What breed is my dog: how science can discover the truth

What breed is my dog?
(Image credit: Getty)

“What breed is my dog?” is one of the first questions asked by anyone enquiring about a new pooch. Trouble is, while you'll invariably get an answer, it is unlikely to be 100 per cent accurate unless you use one of the best dog dna tests.

According to research carried out by scientists at Arizona State University, animal shelters often use educated guesswork based on a canine's physical appearance when assigning breeds to their dogs. 

Indeed, by studying 900 dogs, Lisa Gunter and Clive Wynne from the university's Canine Science Laboratory discovered just 67 percent were correctly identified and they found this wasn't without consequence.

Misidentifying a breed can mean some dogs are being kept in shelters for longer than they should as would-be owners steer clear of those they believe will have troublesome traits or aren't totally aligned with their preference. “Breed identification has quite an outsize role in people's perception of dogs,” Wynne said.

Yet it's easy to misidentify breeds because there are simply so many of them. The Fédération Cynologique Internationale (FCI, or International Canine Federation) for instance, recognizes 360 breeds while The Kennel Club (UK) recognizes 219 and the American Kennel Club 190.

How to know what breed your dog is

What this means is that you can study a dog's head, ears, color, coat and tail in order to identify a breed, but that human error will inevitably creep in while making that assessment. So how did the Arizona researchers come to their conclusion? Rather than look for visual cues, they used DNA testing instead.

Genotyping is the only way to identify a dog's heritage and breed with any great accuracy. It entails looking for thousands of genetic markers in the deoxyribonucleic acid found in all but the dog's red cells. These are then compared to a database of hundreds of breeds in order to find the closest match.

Dog DNA tests

DNA tests are not restricted to scientific research. They're available to all dogs via kits you can buy  online or on the high street. One of the testing pack's leaders, Wisdom Panel, has carried out more than 2.5 million tests on behalf of pet owners and they're a quick, easy and painless process. Other than having to splash the cash, there are few downsides to having one done. It won't harm your dog in any way.

A 15 second rub inside your dog's mouth will gather the necessary sample that can then be sent away for analysis. It'll likely take a few days or weeks to get the results but the wait can be worth it. That's because, aside from determining the breed, there are other advantages to having your dog DNA tested – so long as you don't use the results as the basis for hard-and-fast decision making in the future, that is.

For starters, DNA tests are becoming increasingly popular among those who are wary of unscrupulous breeders looking to inflate their profits by claiming mongrels are purebred. The tests are also useful for breeders. “If you're thinking of breeding from your dog, then knowing more about their genetics can help you reduce the risk of producing puppies affected by inherited conditions,” says The Kennel Club says.

DNA tests can also help owners better understand why their pooch is behaving in a particular way. And the best dna tests can help all pet owners identify genetic mutations and disease common to breeds: by getting the heads-up on potential problems, you can become more aware of the signs that your dog is becoming ill and seek veterinary assistance more quickly.

Are dog DNA tests accurate?

Now a word of warning. DNA tests are not 100 per cent accurate. Wisdom Panel's internal analysis shows an accuracy of 93 percent but when you consider the DNA of a Chihuahua is 99 per cent identical to that of a Great Dane that's not a bad figure at all. 

Even so, you should still be cautious. In the journal Nature, US scientists Lisa Moses, Steve Niemi and Elinor Karlsson argue “the science is lagging.” They question whether a DNA test could predict health outcomes in a dog and say “pet genetics must be reined in” 

At the very least, pet owners and vets need to be cautious about making decisions based purely on DNA test results: just because they show a dog is at a higher risk of a particular disease doesn't mean they will inevitably get it.

And yet if you're merely looking to identify a breed, then you'll find DNA tests are a significant improvement on a human's ability to visually assess and estimate a breed. They're also a lot of fun and you may make some stunning discoveries along the way. Is your dog really who you think he or she is?

David Crookes

David Crookes has been a journalist for more than 20 years and he has written for a host of magazines, newspapers, websites and books including World of Animals, BBC Earth, Dogs and Canines, Gadget and The Independent. Born in England, he lives in a household with two cats but he’s also keenly interested in the differences between the huge number of dog breeds — in fact, you can read many of his breed guides here on PetsRadar. With a lifelong passion for technology, too, he’s always on the lookout for useful devices that will allow people to spend more time with their pets.