Find Out Your Mutt's Family Tree
By Phyllis DeGioia
The American Kennel Club pedigree of Fallon Flights O’Fancy, an Irish setter owned by Anne Schilling, is a mile long. The stunning purebred from Madison, Wis., justly holds his furry mahogany head high, but he isn’t snooty when he selects his friends. One such canine chum is Frank, a scruffy, shelter-rescued mutt that Fallon met at a dog park.
Unlike Fallon, Frank’s family history is a mystery. But thanks to new DNA testing procedures, Frank, and most mutts like him, can have their mixed breed ancestry deciphered. The tests are the scientific version of the best guessing game of all, “What kind of dog is that?” which has kept dog park walkers in conversation for years. The DNA tests cannot reveal every bit of information about your dog, since genetic data isn’t available for every breed and mix, but even if you don't receive a fully positive identification, at least some breeds can be eliminated.
How the Tests Work
One such DNA testing company is MetaMorphix Inc. of Beltsville, Md., whose cheek swab kit allows dog owners like you to test for about 38 breeds. To participate, you place the provided swab in your dog’s mouth and swoosh it around to coat it in saliva and mouth cells that hold DNA, a cellular material that contains the genetic instructions used in the development and functioning of your dog. A blood test from the Rockville, Md.-based Mars Veterinary, part of the same company that makes M&M’S candy, can detect more than 130 breeds. The American Kennel Club currently recognizes over 150 breeds, and the United Kennel Club recognizes 300 breeds, so there are inherent limitations to the current tests. As time goes by, though, these organizations will likely include more breeds, making the procedures more accurate and revealing.
Geneticists have identified over 300 DNA markers that help identify specific breeds. The recently mapped canine genome refers to the content and organization of genetic instructions for dogs -- sort of the protein recipe for canines. The ability to identify specifics in the canine genome gave birth to the breed DNA identification tests. “The more dogs these companies test, the more information they’ll have,” says Susan Nelson, DVM, of the Kansas State University's Veterinary Medical Teaching Hospital. “Hopefully that information will have medical relevance. Right now it’s mostly just for fun.”
Dog Family Surprises
Alexa Lewis of Los Angeles, Calif., decided it would be fun to test her two mixed breeds. She used the cheek swab test and felt that the results for her cordy -- a chow chow and Akita mix -- were accurate, but she was surprised about the results on her golden retriever mix, Riley. “Golden retriever was eliminated for Riley even though they couldn’t tell us his primary breed. Riley has three breeds: saluki, dachshund and Labrador. That could explain his short legs.” Lewis plans to give Riley the blood test when they next visit his veterinarian.
Another dog owner who has tried out the new DNA testing is Cecilia Castillo of Tewksbury Township, N.J. She used the cheek swab on her purebred border collie and her two border collie mixes. The purebred’s came back as 100 percent border collie. “I knew Sally had to be a mix because she doesn’t act like a border collie, although she looks like one. I thought it would be cool to find out what was in Sally’s genetic makeup -- only for curiosity, no other reason,” said Castillo. “The results on Sally’s cheek swab were missing something, so when the blood test came out, I figured I'd retest her.” The results were different, although both tests revealed two breeds in common: Lab and dachshund. “They both showed that she has no border collie. The cheek swab test showed traces of husky, dachshund, and a significant amount of Lab. The blood test showed traces of Cavalier King Charles spaniel, golden retriever, German shepherd, Lab and dachshund.”
So what did Castillo do with the results? “I concluded that Sally is a true mutt.”
Health and Behavior Benefits to Testing
“Knowing a dog’s heritage can help identify temperament traits,” said Lisa Peterson of the AKC. “Breed-specific training is important. If the majority breed is listed in these tests, it will aid an owner in how to approach training and socialization.” Peterson added, “For example, Cecilia thought she had a border collie, the obsessive compulsive breed of the dog world. Knowing that Sally has some husky, which tends to be more independent, means Cecilia may approach training in a different way.”
Like Castillo, you don’t have to do anything with the information, or like Lewis, you can joke about it with your dog park buddies and other friends. Lewis says, “We’ve made a lot of non-dog owners think we're crazy when we tell them about the testing!” Information gained from dog DNA-testing also has the following applications:
You may consider altering your training style based on behavior related to certain breeds. Sporting dogs like Labradors need significant daily exercise to prevent boredom-based destruction. Guard dogs like German shepherds are naturally protective and can be aggressive without appropriate socialization. Toy breeds like papillons can be notoriously difficult to housebreak, so patience is required.
Inform your veterinarian if your mix has any breed known to have difficulties with anesthesia. For example, greyhound or whippet breeds have low body fat, and part collies are sensitive to ivermectin, a compound used in some heartworm preventives.
Familiarize yourself with the breeds’ predisposition toward certain diseases. Miniature schnauzers are prone to inflammation of the pancreas. Dalmatians are prone to uric acid stones. Old English sheepdogs are prone to a type of anemia.
Explore performance activities that you may not have considered for your dog; these may include agility exercises for herding breeds or field tests for hunting dogs.
Add to your exercise choices. If your dog’s ancestry includes a water-oriented breed, such as poodle or Newfoundland, see if it will enjoy learning how to swim.
Consider going to dog shows to look for visual evidence of other breeds that might be related to your dog.
Create a fun pedigree document discussing historical backgrounds of breeds rather than specific parents.
Make a scrapbook using your dog’s photos and photos of the known breeds of your mix. Consider including other people’s opinions of your dog’s heritage mix, no matter how bizarre it might be. The scrapbook could even include a funny illustration of your dog by using parts of magazine photos to piece together a collage.
Mutt Owners Get the Last Laugh
Family history information about your dog’s breed heritage won’t change the way you feel about your pet. You will love your dog just the same, but curiosity killed the cat, or in this case, dog, and satisfaction brought him back. You won’t be lost for words the next time someone asks you about your favorite canine companion, no matter how unusual the breeding turns out to be. In fact, where mutts are concerned, the funkier the mix of breeds turns out to be, the better and more entertaining answers you’ll have.
Phyllis DeGioia is an award-winning writer who lives in Madison, Wis., with two rescued dogs and a cat. She has authored books on animal topics, is a member of the Dog Writers Association of America and serves as editor of Veterinary Partner online.