Culture

What is my dog?

Decoding the DNA of one soft-eared, wide-eyed, gentle-souled sweetie boy.

Everyone thinks my dog is a puppy. His large, wide-set eyes; small, soft body and playful demeanor belie his maturity and emotional depth — attributes that become obvious once you get to know him. The truth is he’s about four, though the exact date of his birth, like that of many rescue dogs, is lost to the nature of being picked up as a stray. He looks, to my eye, like some sort of a labrador-terrier mix, with a soulful amber gaze, spunky little foldy ears, and an itty-bitty little nosey. He is my friend and I love him.

Until recently, though, his age and breed were up for debate. This was evidenced by an apparent dog expert at the local dog park on a recent morning. “No,” he said, shaking his head, after asking for the details of my dog. “My dog looked like that when she was a puppy, and now she looks like this.” He gestured to his large pitbull-looking sweetie who, though beautiful, looked nothing like my little labrador-looking sweetie whom I love so much and for whom I would die. “Well… he’s about four,” I told him, hiding my annoyance well as I am extremely calm. “No. I don’t think so,” he said.

Hm.

The main reason I wanted to DNA test my dog was to shove the results in this rude man’s goddamn rude fuckin’ face, wherever he is. Probably hell!

At-home dog DNA testing was made possible after the dog genome was sequenced in 2005 from the DNA of a a female boxer named Tasha. Thank you, Tasha. This information provided a jumping-off point to map to the genomes of other dog breeds and their markers of genetic diseases, as well as some stuff about human diseases that frankly I do not think I should be the one to explain to you; you may read about it here.

“Of the more than 5,500 mammals living today, dogs are arguably the most remarkable,” said Eric Lander, senior author of the dog genome sequencing study and professor of biology at MIT. Agree. “The incredible physical and behavioral diversity of dogs — from Chihuahuas to Great Danes — is encoded in their genomes. It can uniquely help us understand embryonic development, neurobiology, human disease, and the basis of evolution.” Wild stuff.

For my at-home dog DNA test I picked Embark, which puts to use “over 20 times more genetic information than any other test on the market,” says Embark. They use more than 200,000 genetic markers to establish your dog’s breed, or breed mix, and more than 175 genetic health and trait tests to establish whether your dog is at risk for or a carrier of genetic disease. I chose Embark because I was not paying for it and it was the most expensive option ($189). Of the many tests currently on the market, Embark’s main competitor is Wisdom Panel 4.0 ($84.99), which only uses 2,000 genetic markers. Yeah right. DNA My Dog ($68.98), the next-most-popular according to lists, doesn’t even give you a number of genetic markers it uses. Please.

Embark’s kit comes with a swab. You hold the swab to the inside of your dog’s cheek for a few seconds, which they dislike very much, and then you put it into the sample tube, and then you send it back. They get the results to you in about two months, which is so long.

May I tell you more about my dog? I’d like to, if you have a few hours. No? Okay, I’ll make it slightly quicker. His name is Peter. Typically the more soft-hearted of humanity will, upon learning that his name is Peter, grasp their chest in delicious agony, as “Peter” is such a sweet name for such a gentle dog. Peter. The name came from Badass Brooklyn Animal Rescue, where I adopted him; they give all of their dogs celebrity or otherwise famous names and his given name was “Peter Parker.” The “Peter” just seemed right. Peter.

The DNA kit comes with a swab. You hold the swab to the inside of your dog’s cheek for a few seconds, which they dislike very much, and then you put it into the sample tube, and then you send it back. They get the results to you in about two months, which is so long.

Before he was at Badass, he was a stray in southeast Georgia. The stray dog population is very large there, so Badass makes regular trips to bring back dogs to be adopted in New York. He was taken to a small kill shelter in a town called Mt. Vernon, a place from which the Sweet Onion Animal Protection Society regularly tries to remove as many dogs as they can before they’re euthanized, to be placed into foster care and eventually adopted.

While awaiting the results of Peter’s DNA test, I reached out to SOAPS Director Therisa Ingley to see if the organization had any information about his pre-Brooklyn life. They had a little:

“When Badass was visiting last February, we visited the shelter and they fell in love with Peter Parker. He had been picked up as a stray and had been there for awhile," she said. "Very few dogs from shelters get adopted here because there are just so many. Badass fell in love with his gentle nature and he was pulled to go back with them.”

He lived for about three years before I knew him. It really kills me that I was not able to protect him during that time, and that I’ll never really know what his life was like. However, I plan to teach him how to talk and I will update you once he tells me.

Oh, you would like to know even more about Peter? If you insist. He has velvet ears. He has a spotted tongue. When he walks down the stairs, at his moderately paced gentleman’s trot, you can tell he’s a bit bow-legged. He has the heart of an angel and the soul of a poet, and there’s a hint of sadness to him that makes you want to protect him against all of the world’s harshness. He has whiskers that are so prominent they make you second-guess whether whiskers are a typical dog trait, or whether he could potentially be part mouse. He will sit his big, fat butt on your lap like he’s tiny, when he is actually 25 pounds. He’s affectionate, but not needy. “He’s just so...kind,” is how a cousin of mine once described him, and it’s true: he’s just so kind. Also he loves to burrow under the covers, and he loves to sleep with his head on a pillow like a tiny little man.

