Sunday, March 28, 2010

Is DNA testing in dogs a sham?

There is an article in the Toronto Star, by Nancy J. White, about a woman who sent her dog's DNA sample to three separate companies for testing. The results were, well inconclusive to say the very least. 

This reinforces what I have been saying all along about breed identification? 

Here is a picture of the dog.

DNA tests confirm we have a mutt
Companies agree there's shepherd in Whiskey

All we knew for sure was that Whiskey was a lovable, furry mutt.
Three DNA tests and $268 later, all we know for sure is that Whiskey is a lovable, furry mutt.
The results from three companies agreed only on this: our boy is one mixed-up canine cocktail and he does have some shepherd. But what kind of shepherd and what other bevy of breeds make up the mix is up for grabs.
Suggestions ran the genetic gamut from the small Norwich terrier to the enormous St. Bernard, with a bit of beagle, a dollop of Dalmatian and some Rottweiler, among others, tossed in.
He looks like none of those.
"You can't judge a dog by his cover," explains Robin Ray, marketing director for the Canine Heritage Breed test.
The revolution in DNA testing has gone to the dogs. Geneticists have mapped the genome of the domesticated dog and researchers are studying genetic influences for diseases that afflict canines as well as insight into those shared with humans, such as cancer and diabetes.
And just as DNA samples are used to trace humans' genetic ancestry, so too Rover's.
"The majority of the dogs we test come from shelters and owners are super curious," says Mindy Tenenbaum, of the Toronto company DNA My Dog. "Ninety per cent of the time people are wrong about what they think the dog is."
The companies say that knowing the breed can shed light on a mutt's potential health problems.
Tenenbaum tells the story of a large dog resembling a king shepherd with a bad skin affliction that the veterinarian couldn't cure. The owner happened to mention that DNA results showed the dog was part Siberian husky. The vet knew that huskies often get a certain type of dermatitis and successfully treated the animal.
We weren't curious so much about Whiskey's health or even his lineage as we were the tests. Crucial to the test is a company's database: How many breeds and which ones will they compare to your pet's DNA? There are about 500 breeds of domesticated dog.
The three tests we ordered, all available online, ranged in price from $70 to $108, and promised 90 per cent or better accuracy. The three companies say their DNA databases come from certified American Kennel Club dogs or, in cases of breeds not part of AKC, from top-notch breeders.
The kits arrived with instructions and swabs to collect cells from inside the dog's cheek. Whiskey barely noticed. I mailed back the DNA-swathed swabs and waited a few weeks for results.
When my family adopted Whiskey more than 10 years ago from the Toronto Humane Society, we were told he was a stray, most likely a shepherd-collie mix. That was their best guess and fine by us.
DNA My Dog, which tests for 68 popular breeds, found that Whisk was a level three Australian Shepherd, meaning he likely had a grandparent predominantly from that breed. On the great-grandparent level, there was a lot of bizarre mating going way back: Shetland sheepdog, Siberian husky, beagle, golden retriever and St. Bernard.
"Holy cow, that is a lot," says Tenenbaum when told of the findings.
A Google search of Australian shepherd shows a black and tan, hairy dog that sure looks like Whisk.
The breed is known for its intelligence, herding and guarding instincts. Sounds like Whisk. He used to nip at our heels and try to herd us together. And did I mention he was tops in his puppy obedience class?
On to company number two, the U.S.-based Wisdom Panel Insights, which tests for more than 170 breeds, the most in our three-way sample. It registered zip in the significant or intermediate categories but detected minor signs of German shepherd and traces of bearded collie and Rottweiler.
I felt confused, so I emailed Wisdon Panelstaff veterinarian and geneticist Angela Hughes a picture of my long-haired, flop-eared sweetheart who looks nothing like a German shepherd.
"I disagree," says Hughes who singled out Whisk's German shepherdy traits, such as the tan base coat and black overlay. German shepherds come in a long-coated version, she says. Both bearded collies and Rottweilers have dropped ears like Whisk. His broad skull could be rottie.
Looking at his hybrid results, she says: "I'd expect him to be a very intelligent boy." Why, yes.
The third one, Canine Heritage, tests for 106 breeds. It also drew a blank for any primary matches, but on a secondary level: Dalmatian.
"It's at the bottom of the threshold," explains marketing director Ray, calling up Whiskey's results. The spotted breed, made famous by Disney, ranked just a tad above the "In the Mix" findings: German shepherd, Australian shepherd, Norwich terrier and St. Bernard.
"Looking at the findings," says Ray, who never saw Whisk's photo, "I'd guess you have a generic black dog with a white chest spot."
Close enough. That's apparently a common look among the Heinz 57 set. Black is a dominant trait.
So whom to believe?
At the Ontario Veterinary College in Guelph, staff veterinarian Rasa Levstein says a good test must be reproducible and suggests doing all three again. No time for that.
For health purposes, she says it may be useful to know the mutt's breeds, but only if the test is accurate. Otherwise, she warns, an owner would be "barking up the wrong tree."
At the Rosedale Animal Hospital, veterinarian Ian Sandler calls the tests a good option for the curious. but not of much help clinically. Dogs have similar disease patterns depending whether they are small, medium, large or extra-large.
"Knowing specifically whether it's mostly German shepherd or golden retriever wouldn't play a huge role in how the dog is treated," he explains. "It's more of a novelty at this point. In the future, as technology improves, it may help identify the potential for various diseases."
As for Whisk, he remains our noble beast, nary a drop of blueblood in him. But his new nickname is "Aussie."


