The Best Dog for the Outdoors? The Humble Mutt.

Want a dog for the trail, mountain, water, or city? Forget going to a breeder. The best companion for you is also the cheapest and most ethical.

Oct 5, 2016
Outside
Outside Magazine
The Best Dog for the Outdoors? The Humble Mutt.

Wiley menaces the Cascades. He's still roaming off-leash, despite our readers' many protestations.    Photo: Ty Brookhart

“The 20 Best Dog Breeds for Runners," "The 20 Best Active Dog Breeds," "The 10 Best Hot-Weather Dog Breeds," "The 10 Best Cold Weather Dog Breeds," "The Best Family Dogs," "How to Pick the Perfect Dog for You"…I pulled all these article titles off the first page of a Google search for dog articles on Outside. We’re far from the only publication to run a series of pieces like this. But the thing is, any advice telling you to choose a pure-bred dog as an outdoor companion is inherently wrong. The best dog, for any person, doing any activity, is a mutt.

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Allow me to explain. 

How Dog Breeding Works, a Summary

Dogs evolved specifically to live in symbiosis with humans about 20,000 years ago. Modern dog breeding, to achieve certain physical and mental traits, however, has been around less than 200 years

The activity as we think about it today was developed in Victorian England, not accidentally around the same time as the modern idea of eugenics arose. As interest in dogs shifted from utilitarian need to companionship both in the home and the field (shooting sports were also booming in popularity), people wanted the same bragging rights about their pets as they did about their horses and expensive shotguns.  

Of course, you couldn’t claim superiority in your dog without a classification system for defining said superiority. As specific, desirable traits became codified, types of dogs became named and breeders were able to charge large sums of money for these animals. After that, there arose a need for a system to define and regulate what people were selling. The Kennel Club was founded in 1873 to do just that. With it, the concept that a certain type of dog could be branded as achieving some unique selling point arose. And just like any good product or brand, buying into it was as much about communicating a certain lifestyle, income level, and personality to other humans as it was about benefiting from the supposed traits of that breed. Just like today you’d buy a Jeep to convince everyone that you’re active and adventurous, back then you’d buy a fox terrier to demonstrate that you enjoyed the gentile sport of animal torture, and could afford to participate in it. All your neighbors were jealous. Britain exported this idea, and here we are today.

Breeding dogs, in its simplest form, is getting two dogs with certain subjectively desirable traits to mate, hopefully perpetuating those traits in their offspring. By continuing that process over generations, breeders can accentuate those traits. 

That seems like a pretty reasonable goal. If you like friendly dogs, you breed two friendly dogs to make more friendly dogs. The trouble is, that if you want even friendlier dogs, you have to get your already bred-for-friendly dogs to bang, then your even more friendly dogs to do it, then your extra friendly dogs to do the horizontal mambo, and so forth. Before long, if you desire to continue pursuing those traits, you’re left with a limited selection of dogs to play matchmaker with. A study in the United Kingdom found that a population of 10,000 pugs—a breed bred to be as ugly as possible, go figure—has the genetic diversity of just 50 individuals

What’s a Mutt?

We’re all guilty of this. When we see a dog we like (which, let’s be honest, is pretty much every dog), we ask: “What type of dog is that?” And, if you have a mutt, you probably spend a lot of time explaining that it’s something implausible like a chihuahua, pit bull, Australian cattle dog mix.

I hate to break it to you, but it’s not. While breeds are a product of an unnatural selection process, a mutt is simply a dog in its natural, varied state. By having a threesome, those pure breeds re-introduced genetic diversity to their offspring, creating what is simply a dog. 

In contrast to selective breeding, which sends dogs down a genetic cul-de-sac, mutts are pure, natural selection at work. Those animals wily enough to avoid getting their reproductive organs cut off pass along their genes to the next generation of hole diggers, shoe chewers, and cat chasers. Of course, by introducing breeds to the mix, we’ve vastly altered nature’s plan, and today’s mutts show a lot more variability than the just-plain-dogs of yore. That’s actually really cool. Today, dogs demonstrate more diverse physical traits than any other species on Earth. The biggest differences in size, the widest array of colors and markings, and the most ridiculous hairdos. And mutts have by far the most variations: they combine not only the selectively bred traits of their ancestors, but the wildcards you get when those controlled genes find chaos. 

The Trouble with Inbreeding

With so many brands of dog competing to fulfill our need for superiority, we’re all a bit brainwashed into thinking that the best possible example of a pure-bred dog can somehow be better than not only others like it, but all other dogs, too. It can’t. Pure-bred dogs are actually an inferior choice if you care about stuff like vet bills and not getting bit. Let’s look at the reasons why:

Mutts Are Healthier

Inbreeding is inbreeding, no matter what you call it. Controlling breeding for desirable traits also has the effect of passing along genetic defects. You see this with hip dysplasia in German shepherds, or cocker spaniels and eye problems. 

Google any dog breed followed by “health problem,” and you’ll confront a long list of issues. According to PetMD, the list for that spaniel includes: progressive retinal atrophy, catracts, patellar lunation, glaucoma, elbow dysplasia, gastric torsion, epilepsy, caridomyophathy, ectropion, urinary stones, otitis external, canine hip dysplasia, hypothyroidism, seborrhea, phosphofuctvokinase deficiency, entropion, cherry eye, liver disease, allergies, congestive heart, and congestive heart failure. We're not picking on the spaniel, it's just a normal example. 