May I tell you more about my dog? I’d like to, if you have a few hours.

I wanted to know what he was because I want to know everything I can about him, and because I wanted to shove it in the face of any goddamn rude know-it-all men I came across in the future. But was there any other reason to get his DNA tested? I reached out to Dr. Ann Hohenhaus, staff doctor at NYC’s Animal Medical Center, to ask.

“Well, I think that it depends,” she said. “You can use DNA testing for a lot of things. One thing is for fun.” (Meaning, to find out what kind of a little sweetie my dog is.) “The second is that we’ve been using DNA tests in dogs for a long time to diagnose specific diseases … With a particular breed and a particular set of clinical signs, a DNA test may be a very efficient way to make a diagnosis in a patient.”

While I was impatiently awaiting the results of my DNA test, this is something that was haunting me. What if the DNA test told me Peter was sick? He doesn’t seem sick. But what if maybe he was going to be sick in the future? I also worried about how I would write around it in this piece. Maybe I would attempt to feature it as a poignant look at the impermanence of life, but, in contrast, the permanence of love — how his love will always be with me, and mine with him, no matter what. Luckily I do not have to travel down this thought-provoking road, because after six agonizing weeks of waiting, I received Peter’s impressive results:

Peter tested clear for the 165 genetic conditions for which Embark scans, including 28 that are common in his breed mix, like congenital hypothyroidism, progressive retinal atrophy, and muscular dystrophy. Huh. “Not even at risk for any of them?” I wondered. “Did I do it wrong?” I wondered. “Is this wrong?” I asked Dr. Hohenhaus.

“I’m not surprised your dog was negative for those diseases, because those genetic diseases don’t occur very often in mixed-breed dogs,” she said. Oh. “That’s not to say they never do — I’ve diagnosed genetic disease in a mixed breed dog. The disease normally occurred in the Springer Spaniel and this dog was a black-and-white shorthaired thing, and it had the same genetic mutation. But that’s the only time I’ve ever done that. So, it occurs but it’s rare.”

Still, she said there can be danger in taking negative results of the at-home swab test as gospel. The tests typically look for a single mutation, and if your dog’s disease (say Pyruvate Kinase Deficiency, which has several mutations across different breeds) has a mutation that hasn’t been discovered yet — even if he presents symptoms that would be obvious to a veterinarian — it won’t catch it. Plus, a cheek swab test means a bacteria-laden sample: “When I do DNA testing, I take a blood sample and send it in. And a blood sample is inherently ‘cleaner,’ in quotes, than if you do a home DNA test with a cheek swab,” Honenhaus told me. “So that test has some inherent issues, because you have the DNA of the bacteria in the dog’s mouth along with the dog’s DNA, in that sample. And so I think that there is probably an opportunity for a sample that’s harder to read if there’s a lot of bacteria in the mouth. So, DNA testing labs, I’m certain, would prefer to have a blood sample. I think really the at-home DNA testing is not as much for disease as it is for the fun.”

Yes, this checks out. Mostly what you’re looking for when you’re giving your dog a DNA test you ordered from the internet, I believe, is the fun of finding out the fun little mystery of who he is. Speaking of the fun little mystery of who he is, do you want to know what my dog is? Oh my god. Oh my god. Oh my god. Are you ready? Here, look at these photos of him so you can guess before you know:

Do you have your guess? Okay. Here it is:

He is, as you can see, so many things. Peter. (A “supermutt” means, according to Embark, that there may be “small amounts of DNA from these distant ancestors”: Chow Chow, Dalmatian, and Miniature Pinscher.) Here he is. The basic structure of a Labrador Retriever. The smaller stature of a Chihuahua. The intelligent, calm demeanor of a Golden Retriever. The love for burrowing of the small-prey hunter dachshund. The wide-set eyes and expressive ears of a rat terrier. The sociability of the Miniature Schnauzer. The wide chest and slightly bowed back legs of the American Staffordshire terrier. The spotted tongue of the Chow Chow.

He is, according to the test, he’s about 36 in people years — roughly four years old.

I asked Dr. Hohenhaus if there’s anything practical to be gleaned from the breeds that go into a mutt, and she wasn’t sure the evidence was out there — yet. “I think that two years from now you’ll write a different article than you’ll write today. Because this is an area of expansion and growth, and we’ll know better how to use the fact that your dog, although he only weighs 25 pounds, is part labrador, we’ll know better how to use that information,” she said.

I look forward to this day. But for now, at least I know how I’ll use this information: against rude men who think they know more about my dog than I do at the dog park.

Kelly Conaboy is a writer in Brooklyn.
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