How to Genetically Identify Your Best Friend

genetic id dogs

Welcome, all recent transplants and Chicagoans with failing memories, to the February dungeon of the Midwest Winter, when the cold and dark seem again unparalleled and again force us into investigation of television shows that we never otherwise would watch (The Rockford Files and Room 222 seem amazing to me right now). It’s also the time of year when the pounds of fur and warm pet bodies we collect on the couch can help cancel out the poorly insulated Chicago apartment windows we swear we will re-insulate next year. 

It is with this background I want to bring up an odd but interesting topic that everyone seemingly has an opinion about, based on something that their aunt’s friend told them at a wedding. The topic is genetic identification of your dog’s breed-specific ancestry. For the sake of ease, this conversation will have to be limited to dogs. My cats forgive me, so you should as well.

The idea behind the genetic tests to identify dog breeds is somewhat contingent on the idea that science is real (it’s been debated by some) and specifically the work of superstar canine geneticist Elaine Ostrander and the National Human Genome Research Institute (NHGRI) Dog Genome Project, which mapped out the entire dog genome about a decade ago.

For the sake of this blog, I will not entertain the idea of teaching those who care about genetic biology, but I want to address a few things as it would relate to you and your dog and the benefits of knowing which breeds your mutt or “pure-bred” descends from. 

  1.  Again, this is real. There are many who swear this is not real. I think the most common statement goes something like, “I know my dog is a pure-bred Dalmatian. I did the genetic test and it came back as 50% German shepherd. Thus I have concluded that they’re faking the results or they’re wrong.” Or more commonly, “Seriously, look at my dog. There is no way that she could be a dachshund, because she is 50 pounds.” I totally get it, and I get that we are invested in a mythology about our dogs and who they are and where they came from, but the main source of our genetic checking comes from a substantial database of identifiable dog breeds. The Mars DNA Wisdom Panel identifies more than 250 types of breeds. Lots of research has shown that veterinary and animal professionals (including breeders, veterinarians, and the person from whom you buy your dog food at the store), are correct in identifying dogs with mixed ancestry about 25% of the time. This means that we are less than guessing (non-technical). There are lots of questions you can read and videos you can watch here.
  2. Knowing more about your dog breed can actually be helpful in your dog’s treatment and prevention. If your sweet little dog is genetically more German shepherd or Welsh corgi, maybe we are very careful about possible back pain and orthopedic issues due to their propensity to acquire degenerative myelopathy (a genetically linked disease that erodes parts of the nervous tissue in their spine). Maybe we are much more aggressive testing your part Dalmatian when he starts to have abnormal urination, due to their propensity to develop less commonly seen types of bladder stones. And of course, we should mention due to our staff’s specific and freakish love for Boxer dogs, whenever we have a known Boxer with a small skin bump, we always test for mast cell tumors, more so than other breeds. This certainly doesn’t mean that if we know you dog is part Rottweiler we’re going to suddenly saddle you with the burden of having to have a slew of tests done; it just becomes part of the discussion we have for the overall health of your dog.
  3. I think it’s really helpful and, honestly, fun to know things about your dog based on their breed. There are certain predispositions that guide your dogs’ needs and may explain their “oddities.” If you don’t know that your sweet little puppy is mostly a Border collie (despite looking like a Yorkie), you may not understand why she is trying to push your two toddlers into the corner of the room every morning. It also may explain why they nip at your heels every time you’re trying to leave for work. I’m not saying it will make it nicer, but it may eliminate the need to “train” it out of them.

I have a crazy but loveable little mutt named Emerson that we found in Arizona after he was orphaned in a Navajo nation reservation in Flagstaff. We always assumed he was probably some kind of terrier and maybe a whippet, but after swabbing his cheek we found out that our nutball pooch had one Chihuahua/miniature poodle parent and a pit bull/unknown mix parent. This explained more than I could ever imagine and, truthfully, I felt a lot closer to him after knowing this. Emerson has every stereotypically “loud” trait about Chihuahua and poodles, along with the absolute best traits of pit bulls (being loving, warm, and happy). It’s important to know that because the one mixed-breed grandparent was so diluted, its breed type was not identifiable.

The test has limitations. Also, the information about your dog is not shared with anyone. If you live in a condo that bans pit bulls, you don’t have to worry about anyone reporting to your landlord. All the information stays with you.

Are You Interested in Learning Your Dog’s Ancestry?

We have started carrying the panels. You can buy them on your own, but honestly, it’s a lot harder to swab your dogs’ cheeks than you think. Partly because of the Chihuahua/mini poodle in my dog, and partly because he is the most stubborn dog in the world, it took five people distracting him and feeding him treats to get it. (I’m surprised he didn’t come back as 20% peanut butter.) We offer the panels and sampling here for you. We will collect the sample, and then allow you to log on at home, fill out the information, and send in the sample yourself. If you want us to send in the sample, we can, but we do not need to do this.

If you’re interested, you can ask us, or go on their website at and read more, watch the billion or so videos they offer, or just think about it. I think it’s fun and interesting, and on this 14-degree winter morning, that’s mostly what I’m looking for.

Brett Grossman, DVM
Medical District Veterinary Clinic