What's Wrong With Mutts?

What do Cavalier King Charles Spaniels, English Setters, Bull Mastiffs and Greyhounds have in common?

They all came from mutts.

Well, to get technical: first some wolves tolerated people, then those social wolves were bred  (the mean ones were culled or likely eaten). From there, we bred these proto-dogs to do specific tasks, like "run really fast" and "sniff out the vermin". Then we had mutts who did jobs, who were then selected even more specifically to become the purebred dogs we have today.

Hi Beanie! Though she's a good ol' fashioned mutt, the label says "Husky/Boxer". More often when you see these baby blues, you'll see "Husky" in the description, even though blue eyes happen in many different breeds. Huskies got their blue eyes....from mutts. Beanie was adopted through the MSPCA.

The new (and admittedly, FUN!) thing to do is to take a blood sample, or cheek swab from your dog, and send it into a lab for DNA testing. This testing is theoretically going to tell you every breed that makes up your dog.

Who's your daddy?!?

But that's not entirely accurate. (Actually, these tests aren't accurate at all according to a friend who works with genetic testing as part of her real-life job. That said, I expect these to be improved as time goes on and instead of being used for "breed testing," could be used for medical advances. How cool would that be?)

Purebred Dogs originated from The Mutt, Heinz 57, or any other term you can think of for an all American back yard pooch. Take the Boykin Spaniel. According to Wikipedia:

 The breed of Boykin Spaniel descends from hunting dogs bred in the early 20th century as a gun dog in South Carolina, U.S.A. The dogs had to be small enough to ride in the small boats used by hunters in the swamps. L. Whitaker Boykin (1861–1932) experimented with crossbreeding different breeds, and the resulting dog is named after him. Legend has it that Boykin started his breeding program with a dog of unknown heritage named "Dumpy", found on the street by a friend of Boykin's. The Chesapeake Bay Retriever, Springer Spaniel, Cocker Spaniel, and the American Water Spaniel may have been used in the development of the breed. The area in which the breed developed, around Camden, South Carolina, was a resort area, and the breed was noticed by visitors and so spread around the United States.

When two purebred dogs are bred (or accidentally "bred" when the neighbor dog jumps the fence when Fluffly is in heat) it's commonplace now to look for the DNA test. My dad has a big, mostly white, long coated, double dew-clawed dog with a mild disposition and some unique coloring on her back. When you look at her, you can see the two breeds that went into producing her, which was confirmed by DNA Testing: Great Pyrenees and Australian Shepherd. Maybe it was an intentional breeding -or maybe since both breeds work on farms in tandem, the Aussie took the Pyrenees out for a night of dinner, dancing, and extra curricular activities. This makes sense, and we weren't surprised at all by the results.

"Sushi", a Great Pyrenees and Australian Shepherd Mix. Also, part goofball and sweetheart.

But, when you have a dog in a shelter listed as a "Sheltie Mix", that looks like it MIGHT have some Sheltie in it, possibly, if you squint, and take it home thinking it's going to be a Sheltie in personality, demeanor, etc., you might be set up for some major disappointment when you send in the DNA test to find out it's grandparents were theoretically Yorkies and Dalmatians. (No offense to any Yorkie/Dalmatians out there. I love you, I really do!)

First: How does that even happen? Did the Yorkie use a stool to climb up to do the deed?

Second: What's wrong with Mutts? Why do we need to know exactly what kind of dog we have?
I think in part we have become dependent on our need to explain behavior, or appearance. "Oh, my Pit/Lab Mix is a bully, because he's got that Pit gene in him." "My little dog is yappy because of the Jack Russell in the system". "He's got blue eyes so he MUST be a Husky".

"Honey", a Pointer / Retriever Mix....that was up for adoption through Pets In Need in Somerville MA. They also mention "we are unsure of her breed but she looks like she has Boxer, Pointer (because of her freckles), and her ears resemble Jack Russell ears".

Dog genealogy is fun - and I think it should be used as a fun tool. You can have a bet based on "Guess The Breeds", which some of my friends have done with really fun results, and varying levels of sobriety.  I won $50.00 when I guessed my dad's dogs lineage.

However, the big takeaway is to keep in mind is Purebred dogs came from mutts, not the other way around. Most of the dogs out there are your average, run of the mill, Heinz 57. From those dogs, we picked traits we liked: Small and fluffy for apartments; long, short and loud for badger hunting; speed for rabbit hunting; medium, fast, and smart for herding; large, well insulated for swimming and retrieving; and short, squat, and funny - because we can.

It's important to note that not all dogs have purebred genes in them. Mutts are the original genes that we humans selected for and expressed in order to produce pure bred dogs. So to guess that the dog below is a Rottweiler/Shepherd mix might be a stretch, considering her ancestors produced the genes that went into producing different groups of dogs: some might be the Aussie Shepherd, the Rottweiler, and the Tibetan Terrier. She's black and tan, so the shelter put "Rottweiler" on her chart. She's got long fur so she must be a German Shepherd. Though, the black and tan coloration is a feature of tons of breeds, including the Black and Tan Coonhound (it's in the name!), Rotts, Min-Pins, and many herding dogs also happen to be black and tan. That gene came from somewhere. It came from a mutt, not a Rottweiler. We have our thinking backwards as to where genes come from.

