It's one of those great sports stories: Roo!, a Husky mix that spent her puppyhood bouncing between shelters and foster homes, became the first mixed-breed dog to ever enter (and ribbon at) the Westminster Dog Show. Though her inclusion in the 137-year-old celebration of canines does not signify a shift in thinking about the primacy of breeds – the Husky mix was allowed in only as a participant in a new agility contests – her triumph has a lot of dog lovers celebrating. Given that 60 percent of U.S. dogs are "All-Americans" (the official name for mutts), it should come as no surprise that Roo! is rapidly developing a fan base.
"Being all-inclusive is sort of an American thing," says Heather Smith, spokesperson for the U.S. Dog Agility Association. "Agility competitions are an objective judgment of how a dog actually performs, which works for everyone." According to Smith, similar contests held across the states are growing massively in popularity even as fewer owners register for conformation competitions, traditional contests in which dogs are judged against breed standards.
Competitors aren't the only one's celebrating. "We want people to see that mixed breeds can do everything that pure breeds can," says Kitty Norwood, President of the Mixed Breed Dog Clubs of America. The proud owner of a German Shepherd-Lab mix, Norwood hopes to someday see mutts in conformation events, but admits that standards are hard to come by with mixed breeds. In friendly shows among mutt-lovers, judges mostly look for "dogs that seem well put together." They really can't be any more specific than that. It's hard to compare one mutt to another because, unlike pure breeds, they're each entirely unique.
"What you're paying for when you buy a pure breed dog is predictability," says Dr Stanley Coren, a professor at the University of British Columbia and the author of The Modern Dog. "You can't judge a mutt by looking at a puppy."
Coren, who owns both mutts and pure breeds, is quick to point out that there is a place for both types of dogs and describes concerns about pure breed dogs' health as "overblown." Though he admits that breed standards can be damaging – the desire for slope-backed German Shepherds among American breeders has all but crippled the dogs on this continent – he also believe breeding clubs are a great vehicle for fixing those issues. The major difference between pure breeds and mutts, he explains, is that only the latter requires would-be owners take a chance on an individual dog.
"Suppose you were to get the perfect mutt," says Dr. Coren, "you could only have it once."