  1. My dog has a similar colouring and stalky build but a different face than yours. I have been told by many my dog looks Keeshond - did you try that one yet?

    This week someone else told me about the Australian Shepherds. Their coats are wavy like my dog's and they are short & stalky too.

    I had mine diagnosed as German Shepherd too- only because of the colouring. I think they're nuts. Are there German Shepherds with short legs?

    So we are all confused and it only matters because a zillion people we meet ask what kind of dog we have (including groomers, vet offices, dog park people) and it drives us nuts.

  2. Drives me nuts too Rosalie that people have this incessant need to know what breeds are in the makeup of a mix bred dog. It doesn't matter one bit. It really ticks me off when I see adoption agencies ie sheltering or rescue that insist a dog will have propensities based on what they determine to be the dog's breed makeup, based on what "they" see. The worst is when people judge dogs as dangerous based on how they look such as draconian laws like breed banning since there is no such breed as a "pitbull". People have NO IDEA the breed makeup of these short haired mutts but yet people automatically think they are dangerous because of short hair, blocky head, whippy tail or whatever constitutes as a "pitbull" in their mind. The world really is mad when it comes to dogs and old myths and urban legends die hard! I wish people could enjoy, train, contain and socialize all dogs and get over it!

  3. I was thinking about having the test done for my dog (rescued 1 yr ago) just out of curiosity. But after reading about your experience and most importantly the second last paragraph, I've opted not to bother. Your blog was very informative. Thanks for sharing!
    Cheers, Brigitte

  4. I'm thinking of getting my dog tested just because I live in Ontario where there is a breed ban in effect and my dog looks the "type". I was told when I adopted her that she is Bulldog/Shepherd

  5. Well. I'm not sure about all of this. We have a dog whose mom was known to be a yellow lab. The father was probably from one of the Indian Reserves up in northern Canada. What does the test result come back as? Chow Chow, Cocker Spaniel, Great Dane (I could maybe buy that one), Basset Hound and Weimaraner! Mostly breeds you would not see anywhere near the reserve! I think it's all a sham. They really have no idea and it's just a big grab for money. I feel cheated. We had done this before on another dog for whom we didn't know any of the parents. His tests came back with ridiculous results as well! Pomeranian and Borzoi among others. Borzoi? On the Rez? Pul-ease! Most people don't even know what the heck a Borzoi is and it's not like they're very common either! And on the Rez? Really? who would keep a wimpy dog like that loose on the Rez? We figured ok, maybe he's a real Heinz 57 and way back in there, somewhere, somehow ... but on this other dog I'm really shocked. We know the one parent is a lab yet no lab shows up in the results. Very disappointed.

  6. I have a mixed breed dog as well but I know the majority of the mix. Because I know that on the mother's side, my dog is a mix of herding dogs and her dad had a lot of spots - black spots on a grey background but he had more of a great dane build - I have a lot of people ask me if she is a pure breed Australian shepherd or blue merle border collie and sometimes when I advise she is a mutt, I am asked if I am sure. In any event in my research regarding the breeds that I do know she is made up of I have discovered that Australian shepherds are a newer breed that were developed in western north america by mixing heelers (Australian Cattle Dogs) and various types of collies including bearded collies. In reading up on the development of healers, I've read that they were developed in Australia by mixing blue smooth coated collies with other breeds including dalmation and then dingo was added because the resulting mix bit too hard. So I guess all this to say that heelers should technically carry dalmation DNA and Australian shepherds should have heeler DNA, so perhaps the tests aren't that inaccurate. Perhaps the problem is that so many breeds have been developed from other breeds. But I'm glad I read your article because I've often wondered what kind of results would be obtained from the newer breeds that are of mixed origin.

  7. Thank you for this article. I'm also thinking of having my dog's genes clarified, but didn't know which company to trust more. Based on your experience, I'll definitely go with Wisdom Panel Insights. Your dog does look like a shepherd/collie (similar to my parent's dog) with a sort of rottweiler face (the eyebrows and larger nose).

  8. Thanks. My dog is pretty young. Maybe I'll have him done in 5 years or so when the technology is hopefully better. Thought test results would be a cool Christmas present for my husband. Looks like I'll get him that new snowmobile helmet instead. :)

  9. I've had 4 dogs done by Wisdom Panel and I believe each to be correct. They were a bit of a surprise at first glance but as you read the breed specifics things that seemed odd before suddenly 'fit'. I had a snow loving boxer mix with a curled tail - that didn't make sense. Hidden in his boxer 'look' were the Husky genetics (which also curled his tail). I also had a light framed, speed demon German Shepherd mix. Hidden in her GS look was a Greyhound. My English Mastiff (looking) mix was hiding a Rottweiler. My latest dog, looks like a Leonberger, is a Leo knock-off. She has the same foundation stock of a Leo (Saint Bernard, Newfoundland, Great Pyrenees - plus some extra stuff) but NO real Leonbergers were involved. It's very fascinating and informative.

  10. To really test out DNA testing for dogs. There is one other test you should have done. You should have also had a blood DNA test done through your dogs Vets. It's costs a lot. But a blood test would be more accurate then a cheek swab.

  11. I have a Northern Ontario Rez Dog who looks like a mix of husky, german shepherd, and yellow lab. Her DNA test came back: Chow Chow, Corgi, Border Collie. I don't think those tests are remotely accurate on rez dogs!