Features July 2018 Issue

Dog DNA Tests: Mixed Results

DNA tests that purport to identify the breeds in your mixed-breed dog are still a work in progress – but the technology improves daily.

On a gorgeous spring day in Montana, I was heading back from a romp in the mountains with my three dogs when we stepped out of the woods into a meadow, replete with song birds and a smattering of open range cows grazing peacefully. My trail companions quickly discovered, to their absolute delight, fresh, delicious cow pies.

It occurred to me, however, that I didn’t know the MDR1 (multi-drug resistance gene) status of the newest member of my three-dog crew, Hap. MDR1 is a genetic predisposition to adverse drug reactions to more than a dozen common veterinary drugs, and the gene is found predominantly in herding breeds. Hap looks to be mostly Border Collie with maybe, just maybe, a pinch of Australian Shepherd, so having this predisposition could put him in danger in this situation. Cows are often given ivermectin as an anti-parasitic agent, and the drug can be found shortly afterward in their droppings; eating these droppings can cause a fatal reaction in a dog with the MDR1 mutation. So, I put a moratorium on the afternoon’s pie sampling, much to the dismay of my crew, and off we strolled into the sunset.

When we got home and I began looking up information on MDR1 testing, I learned that many of the genetic tests for breed-typing now also include genetic health screens, including testing for the MDR1 mutation. I thought, why not solve the mystery of Hap’s breed-mix and get health information at the same time? It sounded like fun!

three-legged mixed breed

Kathryn Socie-Dunning

What breed is Hap, and does he have the MDR1 mutation that would make it unsafe for him to consume ivermectin? His adoptive owner, author Kathryn Socie-Dunning, wanted to find out, as much for fun as for Hap’s health and safety.

How Do Dog DNA Tests Work?

While some of the early mixed-breed identification tests used a blood sample, all of the products on the market today extract DNA from cells swabbed by the dog’s owner from the inside of the dog’s cheek. The swab is sealed in a container provided by the company and mailed off to the company’s lab. There, technicians extract your dog’s DNA from the swab, and use computers to identify and compare specific bits of it to bits taken from dogs of known lineage.

The genome of a dog contains about 2.5 billion nucleotides (the building blocks of DNA); researchers focus on “only” about 200,000 of these individual genes – or rather, microsatellites or repeating sequences of DNA called single-nucleotide polymorphisms (SNPs, pronounced “snips”) that form signatures particular to various breeds.

Researchers must have enough SNPs from enough purebred representatives of each breed in order to have an adequate array of SNPs to which they can compare your dog’s SNPs. The larger the company’s database of samples from purebred dogs, the better. When a company fails utterly to suggest ancestors of candidate breeds that are remotely likely, it’s probable that it lacks enough breeds in its databanks to find good matches for your dog’s SNPs.

Companies That Offer Mixed-Breed DNA Tests

DNA My Dog

- DNA My dog Dog Breed Identification Test, $69. Identification of 92 breeds.
- DNA My Dog Breed Test plus Wolf-Coyote Hybrid Test, $89.
- DNA Breed Identification Test plus Full Genetic Screening, $189. Health screening identifies more than 100 diseases.

Embark Veterinary, Inc.

- Embark Dog DNA Test, $199. Identification of more than 175 breeds and more than 160 diseases. “We test 20 times more of your dog’s genes than other dog DNA tests.”

Wisdom Panel

- Canine Breed Detection, $85. Identification for 250+ breeds, plus MDR1 and Exercise-induced Collapse (EIC) screening for drug and exercise sensitivities.
- Canine Breed Plus Disease Detection, $150. Identification for 250+ breeds, plus MDR1 and Exercise-induced Collapse (EIC) screening, plus advanced health screening for more than 150 genetic health conditions.

When Your Dog's Looks Are Deceiving

That said, when dogs of various ancestry reproduce, the resulting pups may visually resemble other breeds entirely – but the genetic signatures inherited from their parents are more telling than the most dog-savvy eye. Take Clara, for example. Clara is a shelter rescue dog, adopted as a young adult, who was presumed to be mostly a Labrador, with a little something more medium-sized in the mix. Her owners, Gianna and Kip Savoie, guessed she had a herding breed somewhere in her lineage, given a lot of Border Collie-like behavioral characteristics they’d seen.

black labrador retriever

Clara most resembles a black Labrador, and her tests results indicated that she does have some Labrador ancestors. But these results also suggest she is more Golden Retriever than any other breed.

They sent a swab of her cheek to Embark for analysis. What came back was mostly what they had suspected: Labrador Retriever, a splash of Border Collie, but with a few smaller surprises and one very big one. This short-haired black dog was, in fact, declared to be more Golden Retriever (38 percent!) than anything else.

Based on the sharpest visual assessment, this may seem like an error, but it is in fact highly feasible.

Golden Retrievers carry a black gene that is expressed in their nose, the pads of their feet, their glamorous thick, black eye-liner, but not their coat. The black is blocked by the yellow gene, which is recessive, as is their characteristic luxurious long locks. A Golden Retriever bred to a dog lacking genes for yellow coloration and long coat, like a black Labrador, therefore, would result in a black dog with a short coat – a dog that looks a lot like Clara.

Some Puzzling Dog DNA Results...

On the more comedic end of the spectrum, Hap, my happy, hoppy, flying Border Collie/mystery-breed cross was declared by Wisdom Panel to be 88 percent Border Collie and 12 percent – ready for this? – Boston Terrier! Having never even seen a Boston Terrier in Montana in my 20 years living here steeped in all things dog, this struck me as highly unlikely.

Since I live in a rural, ranch-heavy area and the shelter from which I acquired this chap is small and more like a herding dog rescue than a general open-door shelter, I struggled to imagine where Boston Terrier genes could have possibly come from. On the other hand, Hap is definitely the most playful, gregarious dog I’ve known and these qualities fit the personality type of the Boston Terriers I’ve met, so maybe. Perhaps there was a Boston Casanova passing through that visited a ranch at just the right time. Strange things can happen.

But sometimes, the results do test the bounds of credulity. Take, as a case in point, the results returned by DNA My Dog from a sample from Otto, a highly-mixed breed dog belonging to WDJ’s editor, Nancy Kerns. Otto has been tested by several companies (see “Otto’s Results,” below). The two companies with the largest breed databases returned fairly similar results. But DNA My Dog, a much smaller company, returned results that were not just completely dissimilar to the results from the two larger companies, but also incredibly improbable. The breeds suggested are highly unlikely to be present in Otto’s geographic area of origin, and even less likely to be present in the identified combination.

When Dog DNA Results Don’t Make Sense

The companies that offer this service have a few standard explanations for results that don’t seem to make sense.

None of the companies would admit that their reference databases are of an inadequate size to accurately identify the SNPs from your dog – but they might suggest that this could be true of their competitors.

All of the companies will be quick to explain that there are hundreds of thousands of genes that are responsible for a dog’s appearance, and that many breed combinations result in dogs who look very different than what you would expect from that mix of breeds.

Also, genes in mixed breeds do not always combine in the same ways within all litter-mates, so size and physical and behavioral characteristics in the same litter of pups can and often do vary, sometimes wildly.

They also explain that the complexity of your dog’s mix will affect the accuracy of the results. First-generation crosses between two purebred parents are relatively easy to identify, but dogs who don’t have any purebred ancestors within several generations are much harder to identify with much certainty, as the length of the inherited SNPs that are unique to purebred dogs become much shorter with each generation of mixed-breed progeny.

Problems with identification can also arise when there is a lot of divergence within a specific breed-type, like in the case of Australian Shepherds and Border Collies, where you have field-bred lines and show-bred lines. The genetic signatures in the companies’ databases usually correspond with show-bred lines, so field-bred Aussies and BCs might even get assigned to a different breed altogether.

Both Embark and Wisdom Panel make it easy for consumers to contact them and ask questions about their dogs’ results. I called and asked a representative from Wisdom Panel to review Hap’s results with me and was told that the statistical confidence in the Boston Terrier finding was marginal, meaning there is a high probability this result is not correct. Hap could have 12 percent of something not represented in the Wisdom Panel database (such as field-bred Australian Shepherds), but since this unique signature does not currently exist in the database, he was assigned to the breed with the closest matching genetic signature. I was told that updates will be made to Hap’s report as new information is added to the database.

Which Dog DNA Test is Best?

Of the brands available, Embark and Wisdom Panel appear to be the most transparent about their methodologies and about the information available in their databases. They both make frequent updates to their products, while also being accessible to answer consumer questions. This makes them both rise to the top in my book. Note, however, that the basic Wisdom Panel 4.0 Breed Detection test costs less than half the price of the Embark test.

Other companies, like DNA My Dog, has a relatively small database with 92 breeds, very scant information available about their methodology, and I found it difficult to even find contact information to ask questions.

While commercial genetic breed-typing is still evolving, it is interesting and ridiculously fun, which is worth something. More companies are offering genetic health screens as well, which may prove useful for the long-term health care of your dog. A lot of it may not be applicable to your particular four-legged friend, so before shelling out the money, be sure to consult your veterinarian to find out what she or he recommends.

Otto’s Results

Otto’s results have morphed over the past eight years, with the unlikely Basenji disappearing and a bully breed and Australian Cattle Dog appearing in the mix. Note that the results provided by the two leading mixed-breed test providers are pretty darn similar – and that the results from the smallest company offering this service border on fantasy. (Those breeds are highly uncommon in Otto’s area of origin, and would be even more uncommonly seen in the same dog.)

2009: Wisdom Panel

German Shepherd Dog
Chow Chow
Border Collie

2016: DNA My Dog

Level 3 (20%-36%): Collie, Nova Scotia Duck Tolling Retriever
Level 4 (10%-20%): English Setter, Norwegian Elkhound

whole dog journal otto

2016: Wisdom Panel

12.5% American Staffordshire Terrier
12.5% Australian Cattle Dog
12.5% Border Collie
12.5% Chow Chow
12.5% German Shepherd Dog
37.5% (mixed)

2018: Embark

21.3% American Pit Bull Terrier
14.1% Australian Cattle Dog
13.2% German Shepherd Dog
12.3% Chow Chow
10.3% Labrador Retriever
8.0% Border Collie
4.3% Rottweiler
16.5% (“Supermutt”)

Kathryn Socie-Dunning lives with her husband and three dogs in Montana.

Comments (10)

I’m sorry I don’t remember the name of the DNA testing company that I used, but I was severely disillusioned. The company was recommended by my vet and offered to provide a dog’s genealogy back 3 generations. My dog, who weighs about 70 pounds and looks like a black Golden Retriever, was reported to have on one side of her family tree 3 generations of purebred black Lab. The other side of her family tree was said to have 3 generations of purebred Jack Russell Terriers. She has long, wavy black fur and a very calm, gentle disposition, not at all dominant, and even as a young dog was not very energetic. I can accept the black Lab but the JRT has always seemed highly unlikely.

Posted by: Kitty Rumpus | January 19, 2019 1:12 PM    Report this comment

Your system won't permit me to share the link, but the 25 JULY 2018 issue of Nature (Nature 559, 470-472; doi: 10.1038/d41586-018-05771-0) has an interesting and important update on the promises and pitfalls of the current genetic testing scene.

Posted by: WendyK | July 26, 2018 8:01 AM    Report this comment

I have used Wisdom Panel DNA tests done on three of my rescued dogs. One didn't surprise me that he was 64% Australian Shepherd and 12% Australian Cattle Dog. He definitely had herding instincts and was ridiculously smart. This was my first Aussie and I had no knowledge that herding breeds can carry the gene mutation that makes them highly sensitive to chemicals and drugs. When his original owner surrendered him to the shelter, he was covered in ticks. I suspect that they did multiple tick treatments. Unfortunately, it resulted in the dog having tremors in his legs. We adopted him anyway. After four months with us we noticed that one minute he'd be happy and normal and the next minute his eyes would droop and he'd get a weird look. I wondered if he was going to bite me. Over those four months this dog snapped at my husband twice for no reason, then one day the dog had come up to my husband twice for attention and then the third time he suddenly snapped and bit my husband in the face. I believe in my heart that his brain had been affected by those tick chemicals. I would never have known about that gene mutation had I not had the test done.

Another of our dogs looks exactly like a Finnish Spitz that grew too tall. Her test was very surprising when it came back Samoyed (explains the fluffy Spitz physique), Collie, and....Sharpei (could explain her coloring). I actually sent a picture to Wisdom Panel challenging their results about the Sharpei. They explained how this can happen.

Our last dog is a tall, slender dog that many thought was a German Shepherd mix because of her coloring. She doesn't look like any dog we've ever seen before, especially with her tiny little ears. We cracked up at her results. Korean Jindo (explains the tail that curls over her back and she tends to be a bit dominant) - never had heard of that breed before, Weimeraner (explains the tall, slender build), Collie (evident in her facial markings), and.....those ears are PUG! She supposedly has some Havanese in there, too, way back in her great grand parents.

I find these tests so interesting and it really can help to detect possible health issues. By the way, thanks for mentioning in your article that sometimes WP goes back and updates info on the tests. I did not know that.

Posted by: DLittle | July 2, 2018 8:33 AM    Report this comment

OK, I have an interesting story about DNA testing.

We adopted a yellow Labrador as a tiny puppy from our local humane association. He was there with four litter mates, and all looked exactly like Labs - two yellow and three black. However, for some reason we couldn't fathom, their cage was labeled "Lab/Shepherd mix."

Their litter had been "found under a shed." We were very puzzled where they had come up with Shepherd mix for what looked for all the world like a litter of purebred Labs.

Fast forward three years. We now have two rescue dogs. For my birthday, my husband bought me two Wisdom Panel kits, one for each dog. Simon, our black mixed breed, turned out to be predominantly Golden Retriever (I found your info on this very interesting). Golden does seem likely considering his very soft, biddable temperament.

But even more interesting were Angus' results. Our yellow Lab, who looked exactly like a purebred yellow Lab to the point that not even a breeder would have guessed differently, was...a Lab/German Shepherd mix! This also made sense for his personality. He was very high drive, brilliantly smart, kind of an "order nerd," and protective of his people and his home.

Fast forward another ten years. Angus is now thirteen, and having some health issues. I took him in for ultrasound. I don't remember now if it was his spleen or liver that the doctor noted as being slightly enlarged, and she mentioned that his spleen had a tail. Concerned, I asked if I should be worried about this. She said no, she didn't think so, but thought it was kind of curious because she usually only saw this type of thing in...German Shepherds! I told her the stories above, and she said, "Well, I guess we've found the German Shepherd part."

Posted by: Connie M | July 1, 2018 2:51 PM    Report this comment

It’s fun to find out what your mutt is. My mutt was dumped as a puppy at my local dog park. She is big and slim, white with large black patches like a cow, with medium long coat and feathers on her legs and butt. She has a big pitbull head but fluffy ears grafted onto that slim body.
Wisdom panel says 67% Staffordshire of course, then “guard dog” and “hound dog”. We think the Staffy is right, then some St. Bernard or Great Dane. She also had “Asian dog” but that’s probably b3cause she kisses her Chow sister and the sample was contaminated.

Posted by: Rosiewolf | July 1, 2018 11:59 AM    Report this comment

Most important thing to do if you have a "mixed" breed dog--determine the breeds (what they were bred to do) and then think like a dog. This approach makes training so much easier! We have used Wisdom Panel for several rescued dogs over many years and it was accurate when the physical appearance did not resemble the breeds DNA determined (the PERSONALITY of the dogs was very accurate after researching the breeds the DNA determined). There will be surprise breeds in the DNA report. If you suspect "collie," have the analysis done to also determine if the dog carries the MDR1 gene. Over 30 years ago, we almost lost a border collie/English shepherd during spaying because of the incorrect anesthesia. Luckily she survived and we have rescued many border collie types since then--all living to 15 years! We have 2 now and one that is pure bred with ABCA papers. She looks "text book" and everything about her is 100% BC! She is 6 years old now and we've had her since she was 1 1/2--a "give up" from family who had her since puppyhood but didn't realize how energetic BCs are. Their loss was our gain! Our second BC now is not as intense and a bit larger stature. She appears to have the physical/personality characteristics of an English shepherd and has not had DNA panel. Might consider a panel (just for medical reason) but our vet is well aware of MDR1 gene issues and would not use risky drugs on either of our dogs. We think determining DNA is worthwhile and would eliminate many dogs being given up as adults when their behavior doesn't meet the criteria the owners expected. Purebred/popular breeds are suffering many inbred poor health issues especially from backyard breeders--we promote rescue and adoption--mixed breeds are generally healthier and finding out their breeds via DNA tests will guarantee a wonderful furry friend!

Posted by: Border collies! | July 1, 2018 11:53 AM    Report this comment

I have had two of my adopted dogs tested. The first one I had tested I knew the mother was a pregnant fox terrier that had been rescued from the Humane Society. I had always guessed that her other half was an Australian Cattle dog due to her looks and the fact that they are a popular breed in Nevada. I did my homework and made sure that Australian Cattle dog was in the data base for the company I picked. She came back 1/2 Fox Terrier and 1/2 Australian Cattle dog so I believe that test was right on.

The next one was for my mixed rescue that had some puzzling traits. She looked like a 30 # Miniature Schnauzer mix but had long legs and big ears and a curled tail. She came back mostly Miniature Schnauzer and Corgi with some Airedale and Keeshond. She also had some Borzoi who are known to use their paws more like hands. Sophie frequently lays on her back holding her toy above her head which I have seen Borzoi's do in pictures. Again, I think the test was pretty accurate.

Posted by: JoanneM | July 1, 2018 11:44 AM    Report this comment

In response to Cocker Lover, I didn't NEED to know what the mix is, but I was curious. Probably more to the point, I was tired of other people speculating and wanted to have an answer. One of my dogs was labeled by the shelter as a hound mix and by the vet as a pointer mix, but I speculated she had some sighthound in her. So when someone said to me, "She's pit and what else?" I decided to find out what she was. We were all wrong, as, according to Wisdom Panel, her prominent breeds are bullmastiff and Rottweiler.

Posted by: Melaniegm | July 1, 2018 11:32 AM    Report this comment

Why would anyone with a mixed breed have a need to know what the mix is? You either like the look of the dog or you do not. Not much different than getting a purebred. I could understand testing for health DNA markers but breeds is totally pointless and a waste of money. Of course it's everyone's to waste.

Posted by: Cocker lover | July 1, 2018 10:52 AM    Report this comment

We had our 90 pound black rescue dog tested for his DNA. We had adopted him from a city kill shelter, he was about 8 years old, and seemed to us to be part black lab, part pit bull. Imagine our surprise and laughter when the results came back: our 90 pound black dog was part Chihuahua!!

Posted by: maryheller | June 28, 2018 7:59 PM    Report this comment

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