If you own a mixed-breed dog, you have probably found yourself wondering “what breed is my dog?” Perhaps you have been asked about your dog’s breed by well-meaning friends and neighbors or you have some of your own theories and guesses, based on your dog’s general appearance.
Whilst these can certainly provide an interesting starting point, sometimes it would be nice to know for sure! Fortunately, there are a number of resources that you can use to help you arrive at an answer.
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 hand, there's a few ways you can discover the answer for yourself.
Identifying breed based on physical traits
Physical traits can be helpful in identifying a dog’s breed, especially in a purebred dog. Characteristics such as height, body type, coat length, 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 helpful in the identification of mixed breed dogs. Most of us expect mixed breed dogs to have a combination of their parents’ traits.
In reality, however, mixed breed dogs may look like both of their parents, only 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 of dog breeds
Like physical characteristics, behavioral characteristics can also give us a clue as to a dog’s breed. If you have ever heard a Beagle or Basset Hound bark, howl, or “yodel,” you could likely recognize that sound anywhere!
A mixed-breed dog that makes similar sounds likely contains 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) are excitable and will run after anything that moves. By examining your dog’s behavior at home and considering what each dog breed has been bred for, you may be able to gain additional clues regarding your dog’s breed.
At-home tools for dog breed identification
Dog breed identification apps, such as Dog Scanner, allow you to upload a photo or short video of a dog to identify a dog’s breed. Using artificial intelligence, the app compares your photo or video to other photos and videos within the database, providing a guess at the dog’s breed.
According to user reviews, these apps are usually able to correctly identify purebred dogs. However, they are less reliable with the identification of mixed breed dogs. Apps can be a helpful tool if you see a dog in your neighborhood and want an idea of what breed it might be, but they are probably less beneficial for determining the lineage of your own mixed-breed dog.
Online quizzes, such as the one available at The Dog Key, can also be helpful in determining a 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.
Canine genetic (DNA) testing
The most accurate way to identify the breeds present in a mixed-breed dog is through the use of genetic testing. These tests work by assessing your dog’s DNA, or genetic material, looking for sequences that are associated with certain breeds.
The majority of dog DNA is identical between breeds; a Great Dane’s DNA is nearly identical to a Yorkshire Terrier’s DNA. However, there are small differences that have been identified and associated with specific breeds.
Companies that perform canine DNA testing have tested thousands of samples, allowing them to accurately identify small genetic sequences that are associated with specific breeds.
Wisdom Panel is one genetic test that is offered and recommended by many veterinarians. They have 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 that you can collect at home. They extract your pet’s DNA from this sample and compare your pet’s DNA to known sequences that are associated with specific breeds, looking for evidence of these breeds in your dog’s genetic makeup.
Embark is another widely-used provider of canine genetic testing. This is an at-home test that is not typically offered at a veterinarian’s office. Like a Wisdom Panel, Embark testing requires you to collect a cheek swab from your dog. Embark has performed fewer tests than Wisdom Panel and does not test for as many specific breeds as Wisdom Panel, but the company claims to examine more genetic markers than Wisdom Panel. This test may be more accurate for dogs that are included in their breed database, but does not test for as many breeds as the Wisdom Panel.
There are many other providers of canine genetic testing available, each with their own unique pros and cons.
How accurate are dog DNA tests?
It’s important to realize that no genetic test is perfect. In general, most providers of canine genetic testing claim to be over 95% accurate. Review your results critically and 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, 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 greet with a bit of skepticism, most results “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.
Dr. Barnette received both her Bachelor of Science degree in zoology and her Doctor of Veterinary Medicine from the University of Florida. She’s an experienced writer, educator, and veterinarian, with a passion for making scientific and medical information accessible to public and professional audiences.
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