When my husband and I decided we were ready to adopt a pet, we knew we wanted a dog. But we needed a dog that would be happy in our 600-sq foot apartment and that could lead a happy life despite being left alone 8 hours a day, 5 days a week.
We set out looking for a breed of dog not known as high-energy. Armed with the basic knowledge that many breeds share common personality and behavioral traits, we knew we wouldn’t be going home with a terrier, a herder, or a working dog, for example.
We took a 4-year-old, 43 pound, Beagle Mix home the same day we met him and named him Nashville (Nash for short), choosing to ignore the fact that the volunteers at the shelter told us they were pretty sure Nash was Beagle/Border Collie Mix.
Our suspicion that our new four-legged family member didn’t have an inkling of the highly active, intelligent Herding Group breed in him was proven correct, and quickly. Nashville was a couch potato from the beginning.
While prone to playfulness it was only when we said words like “treat”, “toy” or “walk”. Otherwise, he mostly acted like a cat: Independent and a lover of naps.
So while Border Collie was disputable, the Beagle was not. It wasn’t just his personality, but also his physical characteristics. Floppy ears, a baying, throaty howl, and a tail that looked as though it had been dipped, perfectly in a can of white paint: All signs pointed to Beagle.
Yet we continued to ponder the part of our furry friend that wasn’t Beagle. What exactly was the ‘Mix’ of him, if not Collie? Where did he get his dark-colored tongue, his double-coat, his love for the snow, that incredibly mild, gentle disposition?
After a year of owning Nashville, our gnawing curiosity remained. And so with the few clicks of a button, we purchased a dog DNA test kit online through the company Embark and a little over 3 weeks later, received an email that revealed some surprising (and validating) results.
What Is DNA Testing For Dogs?
In 2003, a canine genome, the entire sequence of genetic makeup, was published for the first time.
This feat in genetic and animal science was key in better understanding one of the most genetically varied animals on the planet, but it didn’t take long for it to be capitalized on.
In 2009, Mars Petcare, a leading dog DNA tester in the current market, discovered a way to test canine DNA with saliva instead of having to draw blood.
This discovery would act as a catalyst in what we see now in the billion-dollar-a-year pet industry: A market with several canine DNA testing providers to choose from.
During this technological age, you can easily shop and compare several canine DNA testing options before you make your purchase.
Once you receive the test kit, a few easy steps are followed before you’re on your way to discovering exciting new details about your pet!
- You’ll receive your kit within the standard 5-10 business days unless you select expedited shipping or have an Amazon Prime account. Informative pamphlets as well as swabs and mailing materials are all included in this initial box.
- Follow instructions to swab the inside of your dog’s cheek.
- Using the mailing materials and shipping label provided, mail the samples from your dog back to the canine genetics lab.
- Once in their lab, geneticists utilize an array of resources, tools and knowledge to process, study and analyze the DNA on the cotton swab you’ve sent in.
- You receive results within as little as 2-4 weeks (the standard waiting period that leading providers advertise).
Where Do I Get The DNA Test For My Dog?
You can find DNA test kits for your dog through major online shopping platforms, such as Amazon.
Many of these test kits are also available on Chewy, a one-stop online shop for pet owners that offers everything from medications, food, treats, toys and more to ship straight to your doorstep.
All testing providers have websites where you can purchase directly from them and some of them offer competitive pricing.
What Should I Consider While Shopping for a Dog DNA Test?
Within the competitive market, each testing provider is doing its best to compete for your dollar.
When hunting for a DNA test kit for our Beagle Mix, Nashville, we were both pleasantly surprised and slightly overwhelmed that we had so many options.
The following leading brands are likely to show up during your shopping:
So here are a few things to consider when choosing your DNA test kit provider.
Cost of Kit
For a DNA test kit prices typically range from $80 – $200. Many testing providers will run discounts & specials around the end of year, as people gift-shop for the holiday season.
