little mutt. But is she really a mix of breeds? Is it possible that there are a lot of dogs out there that owe more of their heritage to a pool of dogs that never got sucked into the closed breeding groups of registered breeds, and were always just something or others?

So why do I persist in making up breeds for her? Because it is shorthand. People understand it. It gives them a handle to use in building their imaginary picture of this dog I’m describing: her general size and shape and, of course, temperament. Of course, what a dog looks like does not predict very much about its temperament (except maybe that little dogs often have Napolean complexes — and that is nurture, not nature!).

As for the rest of it, we don’t have to say that a dog is a breed. We can say that it is a type. This is really what we are doing in a shelter when we guess the breed of a dog to write on its adoption card. No one really thinks that all those “lab mixes” definitely have Labrador Retriever in them, but it lets potential adopters browsing on the internet to know what to expect and to make a decision about whether to come in to the shelter meet the dog.

So what is my little mutt? Maybe next time I will say she is a “collie type” dog. As for the rest of it, describing her exact color and personality always makes for a fun conversation.


  1. Where does the idea that registration is the "technical definition of a purebred" come from?

    Only in Canada, by legislative fiat, not fact.

    A certificate from a registry has nothing to do with purebred status.

    1. You're right, I goofed. But the closed-book registry is the point of a purebred, right? How about "a purebred dog is one that is either registered, or descended at some remove entirely from dogs who were registered"?