Our pedigree chums are outsmarted by mutts
Researchers have found that cross-bred dogs have better spatial awareness and problem-solving skills than their pure-bred counterparts.
The findings, from Aberdeen University, have cast doubt on the best type of dogs to use in important roles in the police service and as guides for the blind.
Dr David Smith and colleagues from the university's animal sciences department put 100 dogs through seven tests, with each given a mark out of 30. The tests involved the dogs' ability to find and retrieve a bone.
In one test, the bone was covered with a tin to see whether the dogs had the intelligence to realise it was still there. In another, dogs had to navigate a maze to find the bone.
Top-performing dog was a collie-spaniel cross called Jet, which scored maximum points. Overall, seven of the top-ten performers were cross-breeds.
Cross-breeds are defined as dogs whose parents are of two breeds or a mixture of several breeds. A mongrel is a dog of unknown parentage.
Police-handlers have long hailed German shepherds as the best dogs to help in crime-fighting duties. But Dr Smith said that German shepherds crossed with other breeds could be equally effective police dogs.
"If you compare pure-bred dogs with cross-bred dogs, there is no difference," he said. "Being a pure-bred does not improve the intelligence and our tests showed that a number of cross-bred dogs actually scored higher than pedigrees."
The average score in the tests for the pure-bred dogs was 18 out of 30, while the cross-breeds scored 20.
Pure-bred collies scored higher than cross-bred collies by four points. But all other crossbreeds achieved higher results than their pure-bred counterparts.
Joint second place in the tests went to a Labrador-collie cross, a labrador-golden retriever cross, a Jack Russell-cocker spaniel cross, a German shepherd-labrador cross and a lhasa- poodle cross, with scores of 28 points.
The researchers also studied eight police dogs from Fife Constabulary, finding that they performed only slightly better in tests than pet dogs.
Dr Smith said that pure-bred dogs were prone to problems caused by inbreeding.
For example, German shepherds can be at risk of hip injuries, which cut short their working lives. "The risk of medical problems among cross-breeds is significantly lower, so the focus has to move away from pure breeding," Dr Smith said.
Yesterday, the Guidedogs for the Blind Association said that success rates among their cross-breeds were higher than in the pure-bred dogs.
Matthew Bottomley, the association's breeding manager, said: "About 45 per cent of the dogs we now produce are cross-breeds and we are planning to produce more in the coming years.
"About 80 per cent of the cross-breeds currently become guide dogs, compared with 65 per cent of pure-bred dogs."
Claire Oats, a dog trainer at Dog School Scotland, based in Banknock, Stirlingshire, said that, in her experience, cross-bred dogs were more adaptable to carrying out a number of different tasks.
"Pure breeds are bred to be good at a particular job and are not so good if you try to get them to do something else," she said.
"Cross-breeds are generally better at adapting to do different tasks, like you might require of an assistance dog.
"But it very much depends on the breeds being crossed. If you have a bull terrier cross, it might just want to chase things."
But Ms Oats said the purebreeds could sometimes be trained for different tasks. She has trained her own Border collies, Barney and Clyde, to carry out assistance tasks, such as turning on lights.