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DNA Tests: Worth It?

Author: Lynda Lobo | Date: September 5, 2013

It could be!  I get this question all the time.  Usually it’s followed with a dismissal, that the results rarely resemble the dogs.  In the case of my two dogs, the results were not only fun, but they really helped me to understand their behavior and live more harmoniously together.  And that’s really what we all want with our pets, isn’t it?

I have two lovable mutts.  For a long time it was my hobby to guess what had gone into their genetic soup.

When I found out I could get a DNA test on Amazon for less than $70, I was thrilled.

I took a few final guesses and bets, and placed my order…

Here’s the thing: a dog is a dog is a dog.  You can find a wonderful companion in just about any breed or mix, and there are a lot of misconceptions out there.  Some of Michael Vick’s rescued pit bulls are some of the sweetest, most gentle dogs I’ve ever met.  However, breeds are a powerful tool for predicting and understanding behavior.  After all, each pure breed was originally bred to perform certain tasks or to have a particular temperament.  Sometimes, that meant selecting for traits that become problematic when we see them in our modern pet dogs.

For example, how would you breed a diligent watch dog?  You basically select for OCD-type pathology – dogs that not only search incessantly for activity, but also sound the alarm when they see or hear something.  The Border collie nipping at your heels is herding, a behavior deeply ingrained through generations of selective breeding.  The pet Border collie, lacking a herd of sheep to manage, turns to you instead.  It’s not all bad though!  Labs generally make great family dogs because they were bred to use their mouths (and teeth!) gently.

After a quick cheek swab and a few weeks of waiting, the results were in!  Surf turned out to be mostly Lab and Doberman, with some Rottweiler, a little German shepherd, and trace amount of bull terrier.

What followed was a series of AHA moments, starting with understanding why he tends to be on alert much of the time.

His anxiety (to the best of my knowledge) comes from the combination of his rough puppyhood and his genetics.  In fact, when I met with a behaviorist to assess both my dogs, I brought up an odd behavior that used to cause ME a lot of anxiety: he would suck and chew on his side, just in front of his hip, until his skin was red and his hair was soaked.  The behaviorist shrugged it off, explaining that it’s “a Doberman thing,” a genetic OCD behavior that is almost exclusively seen in Dobermans.  Although he does it more often when he’s anxious, it may just be something he does to self-soothe.  It was such a relief to learn that there may not be anything I can do about it, nor did I really need to.

I also found out that Ryan – and I say this in the most loving way possible – is sort of a genetic mess.  But learning about why she may be more inclined to stalk the cat, nip at pant legs (herding), bark a lot, etc. allowed me to check myself when I got frustrated with her and since then our relationship has gotten stronger every day.  Not only that but I love seeing the charming quirks she has and knowing where her dorky traits come from too.

Knowing that a behavior is typical for your dog’s breed(s) doesn’t excuse the behavior, but it can aid in forming a more targeted training program for your dog.

As trainers, understanding breeds is one of the most important tools in our “toolbox.”  And although we see each dog as an individual, knowing their genetics allows us to make certain assumptions about the behavior of the dog, or at least their tendencies.  Dogs really are a fascinating mix of nature and nurture.  If your dog’s behavior is puzzling you, consider doing a quick, inexpensive DNA test.  Or take bets and have fun with the results!

Have you performed a DNA test on your dog? What were the results?


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