My brightest dog was a mixed-breed named Harpo.
He looked smart, though a little bohemian with his rascalian, scruff'n'brush facial follicles. He was only a few months old, when he stalked my wife and me, via our reflections in things, so he could pounce around corners, tap us with his paws, and win our game of tag.
We played tag with Harpo.
He understood the game perfectly, extending the rules to include a touch-football-style tag technique. His face closely resembled Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec, in those paintings in which he appears to break his stoic glaze and smiles wryly at the damsels, like Lautrec at the Moulin Rouge.
Harpo had a smart, snide smirk. He was a smart, snide pooch.
He was a mixed breed. He came from a German Wire-haired Pointer father and a half-German-wirehair, half-Chocolate Lab mother. He was owned by couple in distress, the woman (a famous model), the man (a busy Hollywood cameraman), the distress: addiction, violence, jealousy, the usual. The man, having pushed the famous model out of his life, decided he wanted her back. He used the dogs as blackmail.
"Come back by this weekend, or I'll cut the paws off your damned dogs!"
We all heard the answer machine recording. The model was a close friend of my wife. Nobody could agree on the best plan, and the police were not interested.
A plan surfaced for a midnight rescue attempt. The operation was a comic book in itself. But, suffice it to say, deliriously jealous, ranting, cocaine-addicted, show-biz folks can be wee-your-pants intimidating when armed and paranoid.
And the rescue was a success!
Soon after rescuing her dogs from their enclave in Malibu, the model delighted us with good news. The mama dog gave birth to a splendid litter—gorgeous, mixed-breed pups.
One went to actor-director, Tony Spiradakis, just before he made his Queenslogic flick with Linda Florentino, Kevin Bacon, Jamie-Lee Curtiss, Tom Waitts, and John Malcovich. Two went to me and Lucy. The rest of the pups were divided between the model's new boyfriend and someone I never met.
They were all amazing dogs!
Sometimes mixing up a gene pool can open the window and let in some fresh traits and refreshing smarts. (Yes, I know, sometimes accidents can lead to breeding for horrible traits or horrible combinations of traits, too.)
"With over 500 known breeds, dogs are the most genetically diverse species to begin with, then complicate it by allowing them to interbreed, and you can forget even trying to count," explains dog photographer, Susan Werner.
"Dogs interbreed freely, so mixed-breed dogs vary in size, shape, and color, and no two mutts are the same."
Are mutts advantageous? Or is a mutt at a genetic disadvantage?
If you want a Starbucks type of dog, a reliable, pure-bred breeder is the best source. Starbucks dogs are pure breeds you can count on for appearance, temperament, disposition, and so on. Each one more or less resembles the next. Quality control comes from careful breeding, taking behavioral traits into consideration, along with appearance.
Pure breeds come from a narrower gene pool, though, and many breeds looked quite different hundreds—or even tens—of years ago.
Puppy mills breed for physical appearance only. They don't carefully screen for other traits besides the most marketable: looks sells. I was hired to train for a pop star once, but the star and his spouse only really wanted to ask me which breed goes best with their interior design. (They hadn't purchased a dog yet, this was an interior decorating assignment for me.) Can you imagine choosing a dog for its wallpaper effect? Many dogs are sold for just that.
Appearance and behavior of purebred puppies may be more predictable than that of mixed-breeds. Again, Susan Werner:
"With purebred dogs, genetic variations occur within a narrow gene pool, and a reputable breeder has a fair estimation of what type of offspring a given pair will produce."
Some trainers believe mixed breeds exhibit higher-than-average intelligence more often than purebreds. Pure-breed enthusiasts believe mixes are no more intelligent than purebreds. Both types of dog offer anecdotes galore testifying to slow-learners as well as dogs which learn quickly.
Some dog owners consider a pedigree a status symbol and more valuable than mixed-breeds. Obviously, for those that show their dogs, this is not even optional but requisite.
There are owners who have an emotional or physical attachment to certain breeds, especially if they've owned a particular breed in the past. I'm guilty of those feelings, always drawn to pugs, like my childhood pet, though I believe philosophically cross-bred "puggle" which combines the long-snouted beagle is more humane breeding.
Similarly, when I see German Wirehairs, Labs, German Shephards, or Spaniels I get special feelings—they trigger sense memories.
But does a pedigree mean a dog will have superior personality traits and health?
I had a pure-bred lab, who was awesome as a companion, as a co-trainer of dogs, as a salesman for my training skills, and so on. But his genetic flaws, including bone spurs, cost us thousands in surgery.
Was he worth it? He more than made up for it in working my business. But if I'd been some poor fellow without a dog-training job, someone who just wanted a pedigreed dog for bragging rights, I might not have opted for the expensive operations.
Sammy might have been euthenized early. As it was, I could afford to get Sammy past the problem. And he earned it off in no time. But his pedigree guaranteed nothing, really, neither health nor great personality. He was dominant aggressive, and someone who was not a trainer might have euthenized him for his inherent aggression as well. He and I worked it out, slowly turning him into a model dog.
People who enjoy mixed-breeds often covet their one-of-a-kind appearance and characteristics. After all, every Mutt is different. It is virtually impossible to genetically copy a mutt. But this is no less true of proud show dog owners who have exemplar models of a breed type. They all offer love; they all offer endless anecdotes and time well spent with an animal who interdepends and desires your company.
However, should you happen to rescue or buy a mutt, you may want to have the DNA traced. Finding out which breeds your dog shares can help you understand some of their proclivities and interests. It can also help you brainstorm fun tricks and activities. If your dog comes from terriers, all that digging and tenacity makes more sense. If your dog comes from mastiffs, the instinct to guard and protect is part of its...DNA. The test is under $100, usually, and may offer interesting clues and tips.