Some dogs come with AKC papers, and their heritage is crystal clear in their looks. Others may come from pet stores and have AKC papers, but their looks may be deceiving — was there a slip-up at the puppy mill? And many wonderful people adopt their dogs from rescues or animal shelters. Still others may find stray or abandoned dogs in the street and keep them. Another dog may clearly be a German shepherd mix or a beagle mix. Others might have a bully look. Some have hound-like long, silky ears. And another might be touted as a malitpoo, a goldendoodle or a labradoodle — in reality, all adorable mutts. But science says that trying to determine a dog’s breed from its looks is not only unscientific, but most of the time leads to incorrect guesses.
Studies have shown that when shelter workers guess a dog’s breed, they are often wrong. And in shelters where bully breeds are subject to BSL, or breed specific legislation, that can literally kill a dog. There is only one way to definitively find out who Fido’s ancestors were — using Fido’s DNA to trace his or her lineage.
To find out, scientifically, what a dog’s ancestry is, it’s quite simple to purchase a DNA testing kit online, and with a simple swab, Fido’s parents, grandparents, and great grandparents’ breeds are revealed.
My last rescue dog was a mystery. Lexi came from Redland, Florida, and no one could quite figure out what breeds of dog made up her heritage. 25-pound Lexi has a big, barrel-shaped body, a small, shepherd-shaped head, short legs, and the coloring of a Rottweiler. Hence, she was one rather small-sized mystery dog.
For fun, my husband and I decided to do a DNA test on her to see what her background was. We picked the Wisdom DNA Test from Amazon because it seemed reasonable at $75.00. The process was easy. They sent the kit in a small box. The two brushes get scraped on the inside cheek of the dog, are left standing upright to dry for a few minutes, and then sealed in the return envelope and mailed back to them.
Less than three weeks later, we got the results. According to the Wisdom Panel results, one of Lexi’s parents was a Staffordshire terrier (pit bull) and on the other side, she is one-quarter mixed breed and one-quarter shepherd/chow chow mix. Wisdom also provided additional information based on her breeds, including a guess regarding her weight. They thought she would weigh 45 – 70 pounds. They also provide information about the breeds which make up the dog’s ancestry.
There are also DNA tests available from other companies. When Embark contacted me about their doggy DNA test, I was intrigued. If Embark analyzed Lexi’s DNA, would it match what Wisdom Panel had sent? What if the results were totally different? I agreed to try out their DNA test on Lexi, and they suggested that I also run a test on Chloe.
Chloe is another rescue dog, but she was rescued from China. Several years ago, I flew to China to bring Chloe and a puppy back to the USA and to safety. The puppy was adopted; Chloe was not. She was fearful and needed multiple surgeries. She was basically unadoptable. Over the years, she has mellowed and become quite sweet and affectionate. We had always assumed, based on her looks and where she is from, that she was a Shiba Inu mix.
When Embark sends the package with the testing kit, it’s obvious immediately that this is a special product. It’s than the Wisdom kit. When you open the box, the first thing you see is a lovely metal medallion. On one side it has the word Embark and the company logo. On the other side is a QR code (barcode) and a URL. That code or URL connects with the dog’s story and public Embark profile. If the dog becomes lost and doesn’t have any other identification, the finder can call or email Embark and find the owner. Obviously, an identification tag you can read is much more efficient, but it’s interesting that the Embark tag could do this.
The methodology for obtaining the DNA samples differ. While Wisdom’s method is to send two brushes that are swabbed inside the dog’s cheek and then left to air dry for several minutes before being placed in envelopes and mailed to the company, Embark sends a brush that comes inside a vial with liquid. The method for obtaining the material for the DNA is the same, swabbing the inside of the cheek. But with Embark, once the sample is obtained, the brush is placed in the vial, the vial is shaken, and then it’s sent back to Embark in the pre-addressed envelope. The instructions are a bit confusing because while in one place the consumer is told to shake the vial for 15 seconds, in another place the instructions seem to indicate that the vial should be shaken 10 times. However it’s simple to share for at least ten times which takes about 15 seconds.
Once the samples are sent in, there is another difference in the process with the two companies. Lexi’s results were available from the Wisdom Panel in two weeks, and their website says most DNA results are done within 2 – 3 weeks. Their website clearly shares with customers the progress that the company is making on testing the sample.
Embark’s process takes much longer. For example, Lexi and Chloe’s saliva samples were received at Embark on May 15th (they send an email to confirm that). On June 19th, Embark sent an email that the genotyping had been finished for the samples. They explained that,
“After the genotyping process, Embark’s genomicists receive the information for the 200,000+ markers in Chloe’s DNA. What remains is a very complicated and time-intensive process of computational analysis to convert the lab readings into specific genotypes and insights for Chloe. In simpler terms, our resident nerds are making progress!