Those aren’t simply problems any dog may be subject to. They’re specific problems bred into every cocker spaniel due to the very fact that it’s a pure breed. Any pure breed also runs a higher risk of cancer and has a shorter life spans than your average mutt, in large part due to these health problems. Breeding dogs doesn’t just get in the way of natural selection, which should naturally work to eliminate these defects, it actively works to make these issues worse by allowing recessive genes to manifest.

Mutts Are Friendlier

Any published study of dog-bite incidences lists pure breeds as the main offenders. And it’s probably not the breeds you’d expect. In the U.K., it’s labradors that bite the most postmen, for instance. And supposedly friendly golden retrievers are notorious biters. Just like breeding dogs to achieve a certain look facilitates genetic health problems, it also exacerbates mental issues. Worse, dogs bred to have the mental acuity for sporting pursuits also need an outlet for their energy and killer instincts. Fail to give one adequate exercise or appropriate stimulation and it will express those tendencies in other ways. Just look at the Queen and her corgis: one bit Tony Blair. 

Mutts Are a Better Size

Pushed to size extremes to please vain owners, very large and very small dog breeds both suffer from a myriad of health problems. A mutt’s size is sorta self leveling. You obviously still have big ones and little ones, but, freed of genetic shackles, they tend to gravitate towards the middle. Over 20 pounds and under 100, a dog’s bones, joints and organs last longer and work better. 

Mutts Are Flexible

Bred to achieve certain physical abilities, pure breeds are often one-trick ponies. Greyhounds, for instance, are fast, but they don’t have stamina. Bernese Mountain Dogs are strong, but if you exercise them too much, their joints will have major aging issues. Many of these breeds are specialists. A mutt isn’t. With varied genes and few genetic abnormalities, a mutt is naturally robust, physically and mentally. You’ll find them working as service dogs, you’ll find them retrieving birds, you’ll find them hanging out with kids, and you’ll find them protecting families. What makes them different is that a mutt can handle all those tasks, not just one or two.   

The Ethics of Purchasing Dogs

Perhaps the most important argument against purchasing a pure-bred dog is one of ethics. Do your research, find a good breeder, and you probably can find a pure breed that fits your lifestyle and who will be relatively healthy and sane. You’ll love it and be proud of it and people will ask you what type of dog it is, to which you’ll have a proud, certain response. But in so doing, you’ll be furthering the suffering of millions of dogs across the country. 

Even if your dog came from a small, ethical breeder, the desire to own pure breeds which you are furthering is responsible for the existence of puppy mills, of which there are 10,000 in the U.S. that produce 1.8 million dogs annually. These operations foster many of the issues described in this article, and are responsible for inhumane conditions and the production of unhealthy animals. 

And every dog purchased is a lost opportunity to save the life of a dog in need. More than 3.9 million dogs enter animal shelters in the U.S. each year, of which 1.2 million are euthanized. Each one of those purchased puppy mill dogs could instead have been a saved life. 

As it stands in America today, choosing to purchase a dog is choosing to allow another to suffer and die. It fosters an unsustainable, unethical, inhumane cycle of industrial animal production and disposal. Adopting a dog from a pound doesn’t just save a life, it also reduces demand for puppy mills. It will also net you a better companion who will be with you longer and cost you less money. And one whose look will be unique to you, not something someone else can purchase. Love it, be proud of it, and when people ask you what type of dog it is, tell them it’s a mutt. A dog. Doing so will hopefully make them want to adopt one too. 

Ruffwear and the Best Friends Animal Society are giving away free adventure dogs as we speak

Life Outside with an Undesirable Mutt

The kind of people who take pride in their pure breeds have told me that Wiley is a pretty ugly dog. Looking at it their way, he is. His head’s too big for his body, his tongue is covered in spots, his legs are way too short, and his ears are too big. Who knows the deal with the stripes.

I’m OK with that. Despite his flaws, this is a dog who’s done 30 miles on the trail in a day, then begged for more. He’s fought a bear, but he’s also implicitly trusted to snuggle up to a newborn human free of adult supervision. He’s as comfortable sleeping under my table in a fancy restaurant as he is off-leash in the mountains. He protects my home, my campsite, and my truck, but is terrified of balloons. He helps me pick up girls, then slowly pushes them out of his spot in the bed after they fall asleep. 

In our three and a half years together, he’s cost me a grand total of less than $500 in vet bills. Most of which has just been the standard shots or letters from the vet saying he’s healthy enough to cross the border to Mexico. I expect him to live 15 years or more. 

And all that from a dog who was found covered in feces, laying in a storm drain when he was four weeks old, and who was given to me for the grand total of a promise to take him on plenty of walks. 

Plenty of people ask me what kind of dog he is, hoping he’s something they can acquire for themselves. And they can: there are millions of dogs just like Wiley waiting for you at your closest pound. Your mutt will be just as unique. No pure-breed owner can say the same. 

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