National Mutt Day is December 2! Its a great excuse to celebrate the marvelous genetic diversity of dogs.

Generally speaking, a mutt is the offspring of two dogs which do not relate to the same breed, as defined by a registry or standard. Breed registries are a fairly new invention, with the American Kennel Club being formed in 1884 and the United Kennel Club in 1898. Europe has breed registries as well from the 1800s.

These registries were created to formalize attempts to produce or maintain certain characteristics in a breed, such as color, coat, size, and temperament. Selective breeding enhances features like short noses in toy breeds, gameness or hunting ability in terriers, and herding instinct and agility in shepherds. One has a reasonable hope of acquiring a similarly gifted individual from a close breeding.

But while it is necessary to inbreed in order to achieve consistent traits, breeding to close relatives intensifies not only the desired trait but negative traits. When unscrupulous breeders use pedigreed dogs with known health issues, appearance or "show" traits come at the cost of temperament, health and working ability.

In the case of the common "mutt", the owner usually did not intend or select for the breeding. Depending on how much the parents' genetic makeup differed, the offspring of a single litter may end up with a wide range of traits. The mutt may look like one breed but have a temperament or habits usually associated with another. If-- and this is by no means common-- both parents were stable in temperament and did not share any genetic health defects, the offspring may be a great improvement to the dog population. Mutts often get the best of both worlds and make for excellent pets and working dogs.

Yet there is a persistent feeling that, faced with two dogs of equal abilities, one a mutt and one papered, the purebred is the more desirable. I know of only one practical reason for this, and it has limited application. Puppies are a pig-in-a-poke even from the finest breedings- part of their charm. When selecting for a guide, search-and-rescue, hunting, or police dog, early imprinting and training for the job is a big investment. Since puppies usually grow up to be very much like the dogs in their genetic pool, selecting a puppy from extremely qualified and health-checked parents and grandparents is the best horoscope we have to project whether the dog will grow up exactly suited to the job. Some purebreds end up unfit anyway, but in general they are a safer gamble, especially when working in volume.

After about 8 months, an individual's health and traits can easily be observed.  For this reason, detection and service dogs of mixed breeding are often selected from shelters as young adults. For general pet purposes, mutts of any age are usually completely suitable and even more desirable, since they can be hardier and less expensive than their papered cousins.

Intentionally bred mutts like labradoodle, puggle, etc, are known as "crossbreeds" or "designer dogs". When the dominate and recessive gene arrangement has been well-documented by numerous similar breedings, certain traits like coat and appearance can be reliably produced.

While mutts don't fit into the modern breed stereotypes and are harder to profile as puppies, they are valuable and vibrant members of the canine family. I've enjoyed the company of a variety of wonderful mutts in both work and pet capacities. It's fun to speculate what side of the family is responsible for their looks or behavior at the moment! Mutts are increasingly recognized and included in the dog sport community with titles like "All-American Breed". They are also known as Heinz 57 dogs, and in the Southern states houndish-types are called feists. In Australia you may hear "bitsa" or "bitzer" (from "bits o' this, bits o' that"). For identification and sport purposes, mutts can be registered with AKC Canine Partners or UKC Limited Privilege, or with North American Mixed Breed Registry or American Mixed Breed Obedience Registry. Dogs which appear to strongly resemble a particular breed can be registered with AKC Purebred Alternative Listing or UKC Limited Privilege.
For some fascinating reading on genetic coat colors, visit http://www.doggenetics.co.uk/index.html