Have you ever thought about getting your dogs DNA analysed? Your dog’s DNA determines what breed they are, controls what behaviours come instinctively and predicts aspects of their personality. These behaviours range from how confident, fearful, or aggressive they will be in stressful social situations to how readily they will pursue prey.
Working at a doggy daycare I have become familiar with lots of different breeds of dogs and their individual behaviours like herding collies, beagle “woos” and the whole-body tail wags of Labradors. And Kipper doesn’t do any of these things. He doesn’t retrieve like a spaniel, point like a pointer, or grab and hold things like bull breeds do either. The closest thing to a possible breed trait I have seen in him is that he runs like a whippet, with a look of pure joy on his face as he is doing it! Apart from that he mostly sunbathes, watches the world go by and hunts flies.
But knowing what activities your dog has been bred and is therefore (usually) motivated for makes it easier to train them. Providing opportunities for breed specific behaviours can also really enhance the bond that you have with your dog too. Things like herding games for collies, tug games for bullies and retrieving games for gun dog breeds can really have you and your dog working in a partnership. Because of this I have always been curious about what breeds are in Kippers genetic makeup.
Although the first DNA test for dogs was launched in 2007 I was reluctant to get a DNA test done before now as I have heard that they are unreliable for dogs that have come from Romania, where Kipper is originally from. There are different levels of information gained from DNA tests, and the companies vary in how many genes that they test and what DNA they hold in their databases. The most extensive on the market is Embark, which tests over 200,000 genes. It also offers the most features including breed ancestry, health tests, inbreeding coefficients, physical trait prediction and DNA relatives. And it now has a good database of DNA from dogs from around the world so that’s the test I went for when I ordered a DNA kit for Kipper.
The Embark kit arrived looking pretty snazzy in a box with three colour-coded steps for me to complete. Step one: I activated the kit with a unique code. Step two, I collected the sample by swabbing the inside of Kippers mouth. This was very simple and painless, and Kipper got his favourite chew for cooperating. Then step three was I just send it off to the lab. Then all I had to do was wait. And wait.
It was nearly 2 months before I got the results and, in that time, I received about half a dozen emails from Embark: first informing me they had received his sample, then of the steps they were taking to analyse it, and finally ones to announce that the results were nearly ready. They are really good at building anticipation for when the results finally come through! Eventually, one evening I received a text saying Kipper’s results were ready. The text directed me to Embarks website and Kipper's personal profile. And the results…..
Kipper is an Eastern European Village Dog. I didn’t even know that Eastern European Village Dog was a breed. But, according to Embark, they are. His profile states:
“In a very real sense, Eastern European Village Dog is the actual breed of your dog. Village dogs are the free-breeding, free-roaming “outside” dogs found around the world living in and around human settlements. They are also known as island dogs, pariah dogs, or free-ranging dogs. Many village dog populations precede the formation of modern breed dogs. They serve as rubbish cleaners, sentinels, and even sometimes companions while still retaining much of their freedom.”
The map below highlights regions of the world where Kipper's DNA is most similar to those village dogs. The areas of darkest red reflect the greatest similarity to their village dog database. And this corresponds to where he was born, in Romania.
Village dogs have been living in Europe for thousands of years. Some of these dogs became the founders of many popular dog breeds today. But most village dogs just continued living on as free-breeding village dogs and they now make up about a quarter of the dogs living on earth today. Kipper was born into this ancient heritage, not descended from a specific breed, but continuing the ancient lineage of village dogs that existed before we turned them into different breeds.
Village dogs usually come from very different, survival-based lifestyles, which has behavioural and genetic consequences. For example, dogs from this background might display more food guarding or scavenging behaviour, because that was key to their parents surviving. Many have a natural fear of strangers as a certain degree of caution will benefit dogs living in places where their presence isn’t always tolerated by people. Some Village dogs are also natural escape artists….. staying with a single human, or being contained, isn’t natural for them. Because of their survivalist type lifestyle, village dogs still experience strong natural selection more like wild animals rather than the artificial selection used to create and maintain different breeds.
Having seen a variety of oversees rescues during my career working at the doggy daycare and as a trainer some of them can thrive in a pet home and some of my favourite characters are the oversees rescues. But most of them need time and patience to adjust to such a different way of living when they get adopted. Especially if they have already been living on the streets for months or years already. All too often taking a dog from the feral environment in which it understands and is genetically adapted to and placing into a busy city, forced to live closely with humans, and their noisy technology, and accept walking tethered by a lead, away from the social structure they know, can do more harm than good. Many of these dogs live in a constant state of fear, often get rehomed and, sadly, many are euthanized for biting people to the great distress of the people who loved them.
Kipper is naturally shy of strangers, and it took a lot of time for him to completely adjust to living with me and getting to know my friends and family. For the first few weeks after he came to live with me, he would look at me suspiciously and growl if I came into the room wearing different clothes to the ones, I had left in. Despite this, I have been lucky with him. He is a very sweet and sensitive dog that loves to play and explore the hills with me. Also, his recall is great, he isn’t a great escape artist like others I have known, and he doesn’t get possessive over his food. