Dogs know so much about us. Their soft eyes track us around the kitchen, waiting for scraps to fall from our fingers. Their sharp ears pick up every snorfle and wheeze we make in the night. Their high-resolution noses can detect everything from drugs to bed bugs. Yet we don’t often know much about them. We might think we have a cattle dog/collie cross from the shelter, but it’s really just a guess. And what we do know is often a sad crystal ball: The hips of a Labrador give out, the back of a dachshund fails.
The advent of relatively inexpensive genetic testing, then, gives us a chance to learn a little more about our best friends. (Maxwell is part terrier! No wonder he’s such a champion digger!) It’s a process that can be surprisingly emotional. Angela Hughes, a veterinary geneticist at dog genetic testing company Wisdom Health, remembers a call from a couple who had recently adopted a shelter dog they thought was a shepherd mix. The test showed that the dog, who weighed a mere 18 pounds, was actually a Lhasa apso mix. “And they were calling in upset. You build the story and this background around this animal. It can be a real shock when you learn, no, that’s not your father. This is your father.”
The kits work much like human commercial DNA tests. They don’t “read” the entire genome; rather, they look at a specific number of markers. Some markers give you clear yes/no information—like the presence of a mutated version of a particular gene that causes this or that disease. In other cases, like a gene that affects hair length, one allele might confer long hair, another short hair. Breed testing is more complicated; the companies compare your dog’s genetic information with that of other dogs in their databases. It can be a little less exact. Algorithms are involved.
We tested three different kits on two different dogs. Anna Alexander, WIRED’s director of photography, adopted a dachshund-and-beagle-ish pup named Trout from a shelter last September. Sarah Fallon, deputy web editor, adopted an emaciated could-barely-stand-up German shepherd thing named Lexi from a rescue in 2017. The results were illuminating, comforting, and sometimes contradictory.
WISDOM PANEL, Wisdom Panel 4.0, $85 Wisdom Panel Health, $150
WIRED: Approachable pricing. You get genetic information for two common conditions with the basic test. The fun Traits page tells you if your dog is likely to have long or short legs or floppy or pointy ears.
TIRED: Most complex sampling process.
Wisdom’s sleek kit comes with two brushie swabs you stick into the back of your dog’s mouth between gum and cheek, swirl around to collect the DNA, let dry, and repeat three times. (Dogs do not love this, and will look at you awful forlorn when they see the tiny little bottle brush thing come off the sideboard for a third scrape.)
Pop it in the mail, and Wisdom will run it through their system, looking at 20,000 genetic markers in all—around 1,800 for breed identification and the rest for diseases and traits. The basic panel gives you breed information and a yes/no on whether or not your dog carries two particular mutations. One leaves the animal prone to poor drug processing and another is linked to something called exercise-induced collapse. The Health panel offers you the full flight of genetic conditions, from Alaskan husky encephalopathy to X-linked tremors.
The company uses this information to do some basic research, but the tests are also part of a larger business model. Mars, the parent company, makes breed-specific dog food under its Royal Canin brand. (A pug’s “characteristic jaw and very thick lips make it difficult for him to pick up his food. The Pug formula’s ‘cloverleaf’-shaped kibbles are designed to make it easier for the Pug to pick up and encourage him to chew.”) Or, as Hughes points out, if you have adopted a mixed-breed dog as a puppy, you might want to know how big they will eventually get so you can feed them the right amount. The company also has a test that’s more geared for breeders, which can tell them how closely related a potential mama and papa dog are. Less closely related equals healthier puppies.
Anna: We were told that Trout (named after the character Mike Ehrmantraut from Better Call Saul) was a dachshund/beagle mix. That’s exactly what he looked like: dachshund ears and beady eyes and pointy nose; beagle body and tail and legs. He even had the shorthair soft coat of both breeds, so it had to be the truth!
When his first DNA test came back from Wisdom, I was floored. This precious little mutt turned out to be a quarter American Staffordshire terrier, a quarter Russell terrier, an eighth Pomeranian, an eighth Chihuahua, and a quarter mix-of-mixes that includes “Terrier, Companion, and Middle Eastern and African Breed Groups.” He contains multitudes. But POMERANIAN? There’s no way. I have nothing against the luxury purse dog breed, it’s just that Trout could not possibly be related to the fluffy toy Pomeranian.
There was no trace of either dachshund or beagle in him at all.
The site, which has a clear, understandable interface, breaks down the traits of each breed to show me which of Trout’s characteristics might come from each breed. His snout, ears, and tail come from the AmStaff. The flop of his ears over his eyes and his little nose come from the Russell terrier. I was very relieved to learn that Trout does not carry any known disease-causing mutations.
Sarah: My dog looks like a police dog, and as I expected, the results came back showing that she’s just German shepherds all the way back up the line to her great grandparents. Because I don’t know anything about her the way you might if you bought a GSD from a breeder, I do wish I could learn more about what sort of line she is from. Was she supposed to be a pet? A show dog? A working dog? I’ll never know. But Wisdom knows she is a German shepherd because she … looks like other German shepherds. This chart shows all the sheps in Wisdom’s database. Lexi’s genotype looks like theirs.
Or, put another way, she looks like a certain type of dog, whereas other types of dogs (represented in gray) don’t look like her, genetically.
The other thing you worry about with purebred (and thus potentially inbred) dogs is genetic diseases. And here, the results left me relieved. She does not carry double copies of any disease-causing mutations, and she is a carrier for just three single copies of mutations. (Two of them affect blood clotting, so if she was going to have surgery or something, I would need to tell the vet.) For another 149 mutations, she gets the all-clear, including for one called multidrug resistance 1. If you had a dog with a copy of that gene (or, worse, two), you would absolutely want to know. (For some breeds, up to 70 percent of the dogs can be carriers for the gene; for other breeds it’s 5 or 10 percent.) Dogs that have it don’t process certain tranquilizers, antidiarrheal drugs, heartworm drugs, and cancer medications as quickly as others, and side effects for those puppers can range from loss of balance to seizures to death.
The Wisdom test also suggests that her “homozygosity score” is just about average. A high score would mean that she had inherited the exact same genetic variants from both sides of her family tree. Lexi seems to fall a bit to the left of the top of the bell curve—not too many inbreedings, which puts my mind at ease.
DNA MY DOG, $69
WIRED: Cheap! Option to learn your dog’s “genetic age.” Good for serial dog rescuers and the less technically savvy.
TIRED: Very basic levels of information.
This test is bare-bones. You get an envelope with two longish cotton swabs in it, swab the dog’s gums, let them dry, drop them back in an envelope, and mail them back in. In a few weeks you’ll get a PDF emailed to you. The company breaks the results down in levels, as opposed to the percentages that Embark and Wisdom use. So if your dog is mostly Lab, it will say Level 1 Lab. Level 2 represents breeds that make up about 40 to 75 percent of your dog’s DNA. Level 5 is less than 10 percent of a particular breed. (If you want a health test screen, that’s a different test.) The company won’t say how many markers it looks at, but what it does do, which is pretty neat, is give you a sort of genetic age for your dog by looking at the length of the telomeres—the caps on the ends of chromosomes. Quite handy for, say, an adult shelter dog of indeterminate age.
The DNA My Dog test is purely customer facing. The company isn’t doing research on the back end, like Embark and Wisdom, but it’s focused on helping doggos in another key way. It sells its DNA tests to shelters for a really low cost; when shelters publish the test results on the dog’s card, it can get the dogs adopted faster. “We’ve had people who have had dogs sitting in their shelter for seven months,” says Mindy Tenenbaum, president of DNA My Dog. “And they test them and put the results on the dogs’ cards, and they get adopted two days later.”
Anna: DNA My Dog is a great basic “what the heck is he anyway?” test, if you just want to know what breed your new mutt is. Because that is all that they tell you. No fancy breakdown of medical information or behavior or body parts. You get a certificate and a list of breeds and then details about each breed’s traits.
Remember how Trout’s shelter told me he was a dachshund/beagle mix? Well, this is the only test that came back positive for dachshund. A whopping Level 2 on their charts, which means his genetic overlap with that breed is 37 percent to 74 percent. The rest of his genetic makeup was different from the other tests—the only breed all three of them showed in common was the American Staffordshire terrier. DNA My Dog also assigned Trout to around 10 to 20 percent American Eskimo and collie (???). They said he’s also got some royal Cavalier King Charles spaniel in him, which explains where all his fancy traits come from.
Sarah: This isn’t the test I’d do with a dog who looks pretty much like what it says on the box, since you don’t get much more additional information besides “Yup, it’s a husky.” For the price, seems to me, this would be a nice test to get for someone, maybe an elderly or less tech-savvy someone, as a present. And where the other tests are fun and useful, even if you got your dog from some fancy-pants breeder, DNA My Dog is probably a mutts-only zone.
Embark Dog DNA Test Kit, $199
WIRED: Jam-packed with information. And you can find your dog’s relatives!
The nice, sleek packaging on this kit comes with a “missile-grade” steel tag, in case you want to launch your dog into space. The sample-grabber is a chunky swab that you rub between your dog’s cheek and gums once, then screw into a tube of stabilizing liquid to return. It’s definitely the easiest to use, and most dogs would probably agree—no repeat mouth-stickings! Chief science officer Adam Boyko cofounded the company with his brother, as a spin-off from Cornell’s canine genomics initiative. That lab uses a DNA testing chip that looks at 200,000 markers, and your test is research-grade too. “The overarching goal of the company is to end preventable disease in dogs,” Boyko says. “These genetic profiles that customers then generate are useful for researchers.” If, say, the NIH is doing research on allergies or obesity or orthopedic issues, they might send out surveys, and the surveys people get could differ by breed.
The Embark site has the most going on of the three testing companies in terms of tests and quizzes to take, haplotype information to absorb, and other interactive elements. You get an inbreeding coefficient too.
Anna: Embark’s results were not the same as the Wisdom results or the DNA My Dog results. Some Chihuahua and AmStaff, yes. Plenty of what Embark calls Supermutt, but also Lhasa apso, Boston terrier, miniature pinscher, and Maltese.
Also, Pomeranian. Dammit!
Embark offers seven quizzes about your pooch to figure out what you’re doing right and wrong in his upbringing, including health, behavior, dental, etc. I filled out the nutrition quiz first because I’ve been worried I’m overfeeding him. (All of our dog-owner neighbors and friends have no problem telling us we’re doing it wrong. “He’s too fat for a 10-month-old puppy.”) However, according to Embark, we’re totally starving him! They also asked questions about what Trout’s “main job” was—the choices included Couch Potato, Lawn Ornament, and even Police Dog.
I also liked the quiz about behavior. This one went very in-depth about what he’s like with people, other dogs, animals. Does he pee when excited? Does he chew everything? (Why yes, he does.)
Then, when you’re finished with all of the quizzes, you can go back and open a chart comparing everyone else’s answers to yours.
I found the charts that went with the medical questions about Trout’s farts rather fascinating, since I was able to compare them to all other farters.
My favorite quiz question was about his howl. They didn’t want to know simply if he howls but what kind of howl he makes. Does he howl like a wolf? Bay like a basset hound? (This was Trout’s match.) Or yodel, which is high pitched and almost talking, like Walter Geoffrey the Frenchie. They offer soundbites to guide you.
Embark was also able to locate close to 50 “cousins” of Trout’s. He shares 6 percent of his DNA with an American Staffordshire terrier named Pig Pen.
Sarah: I like the quizzes, and all the allele and genetic information is super nerdy—you can even see how inbred your dog is by chromosome, and let me tell you, Lexi’s 15th chromosome is practically Habsbergian. But her 29th is nice and diverse. The thing that really struck me was the ability to see all the doggos my pup was related to. She shares half of her DNA with Bear (a New Skete Monastery dog, fannnnncyyy) and a cute service dog and a whole bunch of other dogs as well. You can chat with the owners too, and one owner and I are currently bemoaning the higher behavioral standards bigger dogs are held to.
”We’ve had dogs who got separated because of Hurricane Harvey or something like that,” Boyko says. Maybe they are litter mates and they get rescued and adopted into other families. Embark shows that they’re related, and the owners contact each other, “and they schedule a playdate and the dogs immediately recognize each other and go crazy.”
I cannot even.
I asked the three companies why Anna’s results showed some divergence from one another. Turns out, Trout is sort of a perfect storm of uniqueness. American Staffordshires, Russells, and Chis are three very genetically diverse breeds for which there are many family lines available, says Angela Hughes, the geneticist at Wisdom. “These breeds can be more difficult to call appropriately,” she says. Plus, the databases and algorithms are different for different testing companies. Where one test sees a Russell terrier, another test might see other terriers and small “companion breeds.” And remember, breeds are more about clusters of genetic similarities. There is no specific gene for, oh, I don’t know, Pomeranian-ness.
In the end, I don’t really care where my dog came from, though it sure is fun to take quizzes about her and chat with other owners—who doesn’t love to talk about their dog?—and click around to see that she does not have the allele for a smushed face, and is probably prone to shedding. (The Roomba can confirm this.) What I really want to know is why she barks like a crazy deranged monster when she’s riding in the car and she sees other dogs. Maybe she’s just a jerk. Maybe it’s a remnant from that dark time in her life when she spent months in a kennel with a bunch of other stressed-out barking dogs yelling at her and rattling the doors of their cages. It’s one of those secret, sad wounds of emotional mutation. And there isn’t a genetic test for that.
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