So if the prices seem steep to you, wait until the months of November and December to take advantage of cost reductions.
(This is what my family opted to do.) You can also shop and compare pricing between different online shopping platforms such as Amazon and Chewy where the forerunners of the canine DNA testing market are all available.
Best Price – DNA My Dog: If lower price point is what’s most important to you, then DNA My Dog would be a good option. At $70 and free shipping, this brand is the most budget-friendly while maintaining quality results. Plus, they guarantee you’ll get your dog’s results back within 2 weeks!
Features of the Product
Something that was important to my family when shopping for a DNA kit for Nashville was what unique features we would be offered. We loved the idea that Embark offered a social-media-esque platform to their website so that we could connect with other pet-owners online.
Thus far, we’ve found four relatives of Nashville’s through Embark (3 that are the equivalent to cousins and one that’s the equivalent to an aunt). We’ve directly messaged these owners and have a lot of fun trading stories about our dogs.
Most Unique Features – Embark: By utilizing their website as not just a landing pad to learn more about their company and purchase products from them, Embark gives their customers a unique online space to explore their dog’s DNA as well as interact with other dog-owners.
The many outlets Embark offers to cultivate an online community are both informative and entertaining.
For example, you can also share your pet’s results with others with a couple simple clicks by Facebook or email. There’s also an Embark Dog DNA Discussion Facebook group.
Credentials of the Company
Obviously, you want your dog’s DNA test results to be as accurate as possible and for the company handling their DNA to be using it responsibly.
When shopping for a dog DNA test kit, consider who a company has aligned themselves with, who endorses them, and how their research is conducted. Since being in the game since 2005, Wisdom Panel touts some pretty impressive credentials.
And while the top three leading DNA test providers (DNA My Dog, Embark, Wisdom Panel) all assure a 95-99% accurate result for all customers, Wisdom Panel is affiliated with some impressive entities of the genetic research world.
Best Credentials – Wisdom Panel: With their canine DNA tested and analyzed at one of the nation’s leading animal genomics testing facilities, Wisdom Panel has some pretty impressive qualities.
It’s also the only canine genetics company that can boast such a sizable database, with 350+ breeds in their database.
(To put that in perspective, Embark’s database is 250+). Plus with a patented algorithm, Wisdom Panel may very well offer the “most” accurate reading of your pet’s DNA.
(But more on accuracy later). If anything, you may choose to judge these companies based on their experience, and in that regard, Wisdom Panel has seniority by far.
Should I Upgrade to Include the Health Panel for My Dog?
Many of these providers offer the option to upgrade. There’s the standard DNA test kit for dogs which offers a basic explanation of breed makeup and ancestry.
This option is typically $30-$50 cheaper than a “full” package which would include – in addition to breed makeup and family lineage – an analysis of the dog’s health.
This doesn’t necessarily mean it shows you if your dog is healthy or unhealthy.
It’s much less black-and-white. It shows you, based on your pet’s breed, which diseases or underlying health issues the dog may be prone or susceptible to. It would also have the ability to tell a pet-owner if their pet is carrying a genetic disorder that could be passed down if they have puppies.
Many experts in the animal care, breeding, and training communities say there’s less reason to shell out extra cash for the genetic health analysis if you own a highly mixed breed, as they’re a lot less likely to have health conditions.
(Purebreds, on the other hand, may be riddled with underlying issues due to their lack of genetic variation.)
However, most dog DNA test providers offer the ability to upgrade at a later time, should you decide to so it’s no pressure to purchase right away.
Are DNA Tests For Dogs Accurate?
The short answer is no, not completely. But since it’s not a wholly “yes” or “no” response, let’s break this down.
The first thing both practiced veterinarians and canine geneticists want you to know about accuracy is that these DNA tests are mostly illuminating probability not resolute truth.
If pet-owners can frame their dog’s results with this cautionary advice, then it is safer to regard the results as “accurate” in the form of probability.
