The lists are endless: The 10 Best Breeds for Families, The 10 Ultimate Breeds for Runners, The 25 Loudest Dog Breeds, 5 Dog Breeds that Don’t Shed Their Weight in Fur on a Daily Basis, The Top 10 Purse-Dog Breeds, The 5 Best Breeds for Overcompensating Men, etc.
The pre-eminent canine in each case is one breed: The shelter dog. The muttliest mutt available who suits your lifestyle, if possible.
I came across some such list the other day soon after being reminded that October is Adopt-a-Shelter-Dog Month (as made-up occasions that you’re supposed to capitalize go, one that has special significance in our household). The American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (ASPCA—the ones responsible for those funereal commercials with Sarah McLachlan) estimates that nearly 4 million dogs enter animal shelters each year, and that more than a quarter of them are eventually euthanized; these numbers roughly align with data reported by the Humane Society of the United States (HSUS) and the American Humane Association (AHA), however the AHA indicates that more than 50 percent of dogs may actually be euthanized.
The objective of shelters and humane organizations isn’t to put reputable breeders out of business, and my aim here is not to start a purebred versus mutt argument. The goal is to save the lives of dogs wrongfully imprisoned for crimes they didn’t commit instead of buying from operations that breed dogs relative to demand.
The ASPCA-backed Adopt-a-Shelter-Dog Month encourages this by:
- Asking those ready for a dog to consider adopting from a shelter instead of from a breeder or a retailer that acquires its dogs from puppy mills
- Urging those who don’t want or can’t have a dog, but who desire to help, to donate to an animal shelter or organization that supports homeless pets, or volunteer at a local shelter; think of all the dogs (and, OK, people) the money wasted on these wretched political campaigns could have aided
The situation begs…
‘…an interesting ethical question’
Miller’s Crossing is one of my favorite films, and Johnny Caspar, the ethics-obsessed gangster (“If you can’t trust a fix, what can you trust?”), is one of my favorite movie characters. “(E)thics is important,” Caspar (the great and recently late Jon Polito) declares. “What separates us from the animals…”
The matter of ethics related to adopting a dog from a shelter versus buying a dog from a breeder was recently raised in The New York Times’s “The Ethicist.” Kwame Anthony Appiah, a New York University philosophy professor and the column’s author, argues that there is still a role for responsible breeders and that having a preference for a certain type of dog is not canineist.
But Appiah notes that pure breeds often end up in shelters as well, and he gently observes an innate prejudice “that would yield to a more careful exploration of the facts.” Some cling to misconceptions that purebred dogs are genetically superior to, or more adept at particular roles than, mixed-breed dogs; others view shelter dogs as damaged goods.
The In(bred) Crowd
Yes, different breeds possess certain characteristics that make them desirable to people who live a particular lifestyle, or make them generally suited to certain roles. The vast majority of breeds we know and love today have those characteristics due to centuries of selective breeding.
One of the consequences is a shallow genetic pool that has further diminished over time. This inbreeding increases the frequency of the otherwise rare genes that cause adverse health effects when a dog possesses two copies of the defective gene; the problems become more common in future generations when descendants are eventually mated, which is typical among purebred dogs.
The selective breeding that leads to certain features people find appealing also leads to congenital health defects and shorter life spans (these amateur Dr. Frankensteins should be ashamed of what they did to the bulldog). And unless you have an innate desire for paperwork that proves your dog is an inbred, you can likely find your preferred breed through a shelter; the HSUS estimates that about 25 percent of the dogs in shelters are purebred.
This is not to say that mutts can’t have health problems or carry over genetic defects from their progenitors. Our household has examples of each. But mixed-breed dogs generally have a more diverse genetic background and are less likely to develop health problems than purebreds; selective breeding disrupts natural selection, which otherwise weeds out a lot of these genetic flaws and passes along the more advantageous traits.
Even when traits are accentuated, there is no substantial evidence that breed predicts behavior or physical abilities outside of limited parameters. Not all purebred dogs that are explicitly engineered for racing, fighting, sled pulling, hunting or herding end up with the characteristics that allow them to excel in the particular role associated with a given breed.
Most Golden retrievers I’ve encountered (and in Colorado, that’s a lot) are barely capable of retrieving a drink of water, let alone a thrown object. I’ve heard stories of greyhounds who are couch potatoes. I’ve known pit bulls that I never feared would attempt to devour me alive. I’ve met Siberian huskies who don’t seem interested in dragging their humans down the street at top speed as if every walk is the Iditarod.
We have a Catahoula leopard dog who hates water, but a husky-shepherd mix who loves to swim. We also have a border collie-husky mix who is—thankfully, in compensation for his lunatic brothers—reserved and gentle and shy, traits not associated with those breeds. On the flip side, each of our husky-touched mutts summons the spirit of Balto every time a leash is attached.
Mixed breeds can excel in niches carved out by their ancestors. Modern sled dogs, for example, are rarely Alaskan malamutes or Siberian huskies, two breeds long tied to sled pulling for both work and sport, but rather divergent mixes of those dogs and everything from English pointers to greyhounds to salukis; many, particularly the racing dogs, are still victims of selective breeding and prone to genetic health problems, however.
One Species, One Love
Dogs are a single species (or, more accurately, a subspecies of the wolf): canis lupus familiaris. There is no canine subspecies for poodles or sub-subspecies for goldendoodles.
They are members of one family, and mutts are the outcasts who are secretly cooler and smarter than you think. Because they’re unique looking, mixed-breed dogs draw a lot of attention, and because they tend to register as more intelligent than purebreds, they’re clever enough to turn on the charm and milk it for all it’s worth.
Although whenever we get stopped with the dogs during walks or hikes, people inevitably ask what breeds they are. Sigh.