If It Looks Like a Duck…
A couple of weeks ago I sent in my dog Sea’s cheek swab sample for DNA analysis. I was curious to see what breed mix she might be – as while she looks to be a terrier/Chihuahua mix to me, she is certainly lacking in the terrier behavioral traits. While I had been curious for a while, it was Sea’s friend Jake that motivated me to buy the kits and send them off.
Jake looks to be in the bully breed camp. When Jake’s guardian Pam (name changed) and I first met, Jake was not with her – she asked about my dog, and I asked about hers. She was very hesitant to tell me about what type of dog Jake was. When I told her who I worked for and what type of work I do, she softened and told me that Jake was a pit bull-type mix. Pam lives in NYC and has felt the breed bias at a personal level. She has been told to keep her type of dog away from others at one dog park, and has heard that pit type dogs are treated differently if they have an aggression incident.
When Pam adopted Jake, he was labeled “pit mix.” While he looks like he may have some bully breed of some sort in him, it was not clear to me that Jake was a “pit mix.” Pam’s anxiety had nothing to do with Jake’s potential to be aggressive – the boy is the softest, kindest low-arousal guy I have met – but everything to do with the incorrect perception folks had around the label “pit bull.” I told Pam about the DNA breed analysis we could do, and we both decided to conduct a Wisdom Panel™ analysis on our dogs.
Dr. Victoria Voith (et al) published a research report in 2009 in the Journal of Applied Animal Welfare Science on the comparison of adoption agency breed identification and DNA breed identification. While it is a small sample size (20 dogs), the results were compelling – 87% of the dogs who were identified to have 1 or 2 specific breeds in their ancestry did not have those breeds in their DNA analysis. Of the five dogs who were identified by the adoption agency by breed “type” (terrier, for example), only 2 actually had that breed type in their analysis.
The authors point to the compelling photos from studies conducted by Scott and Fuller (1965) that showed that puppies from purebred parents of different breeds (cocker spaniel mother and beagle father, for example) can look nothing like either of their parents. Yet we in shelters (and in our homes) continue to assign breeds to the mixed breed dogs we encounter.
For Sea, being mislabeled as a terrier mix is less of an issue than for Jake to be mislabeled as a pit mix. The tragic fact is that pit mixes stay longer in our shelters, are vilified by insurance companies and some community members, and are at higher risk of euthanasia.
This weekend Sea’s and Jake’s Wisdom Panel results came in – Sea is in fact half Chihuahua – and half miniature poodle! And Jake – yep, you got it – not a speck of Am Staff, American bull dog or the like in his DNA… Instead, Lab, pointer, Rottweiler and more.
I know some of you will respond like some of my Facebook friends and simply choose to discount the scientific analysis and tell me that Sea must be a terrier mix ‘cause she looks like one. I will respectfully, and with science behind me, disagree.
More important are the implications for the many, many dogs who look like Jake in our shelters today. If we do not have the ancestry in our hands, should we be picking breeds based on what he or she looks like? What can we replace that with for our clients whose first question is often, “What kind of dog is he? “ How about we answer, “The good kind.”