Many investigative consumers, as well as academic communities, have taken it upon themselves to test accuracy by sending the same dog DNA into multiple testing centers and comparing the results. What’s founded, time and time again is that the results vary. How does this happen?
The level of accuracy can depend on how mixed your dog is as well as the specific breeds it’s mixed with. The less “pure” blooded the dog, the more muddled results have the ability and tendency to be.
This is because, the centuries-long lineage of multiple, differing breeds causes more genetic variation and thus more conceivable work to uncover all truths. Add in the fact that some of a dog’s ancestors (and, in fact, more probably, all) were also mutts – the full understanding of pedigree is even murkier.
A lot of this has to do with the database sizes of each individual canine genetics company. We discussed earlier that the Wisdom Panel brand touts 350+ breed references in their database while others lag about 100 reference points behind.
This means that if your dog so happened to share DNA with a breed sample that is rare, that perhaps Wisdom Panel has access to but the geneticists at Embark or DNA My Dog do not, and you choose to not test your dog’s DNA using Wisdom Panel – then your results may lack truth, or accuracy because they’ll be missing that percentage from that rare canine breed.
Lack of Regulation
The FDA regulates popular direct-to-buyer DNA tests for humans, but not for canines. In any market, a lack of regulation is disapproving at the least and dangerous at its worst. This is one fact that many experts point to as a negative aspect in dog DNA testing.
However, there are organizations that are actively working to combat this issue. Many testing providers, including Embark, DNA My Dog, and Wisdom Panel, have the awareness to “team” up with these organizations.
There are organizations in place that are taking it upon themselves to act as regulator, such as:
- International Partnership for Dogs (IPFD) initiated the Harmonization of Genetic Testing for Dogs (HGTD) initiative whose mission statement consists of “Improve standardization of, and access to, robust genetic testing to support health improvements and a sustainable future for healthy dogs.” (Embark, Wisdom Panel, and DNA My Dog are all transparently acting under the IPFD).
To better understand the level of accuracy, perhaps we should take a look at the process.
How Does DNA Testing For Dogs Work?
While the exact steps, their chronological order, and the resources used by leading providers are likely to differ, all are likely to follow a similar process.
Utilization of Dog’s Sample
A sample from your pet’s DNA sequence is taken from the saliva swab you send in.
Specific genes, commonly referred to as “markers”, from that small sample are then analyzed by performing Polymerase Chain Reaction, or PCR, which takes a small sample of genetic markers and repeats the sequence, artificially creating a much larger sample so that analysis can occur.
You can think of your pet’s DNA as a very large, long book full of millions, billions of letters which make up words, which make up sentences, which make up a complete structure of text in its own, unique language.
Geneticists are fluent in this language. To keep with this analogy, only a small portion (a sentence, a paragraph) of this epic book is interpreted at dog DNA testing centers.
That sentence is found, taken, and then multiplied by a million to create a much larger sample so that the scientists can better study your pet’s DNA.
Analysis of Dog’s Sample
Lasers then help the team of scientists locate A, T, C, or G markers. Once this unique marker is found, it is then compared to the hundreds to thousands of genetic samples within the company’s referential database.
Through a process of elimination, a computer systematically searches for and finds all sequences from the sample library that match your pet’s (or at least those that most closely match).
To accurately weigh hundreds and thousands of options, the computer then records a type of grade to each sample that it considers a “match”. (This works in the way that you would assume: A higher grade means a more probable match, the highest grade means the match.
Conclusions Drawn Based on Sample
This multi-step process relies on both technology and the accurate reading of resulting data from geneticists.
This is where leading provider’s accuracy percentages (95%-99% accurate) take human error into account. Additionally, the high bacteria count in dog’s saliva and the fact that it’s mailed in can contribute to a less-than quality DNA sample.
With all of this taken into account, geneticists at these dog DNA testing labs, focus on high probabilities found in the data formulated by unique computer systems and algorithms rather than claiming their percentage results as wholly accurate..
