If you own a dog that you adopted from a shelter or found as a stray, chances are they aren’t a purebred. That’s not a bad thing – there are a lot of great things about mixed breed dogs. However, one thing that can get annoying fast is when everyone you see asks, “What kind of dog is that?” and you have to answer, “We don’t really know.” Maybe you can make an educated guess, but you can’t say for sure that you have a Chihuahua mixed with a Pug or a Labrador mixed with a Husky – you just know that you have a good dog. (I’d recommend telling nosy people that you have an American Good Boy if the questions get super annoying!)
Last update on 2019-01-18 at 11:05 / Affiliate links / Images from Amazon Product Advertising API
Knowing what breeds make up your dog is something that many mixed-breed owners want to know for more than just satisfying curiosity. Health concerns can be monitored better when you know what your dog may be prone to.It may be easier to create a routine that works for your dog’s needs if you understand their breed. And there are many other reasons you may want to know. One way to find out what your dog is, is to use a doggie DNA kit. But what exactly are these kits, how do they work, what can they tell you, how accurate are they? We’ll answer all those questions and more in this article.
There are tons of DNA tests out there for dogs, made by a slew of different brands. But they all work in basically the same way. They all include the same type of gear based on whether the kit is being used at home or at a vet’s office.
If you are using a home DNA kit for your dog, you’ll need to take a swab of your dog’s saliva from inside their cheek. You’ll find a few cotton swabs (they look like Q-tips), along with a way to then package them up to send to the company. If the kit is being used in a vet’s office, they’ll ask for a blood sample to be drawn, and then sent in to the company to be analyzed.
When the company gets the samples, they get to work. First, they put the sample through machines that actually remove all the “fluff” in blood or saliva (water, hormones, skin cells, or whatever the case may be) and separates out your dog’s DNA strands. It takes between two weeks and two months for the company to do this and analyze the results and get them back to you.
Every dog breed has some very specific genetic markers in their DNA. You can see evidence of this in the way the dog looks or behaves. A genetic marker in Dalmatian DNA gives them their spots. A genetic marker in Schnauzer DNA gives them their bearded face. The company will examine your dog’s genetic markers and compare them to databases of genetic markers that scientists have collected over decades of studying dogs. There are more than 250 breeds in many of these databases, which were developed with samples of over 13,000 purebred dogs of all these breeds. Some companies even have samples of wolves, coyotes, and other wild dogs found around the world to help with comparison. Keep in mind that not all companies are created equal. Some have only 150, or even fewer, breeds that they compare DNA to.
The more genetic markers the company has in their database, the more they’ll be able to tell about your dog. Then they’ll send back a report that tells you what percent of your dog’s DNA matches this or that breed. So, for example, you may get a report back telling you that your dog’s DNA has 75% of the genetic markers that match the Irish Setter, with another 10% that matches the Chesapeake Bay Retriever, and the rest of the DNA is a mixture of a few other breeds. Now you know that your dog is mostly a Setter-Retriever mix.
One of the biggest questions that dog owners have about these kits is about their accuracy. Will they actually be able to tell you what your dog really is? Well, the answer is a bit complicated. Remember when I said that companies may not compare DNA to a large range of breeds in some cases?
Well, the truth is that these tests can be accurate – if the company uses a large diversity of DNA samples. But what happens if the company has a database of only 60 samples? They won’t send you back a card saying, “Sorry, we don’t know what your dog is.” Instead, they’ll match your dog’s genetic markers with the closest things in their database, and tell you that that’s what your dog is. So, for example, your Yellow Lab could be misidentified as a Golden Retriever if they only have Retriever DNA and your Lab’s DNA looks closest to that.
The biggest problem that these DNA tests face is that they don’t have a sample of the correct breed that your dog really is, and so they infer that your dog is a different breed. This isn’t done maliciously (at least, not in all cases…I’m sure some companies just want your money). But even with a company with hundreds of breeds, there could still be another rare breed that your dog actually is, that they don’t have a sample of. So, they’ll pull out your dog’s DNA sequence, and separate out the genetic markers. They’ll compare the chromosomes that come from the mother, and determine that those are likely from a mix of a Poodle and a Lab. Then they’ll look at the chromosomes of the father, and determine that those likely came from a mix of a Basset Hound and a German Shepherd. But what they didn’t know is that the second set of genetic markers was actually a mixture of a Beagle and a German Shepherd, not a Basset Hound – but because their system didn’t have Beagle samples in it, it identified the closest thing it could.
