Dog fostering and adoption is a hot topic and suddenly the rescue dog subject seem to be on everybody’s lips. Celebrities adopt cute shelter pups instead of buying expensive pedigree dogs, we see their faces on magazines as we wait in line at the supermarket and we find ourselves thinking that they must be great people. They gave a homeless dog a home. Best of all, however, is that an admirable act has become trendy. At the dog park, every other dog owner talks about how their dog is a so called “rescue” or how they adopted him or her from a shelter somewhere.
That gap between full-bred dogs and mixed-breeds is slowly closing and we are beginning to realize that man’s best friend can be found in any dog out there, regardless of background and breed. A mixed-breed dog from the local shelter provides just as much comfort during hard times as a purebred Dog Show Champion.
Curiosity often persists when choosing to adopt, however, and we start wondering what gave our favorite pup those funny looking ears or that curved tail. Luckily for us, there are now reliable DNA tests for mix breed dogs out there, that can tell us a bit more about our dogs and their family trees.
Bringing a shelter pup into your home is an incredible blessing. It doesn’t matter what your reasons are but the fact that you choose to give an innocent animal a home is something quite honorable. Many mixed-breed dogs are picked up from shelters, rescued from unfortunate conditions or results of unplanned doggy love stories, so far from every snuggle bug come with a known ancestry.
Shelters tend to label their dogs as “shepherd mixes,” “pit mixes” and such, but the truth is that most of those labels are entirely based on guesses. Shelter workers do their best to give potential adoptive families an idea of what type of dog they are getting, even though the physical appearance of a dog doesn’t necessarily say much at all about their heritage.
In fact, an attempt of a visual identification (even if done by a professional) is only accurate about 25% of the time. These guesses were once the closest a dog owner could ever get to finding out the truth, but today there are other options. A DNA test could give you answers to what breeds helped contribute to your dog’s unique look and personality.
Advantages of DNA testing your dog
It might seem like a bit of a contradiction; to say that all dogs are equal regardless of breed, while in the same time talking about having a dog DNA tested. There is a reason behind this, a reason to why DNA testing a dog can be beneficial for both owner and dog. Knowing a dog’s heritage can make it easier to provide it with the proper care. Some breeds are prone to certain diseases, so with your DNA test results in hand you can easily bring it to your vet to discuss any potential health problems associated with their particular breed.
Hip Dysplasia is for example very common in German shepherd dogs, while not at all as common in Belgian shepherds.
With this in mind, labeling a dog as a “shepherd mix” might be enough for the average dog owner, but it could be insufficient information for a veterinarian looking to prevent or foresee breed specific conditions. If your vet knows more or less what to keep an eye out for, he or she could have a higher chance of quickly diagnosing your pup. An early diagnose could often make the difference between life and death.
Knowing more about a dog’s ancestry could also be helpful when trying to understand certain behaviors, when setting up an exercise plan or when engaging in dog training. A dog with herding ancestry is likely to act different from a guarding dog or a dog bred for hunting, for example.
The breed of a dog doesn’t define it, but it could definitely help us humans understand it and its specific needs. The majority of dog owners want nothing more than what’s best for their dog, so it is understandable why many families turn to DNA tests in order to get to know their pup also before they ended up in their loving arms.
Getting your dog tested
The first step towards getting your dog’s ancestry looked into is ordering a DNA test kit. Most companies performing canine DNA tests have their kits available online, both on their prospective websites and on websites such as Amazon.com. Mars Veterinary also offer a blood test that is available through licensed veterinarians. This test is called Wisdom Panel Professional and is currently the most expensive DNA test for mixed-breed dogs.
You will need to decide which company to entrust with this exciting task as well as whether to do a blood test or a cheek swab, something that we will look into further down in this article. Once having made your decision, you place your order and wait for the test kit to arrive to your home (if choosing cheek swab). It can take anything from a couple of days to a few weeks, depending on where you live.
The DNA samples are collected by swabbing the insides of the dog’s cheeks. It is advisable to withhold food for a couple of hours before, to make sure the sample isn’t compromised by bits of food left in the mouth. You don’t want your dog to turn out part chicken or lamb, do you? Make sure you swab for several seconds in order to obtain enough cells for a successful test result.
The next step is inserting the swabs into the container provided and mailing it back to the company. This should be accompanied by the filled-out paperwork that arrived together with your DNA test kit. When all of this is done – you wait for the samples to arrive to the lab, be processed and finally returned to you. You are only months away from finding out more about your doggy and his or her ancestry.
Choosing the right test
There are several tests offered on the market today and they have improved significantly over the past few years since they first became available in 2007.
The test with the most breeds in their database (which means a higher chance at an accurate result) is currently Wisdom Panel – a test owned by previously mentioned Mars Veterinary. They offer the swab test kit that can be purchased online and in pet stores, as well as the blood test that needs to be performed by a licensed veterinarian. Their database consists of over 200 dog breeds from all over the world and they are constantly updating and upgrading their service.
A successful Wisdom Panel test result will give you a conclusive breed history for your dog’s parents, grandparents as well as great grandparents, providing the fact that there were full-bred dogs found within this family tree. If no full-bred ancestors were found, the tree-like image sent out to curious mutt owners will state “mixed-breed.” Wisdom Panel will then inform you of traces of breeds found in your dog’s DNA.
According to Wisdom Panel, it is unusual that no full-bred dogs are found in the family tree, yet it happens. If it would happen to you, don’t be disappointed. It only confirms what you probably knew already – that you have a very unique and special dog.
