If you adopted a mixed-breed dog from a rescue organization, you have probably asked yourself, “what breed is my dog?” Maybe the question has been posed by well-meaning friends and family. You may even have some theories and guesses of your own, based on your dog’s general appearance.
While everyone enjoys a good mystery, sometimes it would be nice to have a more definitive answer! Fortunately, there are a number of resources that you can use to help you arrive at one.
Whether you've heard about dog DNA testing and wondered what the best dog DNA kit is for your pooch or you're looking for a more convenient method to consider, there are a few ways you can discover the answer to this question for yourself.
Physical traits aid in identification
Purebred dogs can often be identified by their physical traits. Height, body conformation, coat length, color, markings, head shape, ears, and tail carriage can all be helpful in determining the breed of a purebred dog.
For example, a large breed dog with a sloped back, black and tan coat of medium length, erect ears, hanging tail, and a longer snout is likely to be a German Shepherd.
In contrast, a small, round dog with a short, tan coat, a corkscrew tail, and a smooshed face is likely to be a Pug.
Unfortunately, physical traits are not always reliable when identifying mixed breed dogs. You might expect mixed breed dogs to have a combination of their parents’ traits. In reality, though, mixed breed dogs may look like both of their parents, one of their parents, or neither of their parents. In fact, all of these tendencies can sometimes be observed in the same litter!
In some mixed-breed litters, you will have puppies that look like mom, puppies that look like dad, puppies that look like a combination of mom and dad, and puppies with a completely unexpected appearance. This means that physical appearance is not always completely reliable in identifying the breeds that make up a mixed-breed dog.
Behavioral characteristics can be helpful
Like physical characteristics, behavioral characteristics can sometimes provide a clue about a dog’s breed. If you have ever heard a Beagle or Basset Hound “yodel,” you could probably recognize that sound anywhere!
A mixed-breed dog that makes similar sounds may also contain one of those breeds, because dogs that demonstrate breed-specific behaviors may be more likely to belong to that breed.
Retrievers love a good game of fetch, while other hunting breeds (such as German Shorthaired Pointers) tend to chase anything that moves.
Examining your dog’s behavior can provide additional clues about your dog’s breed. However, it’s important to keep in mind that behavior is not an accurate predictor of breed. Behavioral clues may give you hints, but should not be regarded as a source of definitive answers.
Other tools for dog breed identification
Breed identification apps, such as Dog Scanner (opens in new tab), allow you to upload a photo or short video. Next, artificial intelligence is used to compare your photo or video to other photos and videos in the database. With this information, the app can provide a guess at your dog’s breed.
According to user reviews, apps are relatively accurate for purebred dogs. However, they are less reliable when identifying mixed breed dogs. Apps might help narrow down the breed of a dog running loose in your neighborhood, but they may not be accurate enough to determine the lineage of your own mixed-breed dog.
Online quizzes, such as the one available at The Dog Key (opens in new tab), also claim to help you identify your dog’s breed. These quizzes ask you questions about your dog’s physical characteristics, using your answers to narrow down your dog’s breed.
Like apps, these quizzes are most likely to be helpful for purebred dogs. They may also help you identify breeds that you hadn’t considered when questioning the genetics of your mixed-breed dog.
Genetic or DNA testing
The best way to determine the genetic makeup of your mixed-breed dog is with the use of genetic testing. These tests examine your dog's DNA, looking for the presence of specific DNA sequences that are associated with certain breeds.
All domesticated dogs have nearly the same genetic material. A Great Dane’s DNA is nearly identical to a Yorkshire Terrier’s DNA. However, there are small genetic differences that have been identified and associated with specific breeds. These differences form the basis for genetic testing.
Companies that perform canine DNA testing have tested thousands of samples, from dogs of known breeds. This testing has allowed them to accurately identify small genetic sequences that are associated with specific breeds. When your dog’s DNA is analyzed, similarities to these identified, breed-specific DNA sequences can be used to identify your dog’s breed.
While there are many different genetic testing providers, Wisdom Panel and Embark are two of the most popular options.
Wisdom Panel (opens in new tab) is offered and recommended by many veterinarians. This company has the largest pet DNA database, including over 21,000 samples. Wisdom Panel testing can be performed on a blood sample (collected by your veterinarian) or on a cheek swab (collected by you, at home). Your pet’s DNA is extracted from this sample and then compared known sequences that are associated with specific breeds, looking for evidence of these breeds in your dog’s genetic makeup.
Embark (opens in new tab) is another widely-used provider of canine genetic testing. This is an at-home test using a cheek swab; it is not typically offered at a veterinarian’s office. Embark has tested fewer samples than Wisdom Panel and does not look for any many different breeds as Wisdom Panel, but the company claims to examine a larger number of genetic markers. This means that Embark’s genetic testing may be more accurate for some breeds, but it may miss breeds that are not included in its database.
There are also other providers of canine genetic testing available, each with their own unique pros and cons. If you are interested in genetic testing, it’s important to research providers to make sure you are obtaining the best test for your dog.
How accurate are dog DNA tests?
No genetic test is perfect. In general, however, most providers of canine genetic testing claim to be over 95% accurate. This is great, but some false identifications can occur. Review your results critically, in order to make sure they make sense for your dog.
When canine genetic testing was first introduced in 2007, those of us working in practices that offered the service often saw results that made little to no sense: large-breed patients who were supposedly 50% Chihuahua, stray dogs that supposedly contained extremely rare breeds (leading us to wonder who was releasing these rare, expensive breeds onto the streets to breed with strays!), and other results that seemed nearly impossible.
Over time, however, these tests have become far more reliable. While we still encounter the rare surprising result (which we may regard with a bit of skepticism), most results nowadays “make sense,” given the dog’s appearance and the prevalence of breeds in our geographic area.
There is no single best way to answer the question, “what breed is my dog?” Ultimately, how you find the answer to this question will depend on how badly you want the answer and how accurately you want to understand your dog’s lineage.
Simple measures like physical characteristics and behavioral characteristics can often help you narrow down the list, along with apps and online tools. If you are looking for a more accurate answer, though, your best option is probably to pursue genetic testing.
Although these tests cost money and no genetic test is perfect, they can provide you with the most accurate information regarding your dog’s breed.