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Owners of mixed-breed dogs often cringe when asked the question “What kind of dog is that?” At the vet’s office, these same owners may draw a blank when they reach the “Primary Breed’ line on the patient information form. In the past, it was necessary to take an educated guess to answer these questions or simply reply “I guess I don’t know!” Modern scientific research has now yielded a solution to this problem: canine DNA testing.

Believe it or not, testing your dog’s DNA can provide clues to his or her ancestry. Scientists have discovered subtle variations in the DNA profiles of different dog breeds which make them distinguishable in a simple DNA test. As with determining human parentage, a dog’s DNA sample is quite easily attainable by swabbing the inner cheek to obtain skin cells.

Several companies offer at-home DNA testing kits for the modest price of between $50 and $70. Leading the pack are BioPet and DogDNA. Customers can purchase a kit containing the DNA collection swab, detailed instructions, and a tube to return the sample to the lab. After collecting their dog’s DNA sample as instructed in the kit, owners simply mail the swab to the company’s laboratory where the DNA testing is completed. In 2-6 weeks, the results will be mailed to the customer including a fancy certificate of heritage.

So how accurate are these tests? Well, it depends. Each company has specific breeds which their tests are capable of detecting. Every company’s list is different; some test for around 60 breeds, others test for over 100. BioPet estimates that around 92.5% of mixed breed dogs are covered by their 62 validated breeds. Depending on your dog’s specific heritage, the DNA profile could be very specific or rather vague. Results are typically divided into three categories: primary breed, secondary breed, and “in the mix.” Unless your dog had a purebred parent, it’s common for most mixes to be without a primary breed. If your dog has a long lineage of mixed breeds, his or her results may only provide a jumble of breeds considered “in the mix.”

Knowing what breed your dog is has many benefits beyond satisfying an owner’s curiosity. Some breeds are predisposed to certain health conditions or behavioral complexities; knowing a dog’s heritage can assist owners in preventing or dealing with these situations appropriately. It can also help owners to custom-tailor a diet and exercise program catered to their dog’s needs. Besides explaining why a game of fetch never really caught on, potentially discovering that a dog is a herder or runner by nature rather than a retriever can point owners to activites that will appeal to their dog's natural talents.

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