What Makes a Purebred Dog Purebred?

what qualifies a purebred dog

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There’s a lot of hubbub sometimes regarding purebred dogs. Whether or not they’re better than mixed breeds, which ones are good for what tasks,

“Purebred,” is ultimately a concept that is entirely made-up by humans. It’s a way we classify dogs based on selective breeding, and is intended to designate dogs that all come from other similar dogs, and will have similar physical and behavioral characteristics of those dogs.

I talk a little more about these concepts in my article, Are Purebred Dogs Better Than Mixed Breed Dogs?

What Determines Purebred?

Because “purebred” is a made-up designation, we do luckily have specific organizations and registries that oversee the definitions of specific breeds. These definitions include “standards,” or the expectations of a good reflection of the breed, as well as acceptable outcrosses (if any) and provide family trees of exact lines or “pedigrees.”

Dog breed registries are different all over the world, but some of them include:

  • AKC (American Kennel Club)
  • ACA (American Canine Association)
  • NAPR (North American Purebred Registry)
  • KC (The Kennel Club)
  • UKC (United Kennel Club)

The aforementioned list is some of the more prominent registries and names you may be likely to hear when getting into a specific breed. However, the five listed are absolutely not the only registries out there! There are dozens if not more registries, all with a different purpose and different standards for the breeds they recognize.

And that takes it a step further, as not all registries recognize the same breeds. For example, the National Hybrid Registry is a smaller organization that allows the registration of mixed-breed dogs that come from two purebred parents of different breeds. They are designated as “hybrid breeds,” which would not be allowed in any of the larger breed registries.

To lesser extremes, some registries recognize different breeds at different times; though most recognizable breeds have been around long enough at this point to be recognized by all of the most-used breed registries.

One registry may also have slightly different standards than another, or judge show dogs based on different criteria. For any given breed, some put more emphasis on coat, body structure, temperament, or the various components that make up the dog’s head.

Some registries have distinctions for “purebred” that are, to be frank, entirely superficial.

white dog running over green grass
The “Berger Blanc Suisse.” Or, the “American White Shepherd.” Or, a white German Shepherd Dog. Take your pick!

For example, both the American White Shepherd and the Berger Blanc Suisse came about simply because white was not an acceptable color for German Shepherd Dogs in the AKC (although a standard GSD can produce an all-white pup normally). Both of these breeds are almost identical genetically to the parent German Shepherd Dog. In some registries, an all-white German Shepherd Dog may face restrictions as a German Shepherd despite their pedigree. In the AKC, a white German Shepherd may be registered as a GSD, but my not participate in show. In Germany, a white German Shepherd, even with long lines of registered GSD parents, can only be registered as a Berger Blanc Suisse.

As you can see, these different registries all have different criteria as to what constitutes a dog as purebred.

What Percentage Qualifies as Purebred?

While it may be easy to think in terms of percentages, percent of “purity” is not actually how purebred dogs work. Again, going back to “purebred” being made up and varying based on the registry, no specific percentage of a breed in a dog’s genetic makeup or picked up on a DNA test is going to qualify them for that status.

What is really comes down to, across all registries, is pedigree.

Pedigree is, in essence, the registered family tree of the dog’s ancestors and relatives through a specific registry. An AKC-registered dog, for example, will have parents both registered by the ACK under the breed of the dogs. Their grandparents and great-grandparents will also need to be registered under the breed with the same organization. This information can often be traced back for a hundred years through the painstakingly-taken records of long-standing registries.

There is, however, cases where dogs are outcrossed, which is the process of breeding a dog with another dog that is not closely related, sometimes of an entirely different breed. Typically, these outcrosses are designed to solve a problem within the breed, such as an overly-brachycephalic face or congenial medical conditions common in a breed but not common in another.

Outcrossing dogs introduces something called heterosis, or “hybrid vigor.” The idea is that genetically diverse dogs tend to experience less “inbreeding depression,” that comes from a small gene pool. Introducing dogs of the same breed but different lines or even dogs of an entirely different breed can introduce some genetic diversity to a line that can create healthier dogs overall.

In the case of outcrossing to an entirely different breed, reputable breeders may be able to create a heterozygosity to potentially harmful genes. Heterozygosity simply means that the alleles of a potentially problem-causing gene are different from one another (containing only one positive), meaning that a genetic condition it is linked to may become less common in those dogs.

Getting dogs descended from an outcross actually recognized and registered by a specific organization will depend largely on the rules of that specific registry. Typically, after a certain number of generations (3 or 4 generations is common) dogs descended from an outcross may again be registered as “purebred” as long as the produced dogs still conform to the breed standard.

How Can I Prove My Dog is Purebred Without Papers?

The definition of “purebred” generally means that the only way to truly prove if your dog is purebred is to have access to their pedigree, or their ancestry over the last few generations.

However, if you are less interested in the “purity” of purebred and just want to see what your dog’s makeup is, the next best thing to a pedigree is to purchase a DNA test for your dog. Our favorite is Embark DNA for Breed and Health.

I review the Embark DNA Tests twice in the following linked articles.

We Tried Embark DNA (and it showed even more than we’d hoped)

Embark vs. Wisdom Panel (We Tried Both)

These DNA tests can not specifically prove your dog’s exact genetic makeup, nor are they a replacement for a pedigree. However, they can compare your dog’s DNA against other purebred dogs in their system to see how similar they are to other purebred dogs, thus giving you a neat little percentage on how purebred your mystery dog is. Because different dog breeds are have some very stark genetic differences, these tests can actually be really reliable for determining breed.

Our lovely dog trainer Khayl did exactly this when she rescued her purebred Pomeranian, Tanuki. As you can see from the screencap below, Embark DNA actually did determine that Tanuki was 100% Pomeranian, as far as they were concerned.

embark purebred results pomeranian

What’s more is that Embark actually also provided a mockup family tree for Tanuki’s ancestors. This family tree is not a replacement for a pedigree, as it can’t speak to the quality of his breeding or who his specific ancestors are. No DNA test is going to compare to meticulous records held by a diligent registering body.

However, these tests can show your dog’s purebred-ness over three generations, which in some registries is enough to constitute a purebred dog even if there were some outcrossing a little further back.

Given Tanuki’s appearance and his Embark DNA results, we think it definitely safe to call Tanuki a “purebred” dog. And this is the case for any other dog that fits a breed standard but doesn’t have the papers to prove it. If you were to do a DNA test on a mystery dog and came up with similar results, I think it is fair to call your dog “purebred,” AKC papers or not.

You can get your own DNA test for your dog here at Embark’s website.

Author: Kimberlee Tolentino

Kimee has worked hands-on with dogs for over ten years, and today serves the role of head trainer and owner at Lugaru K9 Training in Port Orchard, Washington. Kimee has been a shelter volunteer, a dog walker, dog behavior intern, a dog trainer, and now specializes in behavior modification for pet dogs.