Prices for canine DNA tests normally range between $60 to $90 dollars, except for the Wisdom Panel Professional test (where blood is drawn) that costs somewhere between $100 and $150.
How canine DNA tests work
A mixed-breed dog is a cross between two or more breeds. The complexity of a dog’s heritage varies depending on how many breeds that have been thrown into the mix. There are simple first-generation mixes, often easier to identify, as well as complex outbreed mixes where dogs breed freely on streets and in the wild. If your dog comes from an area with lots of strays, the results after doing a DNA tests could be somewhat inconclusive due to this, but don’t let that stop you from getting to know more about your dog.
When the samples arrive to the lab, a complex process begins. DNA samples from all the 200+ dogs in their database have been collected and stored. Researchers have then worked to develop signatures and patterns for each breed, patterns that can be found in your dog’s DNA and matched to the database. A computer program uses the genetic markers in each sample to identify the breeds that helped create your four-legged best friend.
As the tests aren’t based on genes but instead on repeating DNA sequences, there is no specific relation to physical- or behavioral traits such as coat length, body shape or size of head. For this reason, dog owners often find the results surprising as we don’t always realize that there is more to a dog than what can be seen.
A long coat can be lost in one generation, black is a dominant trait that easily overtakes a lighter coat color and erect ears tip over with only one parent having drop ears. It takes so very little to change the entire appearance, which once again reminds us of how hard (if not impossible) it is to determine breed just by looking at a dog.
How reliable are these tests?
It is difficult to say exactly how reliable these tests are, as most of the dogs tested don’t exactly come with a correction sheet. There has however been tests made where DNA samples sent in have come from dogs with a known background. Statistics show that Wisdom Panel in particular seem to get it right in about 90% of the cases, which is – quite frankly – a good number considering the complexity of canine DNA testing.
It should also be taken into consideration that some pet owners thinking they know their dog’s heritage might actually be wrong. They might have seen a photo of a parent dog, or even seen it in real life, assuming it was Labrador retriever or perhaps a Schnauzer. Truth is, however, that just because a dog looks like it belongs to a certain breed, it doesn’t necessarily mean that it is as full-bred as it looks.
DNA testing a dog may or may not be an exact science, but it is the closest we can get to finding out our favorite mutt’s family history. If the test results would seem unclear somehow, Wisdom Panel and Mars Veterinary offer an excellent customer service that is always happy to answer any questions that you may have. If you feel hesitant after receiving your dog’s test results, send them an email with your concerns.
The story of a successful DNA test
The black and tan colored mutt Bailey was found in a box on the street as a puppy. No one knew how she ended up there or where she had come from, but she was lucky enough to be adopted by a loving family. They constantly had people asking them what type of a dog she was and lots of them guessed German shepherd or perhaps a Rottweiler mix.
Bailey certainly had the colors of these two breeds and her owners thought that perhaps they were right, all those individuals that had guessed her ancestry, and even more so because those two breeds happened to be very common in their area.
When this family heard about DNA testing for dogs they simply couldn’t resist, so they ordered a test kit which was sent to them a few days later. After swabbing Bailey’s mouth, her samples were sent off to the lab. They were almost convinced that she would have at least some Rottie or Shepherd in her, as that seemed to be all that people could see when looking at Bailey. They were wrong, they discovered when the answers to the test arrived.
Bailey turned out to be 50% American Eskimo dog and the other half mixed-breed with traces of Catahoula Leopard dog and Pinscher. Her owners were baffled by the results, so to the point that they contacted the DNA test provider for some clarification. After having talked to them they began to see these breeds in Bailey, especially the American Eskimo, something they hadn’t even considered before.
The amazing thing about this story is that they – thanks to the test results – were able to track down Bailey’s American Eskimo parent. They lived in such a small isolated town that they had never even seen an American Eskimo dog. This first caused them to doubt the results of the test, as the town was the kind of town where everyone knows everyone. Nobody, as far as they knew, had an American Eskimo. After a bit of research, however, they tracked down a family with a dog that fit the description.
They owned a female dog that had gone missing a couple of years back, but that had been returned to them around the same time that Bailey and her sister were found in a box on the street. It had become clear to them that she – their American Eskimo dog – had carried puppies recently.
The puzzle pieces fit perfectly and even though there were no actual evidence of that dog having given birth to Bailey, it was indeed an interesting coincidence that Bailey tested as 50% American Eskimo when there was only one American Eskimo in the area, especially since that dog had puppies around the same time that she was born.
A very unusual story indeed, but also an example of where DNA testing a dog came with some unexpected knowledge and surprises. These people never expected to find Bailey’s parents – they were just curious to know what breeds she had in her, just like millions of other mutt owners out there. Not only did it silence their curiosity, but it also gave Bailey the opportunity to see her mother again, something few rescue pups get a chance to do.
Solving that mutt mystery
Curiosity lies in our nature, so regardless of how much we love our mystery mutt, we are likely to wonder about their background sooner rather than later. Tests are available throughout the United States, but also in several other countries around the world. If ordering tests from abroad, expect for it to take a bit longer for the results to arrive. Prices might also be higher if you order internationally.
The most important thing is – have fun DNA testing your dog. Don’t expect too much, take the test results with a grain of salt, use them to get to know your dog and make it an entertaining guessing game for friends and family while you are waiting for that envelope to arrive in the mail. It could be something to tell your fellow dog lovers about, a reason to investigate a certain dog breed or better yet – an answer the next time someone at the dog park asks: “What kind of a dog is that?”.