Mixed breed dog and purebred dog
At a dog park, the blur of racing feet and wagging tails is too much for you to identify each dog: That looks to be a Retriever, maybe something Chihuahua-ish over to the left, and a curly haired dog who might be a Poodle is nosing though someone’s purse. Zooming around in happy packs, the dogs are unaware of the unstated lines between them, segregating them into modern-day Montagues and Capulets. The owners, on the other hand, are well aware of the labels  and they wear them proudly. 

“That’s Thor,” says one proudly. “He’s a Labrador. Purebred. Just won Best of Breed at a show this weekend.”

“And that’s Millie,” says another person, equally proud. “She’s a Shepherd mix. I adopted her. She’s a dock diving champ.” The owners eye each other uncertainly, maybe a little mistrustfully, and go back to watching their dogs play.

The fight for superiority and bragging rights between owners of purebreds and mixed-breed dogs is nothing new, and both sides have compelling arguments for why one choice might be better than the other. So who’s right? Which dogs reign supreme? We went to experts in each camp for their professional opinions.

What Is a Purebred?

Before getting into the advantages of a purebred versus a mixed-breed dog, it’s important to clarify exactly what a dog breed is. According to Dr. Emily Weiss, senior director of research and development for the ASPCA, dog breeds encompass a unique genetic makeup that can be consistently reproduced. Jessica Rice D’Amato, PR director for the American Kennel Club (AKC), notes that any dog whose parents belong to the same breed is considered a purebred dog.

Newer hybrids, or designer dogs, don’t qualify by these standards. A Goldendoodle bred by mating a purebred Golden Retriever to a purebred Poodle would not be considered a purebred. The puppies resulting from two Goldendoodles would also not be considered purebreds, since their parents are considered mixed-breed dogs, even though both were mixes of the same two breeds.

That could change one day, should the breeders fulfill the stringent requirements of their countries’ governing organizations to have their dogs recognized as new breeds. Many breeds have their basis in other breeds; the beloved Golden Retriever, for example, is believed to descend from Flat-Coated Retrievers, Irish Setters, and a now-extinct breed of water spaniel. The AKC currently recognizes 180 official breeds, with new breeds added every year. The Fédération Cynologique Internationale (FCI), the world governing body of dog breeds, recognizes 343.

The Pros of a Purebred

For breed fanciers, consistency and predictability are key.

People may choose a purebred dog over a mixed breed because they’re looking for predictable qualities — temperament, coat type, exercise needs, etc.,” D’Amato says. Historically, dog breeds had a purpose for which individual characteristics were optimal: the long body and short legs of the Dachshund, for example, were well-suited for their jobs hunting badgers, while the heavy coat and large webbed feet made the Newfie a good worker in the cold marshes of Newfoundland.

As modern lifestyles have evolved, so have new tasks that leverage the consistent qualities of the centuries-old purebred lines.

“The Penn Vet Working Dog Center is a great example of how predictable, purpose-bred dogs are identified and trained for jobs that help humans,” D’Amato says. “Breeds that have specific ideal traits, such as Labrador Retrievers, are trained there to detect everything from cancer and diabetes to explosives. Purebreds are also used in search and rescue, trained to help those with vision and hearing impairments, and utilized as assistance dogs for individuals with autism or PTSD.”

In addition to the conformation titles (show dogs competing in the ring) many people are familiar with seeing, the AKC governs other activity-based titles such as agility, rally, obedience, Good Citizen and coursing. Recognizing the surge in mixed breed popularity, AKC has opened all programs except conformation to mixed-breed dogs through the AKC Canine Partners program.

The Benefits of a Mixed Breed

For many people, adopting a homeless pet, as opposed to purchasing a pet, is a high priority. According to the PetSmart Charities 2014 Shelter Pet Report, pet adoption is on the rise, with 66 percent of people considering a pet saying they would adopt from a shelter or rescue rather than purchase. Though many shelters and rescues have purebred dogs in addition to mixed-breed pets in need of homes, shelters that focus on the individual dog instead of the breed characteristics have found great success in placing mixed-breed dogs with families.

Dr. Weiss is a proponent of evaluating each pet on an individual basis. “While different breeds have different characteristics, they vary, particularly with respect to behavior,” she says. "For example, while Jack Russell Terriers tend to behave in certain ways they tend to be a whole lot more persistent than other dogs that doesn’t mean that an individual Jack Russell will behave a certain way. So that expectation may not correlate with the individual.”

In a study called “How Do Adopters Choose the Pet They Do?” published in the April 2012 edition of the journal Animals, investigators reported that appearance and behavior were the two most important characteristics people looked for when choosing pets. Shelters have used this information to help owners make informed choices.

“One of the major drivers (of adoption) is appearance. That’s not necessarily bad,” Weiss says. “We need to find out the why behind it let’s say they come in and say ‘I want a Golden Retriever.’… Then our response is, ‘Why? Let’s see what we can do to fit your needs.’

“For those whose desired characteristics are more nebulous than a certain look, there’s more opportunity to figure out the why. Say they want a dog who is smart or good with kids. That opens the door to dogs in the shelter who behave that certain way and gets them away from appearances to behaviors." While looks don’t always necessarily last a lifetime, Weiss argues, temperament does.

To address this need, the ASPCA developed a program called Meet Your Match, which takes into account both appearance and behavior to find an individual who is the best match for a family’s needs. “The advantage of mixed-breed dogs is being able to find exactly what you want,” Weiss says. She uses her own dog as an example, a dog who looks like a Jack Russell but, with the DNA of a Miniature Poodle and Chihuahua, has a more laid-back temperament. After implementing Meet Your Match, participating shelters found returns dropped by half, according to Weiss.

And what about hybrid vigor? The idea that mixed-breed dogs have fewer health problems because of a diversified gene pool? The jury’s still out on that, but the general consensus is that mixed-breed dogs are no more or less likely to have health issues than their purebred counterparts.

How Should You Choose a Dog?

Both Weiss and D’Amato believe families should think very carefully about what pet would best fit their family’s needs. “A dog is a big commitment, and families should be honest about what really works best for their lifestyle,” D’Amato says. “There’s a breed out there for everyone; you just need to do your research.”

Back at the dog park, two owners leash up their dogs to go back home. The purebred dog plays tug-of-war with his owner before curling up and going to sleep. The mixed-breed dog practices her sit commands with her owner before settling down with a Kong.

Neither family would have it any other way. At the end of the day, they were both right.

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