I adopted Jerry from the Buffalo Animal Shelter in New York in 2015. They listed our spindly, boxy-headed boy as a pit bull terrier mix, but I cared more about his goofy personality, constant need to cuddle, and adorably intelligent head tilt than his genetic background.
But other people never really stop wondering. And until recently, when friends, family, and the people he enthusiastically greets on the street would ask “what is he?” I’d mostly shrug. “He’s a pit mix,” I’d say. Or simply, “he’s from the shelter.”
Hedging my bets makes sense: Most people can guess just one breed present in a mixed-breed dog less than 25 percent of the time, according to veterinary geneticist Angela Hughes, D.V.M., Ph.D., of Wisdom DNA Panel.
But a few weeks ago, I decided to get an answer for all those Nosy Nellies once and for all. I gave Jerry three separate DNA tests which work similarly to the popular 23AndMe tests for people: the Wisdom Panel Health DNA Test, Embark Dog DNA test kit, and a DNA MY Dog test kit. The results were surprising and, as it turns out, far more useful than I’d imagined.
How does dog DNA testing work?
Each test comes in a cardboard box with enclosed cheek swabbing equipment and instructions on how to properly collect your dog’s DNA. Generally, each test recommends swabbing your dog’s cheek for between 20 seconds and a minute before replacing the collection in a test tube and mailing the sample to the lab.
Jerry didn’t love having the swabs in his mouth, but he’s the kind of dog who wouldn’t grab your hand if you stuck it down his throat. If your pup gets mouthy when you touch his face, keep a handful of treats on hand for post-collection, because when all else fails, bribery never does.
Hughes says it’s actually pretty hard not to get a good sample. For accurate results, just make sure your dog doesn't eat or drink or come into contact with other dogs for two hours before the test to prevent cross-contamination.
When the samples arrive at the lab, technicians manually compare the DNA on the cheek swab to those in their database and create a chart of how much of each breed your dog’s DNA matches. The process is complex, but Kari Ekenstedt, D.V.M., Ph.D., an assistant professor and canine genetics specialist at Purdue University did her best to explain.
Take a Labrador, for example. “Basically, the test flags little windows of information along the dog chromosomes and compares your dog to the known Labradors and every other breed that's in the dataset,” Ekenstedt says. “The testing companies need to make sure that their reference database captures all of that variability representing purebred Labrador. ”
Once the lab determines your dog’s breed, and any other information it’s testing for, like gene variants for health conditions, the company generates a report that goes back to the consumer.
Are dog DNA tests accurate?
Representatives from each of the three major dog DNA tests – Wisdom, Embark Dog DNA Test, and DNA My Dog – said their results are 95-99% accurate, with some room for human error and the size of each company’s breed database.
Embark has a database of over 250 dog breeds, Wisdom tests for about 350 breeds, and DNA My Dog looks at about 100 breeds. “The breeds we test for are the most popular breeds we will see,” explains Mindy Tenenbaum, M.Sc Vet Med., of DNA My Dog, which tests for the fewest breeds. “This allows us to keep our test at a reasonable price, offer a fast turnaround and support the majority of testers we work with, including shelter dogs.”
Much to my surprise, Jerry’s results came back as essentially purebred from all three companies.
- Wisdom considered Jerry 100 percent American Staffordshire Terrier.
- Embark called him 100 percent American Pit Bull Terrier.
- DNA My Dog called him 75-100 percent American Staffordshire Terrier and 1-9 percent Mastiff.
If your dog's DNA contains a rare breed that doesn't show up in a company's database, then your results won't reflect that breed. As Ekenstedt puts it, "the accuracy of these tests really rests on the strength of their reference pool." It's unusual that a dog's breed wouldn't show up in any of the major company's databases, but it can happen, especially in pets adopted from outside the United States.
Can dog DNA tests help with obedience training?
“Testing can really help you understand what makes your dog tick,” Hughes explains. “It’s not just their physical characteristics, but their behavior.” Just like their coat and body shape, much of a dogs’ personality comes from breeding. Learning that your dog has some terrier background, for example, may help you learn the source of their high energy and prey drive, and how to harness it when training.
“Different breeds may also react better to some training methods over others, and our results can provide insight into why your dog may behave the way he does in the first place,” Troutman says. “For example, your dog may not look like a Border Collie, but maybe that 15% conferred the herding drive of one!”
What can dog DNA tests tell you about your dog's health?
Each of these companies also offer tests that screen for a dog’s genetic predisposition toward certain medical conditions. Jerry came back all clear for all possible genetic markers, but don’t panic if yours comes back positive. Even if a gene variant – or a change in a gene's typical structure – shows up in your dog’s results, that doesn’t necessarily mean they’ll develop the associated illness, Ekenstedt explains.
Not all gene variants result in a change in how the genes behave, and gene variants behave differently in each breed, so you can’t predict how they will affect your individual dog. If your dog’s disease panel results show they have a gene variant, the experts recommend talking to your vet to determine the best course of action. Each of the major testing companies also have experts on staff who can help interpret your results.
How long does it take to receive dog DNA results?
Processing times vary but expect to have your results back within about six weeks, regardless of which company you choose. My Embark results came back about six weeks after I mailed it in. Wisdom took about four weeks, and DNA My Dog came back in about two weeks. Each company’s processing time was right in line with their predictions, and you can check online if you’re feeling antsy.
How much does dog DNA testing cost?
Anywhere from $69-$200.
- Wisdom Panel DNA tests start at $84.99, or $149.99 for the added disease detection.
- Embark tests cost $199 and include health screening.
- DNA My Dog breed identification costs $68.99, and a test plus a full health screening costs $188.99. A test that only screens for health but not breeds costs $139.99.
Which dog DNA test is best?
While none of the brands are unequivocally better than the others, each carries its own benefits. Wisdom has the most breeds in its database – 350, at press time – so the chances you'll find your dog's unique blend is technically highest with this test. Embark has the most robust online portal, including the option to connect with your dog's relatives. If both parties opt in, you can even set up playdates with your dog's long-lost cousins. And for the budget-conscious, DNA My Dog comes in at the lowest price point and processes results significantly faster, at about two weeks instead of four to six.
These are the best dog DNA tests of 2019:
Testers can choose between breed only or breed and health information, at two different price points. That's handy for those who'd like to satisfy their curiosity without shelling out for the health test. The clear, easy-to-use test kit comes with two bristled swabs for reliable collection, but the toothbrush-like swabs did irritate Jerry's mouth more than the cotton-tipped swabs the other two companies provided.
While it's a little pricier than the other two, Embark also has the most interactive online portal with some nifty social tools. It only provides one cotton-tipped testing swab, but the instructions were clear and easy to follow, and the swabs were gentler than Wisdom's bristles. Plus, more than 250 breeds in their database gives you plenty of chances of finding out your dog's heritage.
DNA MY DOG
DNA My Dog is a great, no-frills option. It provided two, cotton-tipped swabs and an envelope for mailing them back, but note that postage is not included. While there wasn't a fancy interactive online portal at press time, DNA My Dog does mail customers a cute certificate with your dog's photo on it, if you want a keepsake printout for the fridge. Because they have the fewest breeds in their database at about 100, there's also a chance your dog will contain breeds DNA My Dog doesn't test for.
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