Fall 2012 Magazine

Casa Canine

He's a What???
DNA Testing Your Mixed Breed Dog

By Deborah Schildkraut, Ph.D.

Gus is one of those dogs who provoke peoples' curiosity. They stop and ask, "What is he?" Some people figure he's a rare breed; others think he must be an interesting cross. Gus was a homeless stray, about 18 months old, when we welcomed him into our family. We know nothing about his origin. So for eleven years, I have answered that he is part corgi and part unknown shaggy-haired terrier, because that is what he looks and acts like. When I found out that there are genetic tests available to determine the ancestry of mixed breed dogs, I decided to find out the unique blend of breeds that produced our Gus.

Gus's attributes. Gus is a canine low rider - long and close to the ground with very short legs and large round paws. He weighs in at 32lbs. Fawn in color, he has a distinctive white ruff around his neck, white tail tip, white muzzle and feet. His short ears hang downward. His tail is long and hangs when he is relaxed. It curls over his back when he is excited. His long, thick fur is what really attracts attention. Coarse, yet soft to the touch, his fur looks like he stuck his paw in an electrical outlet. In personality, Gus is loyal, protective and incredibly smart. He is not an incessant barker, but he does bark at the sound of anything that could be an intruder. He doesn't stop barking until he is assured the intruder is friendly. He is an alpha dog through and through. He gets along with other dogs as long as they acknowledge his superior status. He is a big dog in a not so big body. What he loves most, besides food, is being with his human family. He loves physical contact and, given the opportunity, will leave not a hair between himself and me. His shape, size and coat coloring, we attributed to corgi ancestry; the length and texture of his fur bode of a shaggy terrier of some type. I was excited to use one of the new canine DNA tests to find out what the terrier breed might be.

The test

After researching online, I decided to use the WisdomPanelT Insights Mixed Breed Identification Test. I read their website which was thorough and easy to understand. Their DNA bank includes over 190 breeds of dogs. Using cheek swabs and blood samples, their laboratories have collected DNA samples from over 13,000 individuals. The home test uses cheek swabs and is easy to do. I was able to purchase the test online for about $55.00. Their extensive breed list, price, and ease of use were the main factors in selecting this test. Stephanie Hayes from WisdomPanel'sT USA headquarters, Mars Veterinary, in Gaithersburg, MD, said that their Insight Mixed Breed test is extremely popular with over 100,000 test kits purchased since 2009.

Why test?

WisdomPanelT offers several reasons a person might want to do DNA testing on their mixed breed dog. Among them are a greater understanding of your dog's behavior and health.

Some breeds of dogs have been selectively bred for characteristics that enable them to perform certain tasks like herding. Some herding dogs have a tendency to nip at heels, helpful if you are herding cattle or sheep. If your dog persistently nips at the heels of your fuzzy slippers, this might be explained as a form of herding behavior. In the past, some dogs were bred as alarm dogs, to alert a royal household to intruders. Many of these dogs are 'barkers' when they assess that their family or home are in danger. You may think your 'barker' is just trying to drive you crazy, when she may be doing her best to protect you.

Most dog people are aware that there are genetic problems that appear more frequently in certain purebred dogs. While the Insight test is not a medical test and does not look specifically for genetic diseases, knowing that your dog has an ancestral breed that is known to have a specific health problem can be extremely helpful. Hip dysplasia is found in many large breeds including mastiffs, Newfoundland, German shepherd dog, golden and Labrador retrievers and Rottweiler, and a few small breeds like spaniels and pugs. While seizures can occur in any type of dog, certain breeds are predisposed to inherited epilepsy. Among the breeds predisposed to this type of epilepsy are Labrador and golden retrievers, German shepherd dog, beagles, cocker spaniels, Siberian huskies, poodles, Irish setters, St. Bernard and miniature schnauzers. With DNA testing you can inform your veterinarian of your mixed breed dog's lineage. The knowledge may serve as an aid for future diagnoses.

How to use the test

The WisdomPanelT Insight test kit can be purchased online and at some retail pet outlets. It comes in a box with everything you need to take the DNA sample including prepaid mailer to send the sample to the laboratory for analysis. The DNA is collected through two cheek swabs. Using a long-handled cotton swab, you swipe the inside of your dog's cheek and place the swab inside a protective sleeve. This is repeated using a second swab. Both swabs are placed in the mailer and promptly sent to the laboratory.

Several hours before you plan to take the DNA sample, read everything on the WisdomPanel website. The detailed information is important to the efficacy of the test. The key to obtaining accurate results lies in the swabbing. If you have more than one dog, you need to avoid cross contamination of DNA that could render the results inaccurate. "For example, since the test uses cheek swabs, if your dogs' share a water bowl, remove the bowl 2-3 hours before taking the samples," says Stephanie Hayes. The better the sample, the more accurate the results. The kit contains helpful instructions on how to obtain the proper samples. Test results are emailed to you online within three weeks of receipt of the DNA samples.

The results

The WisdomPanelT Insight test checks your mixed breed dog's DNA against a DNA bank of purebred dogs from more than 190 recognized (e.g., AKC, UKC) breeds. The results are accurate to three generations. Beyond three generations the DNA is too dilute to accurately assess breed traits. After your dog's DNA is analyzed, you will receive a family tree for your dog that includes the parents, grandparents and great-grandparents. The family tree will list the breeds of your dog's ancestors for all generations. Sometimes an ancestor may be one single breed (Parson Russell terrier). Sometimes it can be a cross of two breeds (Australian Cattle Dog x Tibetan Spaniel). Sometimes the ancestry includes an unknown cross referred to simply as mixed breed.

Gus's ancestry chart

"He's a what???" That was my response when I read Gus's family tree from WisdomPanel. I started this process with the preconceived notion that Gus was half Welsh corgi. It turns out that Gus has no corgi in his ancestry over the last three generations. To boot, our canine cocktail is the product of only three breeds. One entire half of his ancestry is Parson Russell terrier. One fourth of his ancestry is Australian Cattle dog. The other fourth is Tibetan spaniel! Talk about being stunned. Click here to see Gus's ancestry chart.

Along with the DNA report, WisdomPanelT sends brief profiles of any pure breeds in your dog's lineage. They provide information as to why some dogs don't look anything like their purebred ancestors. Some traits are dominant and show up more frequently in the offspring's appearance (brown eyes). Some traits are recessive and show up less frequently (blue eyes). Some traits can average out, height, for example. A dog that is a cross from a tall and a short parent can grow to a height somewhere between the heights of the parents. The website discusses the genetics of crossbreeding and the outcome of multiple generations of crossing breeds. After reading everything, I took a look at Gus without my corgi bias. Certainly Parson Russell terriers and Australian cattle dogs abound in New Mexico. But Gus doesn't look like either. The Tibetan spaniel ancestry makes a lot of sense. They are an intelligent, alert, high altitude, barky, hairy, protective breed. They are nicknamed "The Little Lions." That sounds a lot like Gus.

Regardless of the health and behavior reasons given by WisdomPanelT, I suspect that the majority of people who purchase the test do so for the main reason I did -to satisfy my curiosity and to have an answer to the question "what is he?" I have been curious about Gus's ancestry in the same way I am curious about my own. We are both of mixed ancestry. My ancestors came from Germany, France, Poland, England, Ireland and even Mongolia. Gus's ancestors are from Tibet, England and Australia. I guess that makes us both American mixed breeds and that's the best answer of all.

Deborah Schildkraut, Ph.D. is a writer and columnist for PETroglyphs and an author of children's books about dogs. She lives with her husband and her two canine companions, Gus and Etta.

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