Gigi is really cute, and totally my type of mutt. She was listed through the MSPCA.

In some cases, the DNA testing can give specific markers for diseases that might be useful for your veterinarian. Collies can have a tendency for Collie Eye Anomaly, and if it's a predominant gene in your dog, it might help your vet as the dog ages to know these things.

Personally, I think shelters would serve the public better by saying "Trucked in from Tennessee", which gives me as a trainer MUCH more information than "Lab Mix", when it's really a stretch. I've seen more Lab Mixes go to homes with people wanting a happy lab, only to have a dog that isn't a lab at all, in demeanor or look. Sometimes people just look at the label instead of getting the right dog for their family, and there-in lies the problem.

"Labrador Mix: May" She's REALLY cute, but doesn't really look like a Labrador. Either way, she's wicked cute - check her out at the Forever Home Rescue in Medfield.

The other obvious problem to trying to make a dog fit a breed lies in home owners insurance. If you are sold a dog as a "Boxer / Lab Mix", and it's a Bully Breed (or, looks like a Bully Breed), certain home insurances won't insure you. Here is an article that discusses this problem.

If you have a Pit Bull Type dog in Lowell, your dog has to be muzzled. (For more on my personal stance on Bully Breeds, check my recent post on the matter). Of course, you can lie and say it's a "Lab Mix", but then what point is even doing the DNA testing if you're just going to lie about it anyway? It seems like the whole point is bragging rights, and when you can't even do that, the meaning is lost.

Welcome To Lowell. Muzzle Your Dog.

This came up for a client of mine who got dog that was advertised as a Boxer/Lab mix. This worked out great for the dog - she's sweet, and the "Lab" part got the family to look at this dog. However, anyone can look at this dog and say clearly that she's very likely a Staffordshire Terrier. She's a wonderful dog, and is a Frisbee Superstar - but when the insurance company comes knocking, she can say it's a lab....but no one will believe her, I'm sure. It's a good thing she doesn't live in Lowell.

My dog was sold to me as a Dalmatian/Spaniel cross. For those who know Sadie, it's pretty clear she's a Border Collie - perhaps purebred, perhaps just the dominant genealogy. And does it matter? Well, sort of. Purebred dogs have specific tendencies and needs - but all dogs need exercise, all dogs need outlets, and all dogs need companionship. She happened to like Frisbee, which I gladly would have played with a lab mix, a Dalmatian/Spaniel, a terrier mutt, or a Heinz 57. Sadie was statistically more likely to enjoy certain types of games, but sometimes, even purebred dogs can fool you.

When I went to get a dog, I specifically didn't want a highly driven, long haired dog, and DEFINITELY not a herding breed. So when I picked Sadie out of the cage based on her label, a "Spaniel/ Dalmatian Cross" at the local pound, I breathed a sigh of relief that she wasn't going to be an intense dog..10 minutes after we got home, she was herding ducks in the back yard, and I knew the label was wrong. If I wasn't prepared to take on this dog because of who she was and was unable to give her the exercise and drive she needed based only on the label of "Spaniel, Dalmatian", she could have gone back to the pound. Truth be told, she likely ended up in the shelter because of her drive. This happens 1,000s of times a year. Lucky for her, we found a way to make it work and she's the example of an ill-advised Border Collie without sheep, in the Big City. An example of how breeds on cards at the pound can really be misleading - even though I wouldn't take it back for the world.

So the long and short of this is dogs are DOGS. Purebred dogs and cross bred dogs (dogs of two purebred parents of different breeds) will statistically have traits akin to those of the parents of known origin, but a purebred dog is STILL a dog that needs certain things. Mutts are dogs, too, and I think we should stop trying to put a label on our Heinz 57's and really just enjoy having the companionship that only a dog can give.


  1. This was a great column Melissa. When I adopted Brittany she was listed as an Australian Shepherd mix which is somewhat believable but she is so unusual looking with her red markings, feather duster tail and the most insane giant ears I have ever seen, that everyone asks me what kind of dog she is. I just say Shepherd mix now. She was probably listed as an Aussie because people really like Aussie’s but she’s a lot calmer than I would expect an Aussie to be. I’ve considered doing a DNA test but the reviews are never very good regarding their accuracy and I’ve come to be quite comfortable with her Mutt heritage. I can still say she’s an Aussie but Aussie is short for AWESOME!

  2. There are not enough unique DNA bits in the dog genome identified for each breed for those things to be accurate AT ALL. Not even a little bit. i can even draw diagrams. If you submit a purebred you get random wild guesses.. and the statistics are a mess. I do this for my real job :)

  3. I've always wanted to submit a Great Dane's DNA to see if it comes back as "Greyhound and Mastiff" :)