“So, what is she?”
When you own a mutt, it’s the first thing everyone asks.
My husband and I adopted Addie in April, after having lost our 16-year-old dog the summer before. The local rescue group Paws and Prayers had saved Addie from a hoarder’s house in southern Ohio, and their best guess was that she was a beagle and Shetland sheepdog mix.
As Marc and I got to know her and more people met her, figuring out her heritage turned into a bit of a parlor game. She’s clever and determined, so maybe some border collie? Her face resembles a dachshund’s, her coloring a Cavalier King Charles spaniel’s. She violently shakes toys like a terrier.
For generations, such guesswork was all a mutt owner could do. But now, in a pet-obsessed world in which people are willing to pay for luxuries, you can do a DNA test on your dog and put all that speculation to rest.
After reading reviews and comparisons, we chose the Wisdom Panel 4.0 test, which costs $85 and says it indexes more than 350 breeds and types. It also screens for two inherited disorders, drug sensitivity and exercise-induced collapse.
Collecting the samples presented a couple of challenges. We kept trying to time it for when she’d be tired and maybe more compliant. Also, you had to wait at least four hours after the dog ate, and we are a couple of pushovers who had a difficult time going that long without tossing her a tasty morsel of some kind.
Finally there was a moment she was sleeping on the couch after an exhausting session of doggy day care, and we seized the opportunity. Fifteen seconds feels like an eternity when you’re sticking a pipe-cleaner-sized brush between the cheek and gums of a squirmy dog and twirling it around to get a sample of cells.
Addie, no dummy, did not enjoy the first attempt and when she saw me coming with the second brush, she immediately buried her snoot between the couch cushions. But after a couple of WWE maneuvers, we had our samples and packed them off to the lab.
What tests can do
While it seems lots of humans are having their DNA decoded, Dr. Steven Hicks of Akron-Medina Veterinary Hospital in Sharon Township hasn’t seen that kind of demand for canine tests.
“It hasn’t really taken off yet. If they get to be more accurate and more helpful with the medicine side of things, you’ll see us recommend them more,” he said.
He called the breed testing “pretty darn accurate.” “They follow down several generations and everything I’ve seen on them makes sense. It makes it kind of fun that there’s some poodle in this dog and it looks nothing like a poodle.”
When it comes to detecting genetic conditions, though, Hicks is more cautious. The Wisdom Panel test offers a report on more than 150 conditions for an additional $65, but he said those results are mostly predictions based on the hereditary problems common to the breeds in your dog’s family tree.
With a mutt, those faulty genes tend to become diluted. And having a certain gene doesn't necessarily mean the dog will or won't develop a disease. “We’ll see genetic problems in mixed-breed dogs, but is it because of the breed, or were they going to get it anyway?” Hicks said.
Eventually, as the databases expand and technology improves, that kind of information may become more reliable, but at this point it would not influence the way he treats a dog medically: “We’re not quite there yet where we can do a test on a 6-month-old dog and say it will throw off this trait to its offspring,” he said.
“Most of the time, it’s just out of curiosity. People really want to know what’s in this dog and there’s nothing wrong with that.”
The results are in
One of those tiny, drooly brushes must have picked up enough cells for analysis, because we got an email a few weeks later saying the results were ready. We waited until Christmas to open our surprise.
It turns out the rescue group was 62.5 percent right. According to the most likely scenario, Addie had two purebred beagle grandparents, and one grandparent that was half beagle and half “breed groups” — basically, a random mix that current technology can’t sort out any further.
Her other grandparent was half mixed and half Havanese, a toy breed from Cuba that has been growing in popularity, currently ranking No. 23 of nearly 200 breeds on the American Kennel Club’s list. (The AKC says Ernest Hemingway owned Havanese dogs; appropriately, a picture of Papa hangs over Marc’s desk, which Addie likes to lie underneath.)
Among the “breed groups” that make up 25 percent of her genetics, the most likely suspects are sporting, hound, mountain (Newfoundland, Bernese mountain dog) and sight hound (whippet, Italian greyhound).
Besides breeds, the test also runs down some physical characteristics suggested by her genetic profile. We did not send a picture with the test, but the report accurately described her size, the coloring and texture of her coat (she has genes for curly fur, and while hers isn’t very long, it has a pronounced wave where it’s thickest). It also correctly predicted she has long legs, a black nose and short facial hair.
Knowing a dog’s genetic makeup may help predict behavior, but it’s not foolproof. Beagles are notoriously enthusiastic vocalizers, but Addie is quiet, barking only when she’s overexcited with a playmate, or when she’s lonely. She is also given to elaborate, multisyllabic moans when she stretches or we try to rouse her from a snooze, which she may have learned from her human dad.
But she definitely has the beagle obsession with scent. Our morning walks are more walk-and-drags, as she tries to conduct a detailed olfactory examination of 2½ miles of sidewalks, yards and trees, an inch at a time.
And about that loneliness: She suffered from separation anxiety for the first several months, barking and crying and flinging herself dramatically around her crate, chewing a couple of beds to pieces. According to several sources, Havanese are well-known “Velcro dogs” who grow deeply attached to their owners and hate to be left alone.
(That situation improved when she established a perch on top of my grandmother’s antique cedar chest, where she now waits contentedly, her chin on the windowsill, watching for us to come home. We had a fleece cover custom-made to protect the chest, and added a cozy bed. Did I mention we’re pushovers?)
Marc and I have always said we wished our dogs could talk, just for five minutes, so we could ask why they do the things they do. Especially with rescue animals whose early lives are a mystery, the question is always whether their behavior is genetically influenced or the result of something that happened in their past.
Dogs, just like people, have unique personalities, quirks and habits. Is Addie quieter than your average beagle because of the other breeds mixed in, or because she was punished as a pup for barking? Is she clingy because it’s in her Havanese genes, or because she lived in a hoarder’s house with six other dogs and had never been alone before?
What makes them who they are, nature or nurture?
There’ll never be a test for that.
Lynne Sherwin can be reached at 330-996-3856 or firstname.lastname@example.org.