Some of these analytical steps can run for several days, even on the fastest computers. This process typically takes two to four weeks, but in some cases where a dog has especially complicated genetics it can take a little longer to complete, as we check and double-check every result.
On June 22nd, Lexi’s breed results were available. Chloe’s breed results took longer because she is not a mix of AKC breeds. On July 3rd, Embark sent another update saying, “Some dogs with particularly complicated genetics may take longer to complete.” Her complete results were ready on July 6th.
Was the extra wait worth it? Below are the breed results from Lexi — Wisdom’s results on top and Embark’s below.
My concern about completely different results was not valid. The two companies returned remarkably similar results. Lexi is definitely 50% Staffordshire terrier. We believe that this has contributed to her extremely gentle and loving nature. While all my dogs tolerate my grandson, Lexi hovers constantly, licking any available body part. She adores our cats and wants to mother them. She is completely loyal in spite of a horrible puppyhood (embedded harness, one litter before the age of one, and found homeless in the Everglades).
Both companies agree that Lexi has mixed breed, chow chow and shepherd ancestry. The percentages are slightly different, and Embark’s percentages appear to be more accurate. While Wisdom wants to keep the fractions even (1/4 and 1/8), Embark’s percentage of each breed seemed more exacting. They also noted that Lexi has 4.9% collie DNA, and guessed that golden retriever and shih tzu breeds might make up distant ancestors in her “mixed” ancestry.
Chloe’s results from Embark were very impressive. According to their results, she is 100% East Asian Village dog. That means, according to Embark, that her ancestors were not from any breeds as we know them. “Village dogs are the free-breeding, free-roaming “outside” dogs found around the world living in and around human settlements big and small. They are also known as island dogs, pariah dogs, or free-ranging dogs.” Embark’s website states that:
Embark’s founders have studied village dogs on six continents since 2007 in their efforts to understand the history, traits, and health of the domestic dog. Through this work they have discovered the origins of the dog in Central Asia, and also identified genetic regions involved in domestication and local adaptation, such as the high altitude adaptation in Himalayan dogs. Embark is the only dog DNA test that includes diverse village dogs from around the world in its breed reference panel.
Amber, a customer service representative from Wisdom agreed. “We caution against testing dogs from other countries like China because foreign dogs are not in our data base.”
Ryan Boyko, Embark’s CEO and Founder, explained how Chloe might look like a Shiba Inu but not really have any Shiba Inu DNA:
What Embark does is break down the genome of each dog into thousands of “barcodes,” and it looks for which breed (if any) each barcode goes to. The barcodes in Chloe don’t match those of any breeds in any real way (she has <0.1% of the matching barcodes observed in Shiba Inu… if she were part Shiba Inu she would have much, much more matching). This is not surprising at all because East Asian village dogs are among the most diverse dogs in the world…. they contain lots of genetic variation (and thus barcodes) that aren’t found anywhere else. We do often find people with village dogs that have a lot of matching with one or more breeds (true mixes), but very often we have dogs like Chloe that aren’t mixes but instead are true indigenous dogs. In that case, we compare the dog’s genome to our extensive reference panel of village dogs from around the world to determine which corner of the planet the dog most likely came from. Hope this explains the process behind the work we do at Embark!
So which DNA test is the right test for consumers? For someone who just wants to know what their dog “is” in terms of parents and grandparents, the Wisdom test is relatively economical and will provide that information. For under $70, the Wisdom Panel 3.0 is available online. It will give ancestry and test for MDR1 (drug sensitivity). For an additional cost, the 4.0 will also test for exercise-induced collapse. It costs around $85 and is available directly from the Wisdom website. If someone wants breed information and disease screening (over 140 diseases), they need to go to their veterinarian for Wisdom’s Banfield Canine Genetic Analysis, or the Royal Canin Genetic Health Analysis. It takes a blood draw and is done by Banfield vets or any vets who carry Royal Canin products. That test has breed and disease information, takes between two to three weeks, and costs around $110. It’s not clear if that cost includes the cost of the blood draw.
Embark’s process for breed and disease screening involves a saliva sample without having to draw blood. Embark’s test costs around $180 and is available online. It tests for 160 genetic diseases. Embark’s results also seem to be slightly more accurate than Wisdom in terms of how deeply they give insight into a dog’s heredity. None of the information provided by Wisdom was incorrect, it’s just that Embark’s results gave more specific information including Lexi having some collie DNA, and they were able to provide results for Chloe from China. Embark is the obvious choice for dogs from other countries.
No matter which test you choose, it’s exciting to find out a dog’s lineage. It’s fun to guess which doggy traits match different breeds.