What Makes a Dog, Anyway? Genetics and Breed Definition in the 21st Century

Are Dog DNA tests becoming more popular, or are they accurate?

In a study led by Halie Rando, an assistant professor of computer science at Smith College, the question of what defines a dog breed was explored. Despite genetics pointing to a specific breed, widely accepted definitions were created before DNA analysis became available. Genetic testing sometimes contradicts pet owners’ beliefs about their dogs, making breed identification a complex issue.

Genetic testing can be challenging for mixed-breed dogs, as it relies on data from dogs with identifiable breeds. This means that a DNA test is only as reliable as the genetic dataset it uses. Even for experienced individuals, identifying a dog’s breed by sight is challenging. A recent study of 459 shelter dogs found 125 distinct breeds, with only five percent being purebred. Mixed-breed dogs made up the majority, yet both scientists and shelter workers struggled to accurately identify them.

Consumers are encouraged to research DNA testing companies before submitting samples to ensure transparency and diversity in the genetic panel used. Even with accurate breed information, behavior may not be strongly linked to a dog’s breed. Research has shown that behavior is more closely correlated with individual dogs rather than specific breeds, leading to the conclusion that “dog breed is generally a poor predictor of individual behavior.”

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