A touch of terrier, a bit of boxer, a sprinkle of staffy are on trend in the Top End. (Supplied: Kiri Ronald)
Many say mutt or mongrel, but in the Northern Territory mixed breeds and desert dogs are lovingly deemed Darwin specials.
- Mixed-breed dogs are known for being robust, sociable, and well-behaved
- The predominant breeds usually reflect the history of their use in a region, e.g. greyhound-cross dogs are able to chase kangaroos
- An animal management expert thinks Darwin specials and camp dogs are popular because they are so unique
Radiating in black, brown, brindle and sandy with tongues hanging out and a manic tail wag, Darwin specials are bestsellers in the Top End.
Paws Darwin shelter manager Reagan Butler said people who do came looking for the latest addition to their family regularly “melted” for a special.
“Most of our dogs are Darwin specials, these mixes are based on the types of popular breeds in the area — including wolfhounds, staffies and bull arabs,” she said.
“Our fosters and adopted parents all tell us these specials are incredibly sociable and well-behaved. They are most grateful for the love that they get.”
Camp dogs, desert dogs and specials
Darwin special is a term used mainly in urban centres from Alice Springs right up to Darwin. However, in regional and remote communities these breeds are better known as camp dogs.
Jan Allan is the health program manager for Animal Management in Rural and Remote Indigenous Communities (AMRRIC) and travels from the Pilbara coastline, through the Territory, and into far north Queensland managing and caring for camp dogs of all shapes and sizes.
Ms Allan said the brindle colouration likely comes from a mix of great dane or staffy. (Supplied: Jesse Crothers)
Ms Allan said camp dogs and specials were a “very evolved” species.
“They are physically robust dogs, they are short-haired and lean, very much like kelpies,” she said.
“They are certainly more tough as well because they are mixed and so don’t suffer breed-related health issues.
“Socially they are awesome dogs — we have had dog behaviouralists astounded by how well-adjusted and sociable these dogs are. They are such wilful, confident animals.”
What breeds create a ‘special’ combination?
Ms Allan said the recipe for camp dogs and specials changed dependant on the region.
“Often it reflects the history of the service providers who operated in the region and the breeds they brought in to combat a local issue,” she said.
“In some communities in the north there will be a massive chihuahua-cross dog, further south and into Western Australia we work more with ‘roo dogs’ which are these greyhound-cross dogs that can sprint after kangaroos.
“These camp dogs through history all served a purpose, for example if you have a brindle-coloured special they have likely come from a line of either great danes or staffies and may have been bred with the intention of protection.”
Why are there so many bitzers?
The AMRRIC team is regularly on the move during Darwin’s dry season to reach remote communities to conduct desexing and monitoring programs.
Ms Allan said the Territory was most under threat to wild dog and cat overpopulation.
“Desexing is a massive issue in the Territory. The key is when the population is under control so is the nuisance value of the animal,” she said.
“Since the introduction of domesticated dogs into remote communities, the female dogs are breeding more often meaning ultimately more puppies and more dogs to control.
“Some communities are very wary of us performing surgery on their dogs, but after they see the difference in the characteristics of the dog, the program is more accepted and so are the animals.”
Honey and her nine puppies were surrendered to Paws in a poor condition. (Supplied: Paws Darwin Shelter)
Ms Butler said the Paws shelter was currently receiving five dogs a week from the pound and just as many surrendered pets, which meant they reached capacity nearly every week.
“Unfortunately we are receiving dogs more regularly because of a lack of desexing in urban areas. Owners can be irresponsible and simply choose not to,” Ms Butler said.
“These animals then escape, breed, have too many puppies for the owner to handle and suddenly they become our situation to deal with.”
Why are specials inherently Territory?
Ms Allan said the specials were so popular because they were all unique.
“Each and every pup is different. You are adopting and caring for a one of a kind,” she said.
“Overall, I think as Territorians we consider ourselves unique and special, and so are our mixed-breed dogs, to complement our lifestyle.
“These dogs have hybrid vigour, they are the ultimate and strongest mix of dogs and are so resilient. I cannot stress enough how special these crossbreeds are.”
Ms Butler agreed, and said she’d fallen head over heels more than a couple of times working so closely with the specials.
“I am not meant to choose favourites, but I can’t help myself — they are just such lovely, personality-filled pets,” she said.
“People get a laugh out of the phrase Darwin special, but I also think that one-of-a-kind aspect is why we love them.”