SAN FRANCISCO (KPIX 5) — Weighing 65 pounds with long, reddish hair, KPIX 5 reporter Wilson Walker’s pet dog Oliver is one striking animal. He is also pretty hard to pin a breed on. That’s a question that often faces people who adopt a dog. Just what, exactly, have you adopted?
Walker decided to learn more about the dog he brought home from the shelter, with three commercially available DNA tests.
First up was Wisdom Panel, a popular, middle-price-point DNA test. Oliver was swabbed, the test was mailed off, and a few weeks later the first results arrived.
According to Wisdom Panel, Oliver is 50 percent “mixed breed groups” and equal 12.5 percent servings of American Staffordshire Terrier (Pit Bull), Australian Cattle Dog, German Shepherd and Chow.
Up next was a test for DNA My Dog, which brands itself as the affordable test option. This time, the result was 20 to 36 percent border collie and 20 to 36 percent poodle with some Brittany and English Setter.
Finally there was Embark, the most expensive test, but it’s also the most robust. It came with more in-depth results and also screens for a list of genetic diseases.
Once again, American Staffordshire Terrier, along with Australian Cattle Dog, German Shepherd, Australian Shepherd, Shar Pei, Cocker Spaniel and a dash of Collie.
Where do these answers come from? KPIX 5 talked to a representative for one of the companies to find out.
“My PhD is in epigenetics, molecular genetics,” said Erin Chu, senior geneticist for Embark. She said they’re basically taking strings of dog DNA and looking for patterns.
“Then we can actually start looking at those long blocks,” said Chu, “And we can define, is this block of sequence, these string of snips, are they unique to a breed?”
Then, by looking at how broken up those snips have become with each generation; they calculate where in your dog’s lineage they might have encountered a specific breed.
“Most of the time we can give you the most likely way his genetics were inherited,” explained Chu.
There are still, however, some dog experts who like to identify dogs the old fashioned way.
“I’m a dog geneticist, I’ve been doing dog genetics research for 20 years,” said Danika Bannasch of UC Davis Veterinary School. “I look at their coat colors, their morphologic traits, their overall size, relative proportion of their legs to their back length their head shape, ears & tail.”
So what about Oliver?
“Based on his size, and what you’ve told me about his behavior, I’d say he’s got some herding breeds, maybe some larger retrievers,” said Bannasch.
Brannasch offered her thoughts on the DNA tests.
“From the standpoint of the disease testing, they’re very certain,” explains Bannasch. But she was cynical when it came to breed determination.
“I am a skeptic. I’m a scientist I want to see publications that show how good they are at detecting at the grandparent level what the dogs are,” said Brannasch.
“No scientist would say, ‘Yes, it’s right. I bet my teeth on it,’” said Chu. “But if you’ve got test replications, and there’s a common breed, then you’re probably right.”
Looking again, the tests really did hit on some similar patterns, so Oliver very well may have some Pit Bull in him, even if it doesn’t really show his appearance like his possible herding ancestry.
The other thing to keep in mind is that all of these tests use their own reference panels and databases, so they’re going to produce different results. In other words, there isn’t necessarily a ‘right’ answer, especially for dogs that don’t have pure-breeds in their immediate ancestry.
However, the tests are getting better and teaching pet owners more about dogs. For example, researchers may find which specific DNA code needs to be passed down, intact, for a mixed-up descendant like Oliver to retain that herding instinct.
“Mixed breed dogs are going to help us answer those questions,” said Chu.