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Describing Dogs Of Diverse Heritage

What should we call them anyway?
By Karen B. London PhD, December 2018, Updated June 2021

A couple of generations ago, a dog who was not purebred would likely be described as a cur or a mongrel—terms that have a strong derogatory connotation. The word “mutt” means essentially the same thing, but has gone from being a bit negative to becoming simply descriptive or even affectionate. The neutral term “mixed breed” has become the most common one for dogs with no known purebred ancestors.

A dog who is a crossbreed is quite different than a dog who is a mixed breed. A crossbreed is a dog with two purebred parents of different breeds. Many crosses are known by a new term entirely, such as Puggles or Cockapoos. Of course, now there are all the “doodles”, too—Labradoodles, Goldendoodles, Schnoodles. The sweetly named Teddy Bear is usually a cross between a Bichon Frise and a Shih-tzu, although Teddy Bear dogs are sometimes a cross between a Pomeranian and a variety of others breeds. My favorite name for one of these is LaPom, which refers to a Pomeranian-Lhasa Apso cross.

Dogs with multiple breeds in their ancestry have always been highly regarded by a great many people. The snobbery about purebreds that was particularly fashionable in the 1900s was never universal, and mixes are more popular today than ever. Yes, there are still reasons to get a purebred dog for working purposes in some cases. Herding, hunting and guarding dogs, for example, have a strong genetic heritage that predisposes them to the necessary behavior and crossing them with other breeds could negatively influence their working ability. However, for pet dogs, it’s becoming less common all the time to consider purebreds inherently better. Though there is growing interest in determining a dog’s heritage through genetic testing, mystery dogs have never been more popular.

Referring to a dog a “Heinz 57” has long been a way to indicate that a dog was too complex a mix to determine the ancestry with confidence. The term is a reference to an advertising slogan by the H.J. Heinz Company about their “57 varieties of pickles” but now refers to anything that is made up of a large number of origins or parts. A newer term for a dog whose heritage is unknown is a “canardly” as in “you canardly tell what they are.” Throughout the world, mixed breeds are described in an endless number of clever ways. In Brazil, they are called “vira-lata”, which translates loosely as “will come to trash bin”. Australians sometimes use the term “bitsa” which is derived from “bits ‘o this, bits o’ that”.

I have long said that my dog Bugsy was half Black Lab, half Handsome Stranger because the mom was a Labrador Retriever and the unknown dad was obviously a looker. I recently saw a gravestone that paid tribute to a wonderful dog who was “half Collie, mostly affection”. My favorite description ever of a mixed breed dog came from an exceptionally dignified elderly gentleman. He answered my question of “Do you know what kind of dog he is?” with, “Ma’am, he’s just a dog, and I can pay him no higher compliment than that.”


photo by Oliver Savage/Flickr

Karen B. London, Ph.D. is a Certified Applied Animal Behaviorist and Certified Professional Dog Trainer who specializes in working with dogs with serious behavioral issues, including aggression. Karen writes the animal column for the Arizona Daily Sun and is an Adjunct Professor in the Department of Biological Sciences at Northern Arizona University. She is the author of six books about canine training and behavior, including her most recent, Treat Everyone Like a Dog: How a Dog Trainer’s World View Can Improve Your Life