How To Responsibly Respond to Your Dog’s Results
While dog DNA results should not be considered as 100% accurate, there’s a correct way to respond, appreciate, and utilize your furry friend’s results.
If not treated as resounding truth, dog DNA tests serve as an insightful guide, one that could help you better understand your pet (it may even help you train them more effectively, some experts say). At the very least, it will satiate your curiosity.
Many leading experts both in the scientific and veterinarian communities highly suggest thinking of your dog’s DNA results as entertaining insights into your dog’s probable ancestry and genetic makeup.
These suggestive looks at what’s likely attributing to your dog’s behavior & appearance are, after all, based on an incredibly small sample.
What’s more, academic resources and, what’s known as, a “reference population” are typically the only resources that inform the results of the DNA test.
That means that if a dog with the exact or very similar breed makeup as yours isn’t in a company’s reference population, then your dog’s DNA isn’t actually being matched to its, for lack of a better term, equal.
Essentially, your pet’s genetic markers would ultimately line up with the next-best that exists within the company’s database.
If you want to get the most accurate interpretation, experts recommend looking at your pet’s DNA results not as exact percentages (although they are presented this way) but more as broad categories.
For example, let’s say your faithful pooch comes back with 29% Greyhound. For one thing, it may not be that exactly 29% of your dog’s genetic makeup is attributed to the Greyhound breed specifically.
What it could mean is that your dog has a similar genetic makeup to dogs considered part of the Hound Group, as most canines put in this category are likely to share similar DNA.
more likely DNA than say, if you were to compare a Chihuahua to a Great Dane or even a Border Collie (Herding Group) to a Bull Terrier (Terrier Group).
My Personal Experience with Embark
With a better understanding of dog DNA testing, how it works, and how to get the best interpretation of his breed results, my husband and I anxiously waited for Nashville’s results. Within a little under 3 weeks time, we received an email.
Not only did we have a concisely compiled set of results broken down in words we could understand, Embark creates a unique flash video for every dog.
Ours walked us through Nashville’s unique makeup, marking percentages of each breed as well as traits of some of the breeds. The ultimate reveal of the video is when the affectionate term “SuperMutt” flashes across the screen.
(“SuperMutt” is Embark’s savvy way of telling pet-owners your dog is so mixed, there’s some percentage of your dog we couldn’t even completely figure out.)
For one thing, my theory that Nashville had 0% Border Collie and at least some percentage of Pit Bull was proven correct. If interested, here are Nashville’s full results listed below:
[Screenshot of results here]
Since testing Nashville, I genuinely feel closer to him. I’ll never know what he looked like as a puppy, where home was for him in the early years of his life, but at least I know his breed makeup and ancestry.
Plus, Embark has connected us to Nashville’s relatives. A feature made possible by Embark’s ability to analyze results of the thousands of other pet-owners who chose them as their DNA test kit provider.
Embark’s website also offers the ability to set up a “profile” for your dog by uploading photos and writing a bio for them. Here’s a peek of the interface you’ll have for your dog should you choose to test their DNA with Embark:
[Screenshots of Dog DNA Profile on Embark]
It acts as a social media platform for dogs in a way, a claim that’s made more real by the fact that you can directly message other owner’s on the site as well.
Embark connects you to other dogs in the database by showing you curated lists based on dogs that share the most DNA with your pet (relatives) as well as dogs that may not share lineage but have the same or similar breed makeups.
(Other Beagle/Pit Bull/Chow Chow/Cocker Spaniel mixes on Embark varied widely in their appearance, truly showing that mutts’ appearances vary widely.)
Ultimately, what we discovered is that your dog is one-of-a-kind. We choose not so much to utilize his results as we do to help us feel like we know a little bit more about our canine companion.
[Screenshot of Embark’s ‘Relatives’ and ‘Similar Breed Makeup’ Features]