How often do these tests spit out false information? It’s kind of hard to know. Because we can’t exactly ask the mixed-breed dog if the results are right, we can’t verify if the breeds identified are the correct mash up of breeds.
So, the scenario described above is exactly why you may get different results from multiple different DNA tests. If you were to purchase a kit from two different companies, and use them both on the same dog, one company might have Beagle in their database, so they identified the Beagle heritage that your dog has.
Another reason that you may get different answers from different companies is the fact that there are a lot of different types of a single breed. For example, if you’ve been around the blog recently, you’ll know that the “pit bull” is actually a group of about five related breeds. Under the qualification of Labrador, there are show style Labs and field style Labs, both of which have slightly different genetic markers based on the purpose they were bred for. This is why it’s pretty easy for these companies to make mistakes or misidentify a dog if they don’t have a great database of samples.
This information shouldn’t prevent you from using a DNA kit if you are curious. But it should encourage you to do your research and find DNA testing companies with large databases. The more information they can compare your dog’s results to, the more likely it is that you’ll get a more accurate answer.
Now let’s get into what dog DNA tests are used for. They aren’t just for curious dog owners, although that is a big part of why they exist. But in fact, there are five main reasons these tests are performed:
Identifying your dog’s breed is the most common reason to use these DNA tests. You want to find out what type of dog Fido really is, and these companies can get you the closest answer we’ve got available to us with modern science. Remember, look for the company with the largest database of breed varieties to get the best answer.
In some breeding circles, it’s important to be able to prove without any doubt that a dog is the puppy of a specific set of parents. This could be very important when a puppy is worth tens of thousands, or even hundreds of thousands, of dollars, based on his parentage alone. So, sometimes, DNA from a puppy is compared to DNA of the parent dogs to prove to buyers that the puppy isn’t a fake.
The next reason to use a doggie DNA test is to identify a dog. In some cases, if a dog wasn’t microchipped or isn’t wearing an ID, there may be some question about whether or not the dog is really who an owner claims they are. What if someone found the dog, adopted him, and years later, an “owner” shows up claiming it’s their long-lost dog? In that case, a DNA test could be used to identify the dog as being theirs or not, if they had previously done a DNA test on their dog before.
Another big reason to do a DNA test is to check for health conditions that a dog could be prone to or could have the genetic indicators for already. For example, DNA tests are often performed on puppies by breeders to ensure that they aren’t showing the early signs of vision or hearing problems. You can also make some educated guesses on what things to watch your dog for if you know their breed. Great Danes are prone to heart conditions, so finding out your mixed breed is 80% Great Dane can definitely tell you that it’s a good idea to get their heart checked frequently.
Finally, these DNA tests are also important for the ongoing research that is always happening about dog breeds. This also helps improve databases for the future – the more dog owners use these kits, the more samples are available to compare in the future.
It’s important to note that not all of these things can be learned from the basic cheek swab. Sometimes you need the full blood sample to determine specific things about a dog’s health through their DNA. So if you are testing your dog’s DNA specifically because you want to learn about their health, you should probably start with a visit to the vet.
Last update on 2019-01-18 at 11:05 / Affiliate links / Images from Amazon Product Advertising API
I did have my vet do a blood DNA test on Janice and Leroy before I got them, just to ensure that they were purebred Boxers. This is pretty common for someone who wants to breed their dogs, to make sure that they are protecting the integrity of the breed. However, I’ve never had the chance to do one of those home kits, and I’m interested in seeing them in action. If you have tried one, let us know how it went in the comments below!
You can definitely learn some interesting things about your dog, even if you find out that they are simply a mutt. For example, it only takes two generations to really create a “mutt” (a dog of multiple breeds, not just two). You only need the grandparents to have been different breeds on both sides. Then the parents will both be mixed breeds, and that means the offspring will be multiple breeds. What that tells you is that if you go just one generation before the grandparents, you could have all the great-grandparents being purebred dogs. Your dog may not be that far removed from a pretty noble purebred heritage after all!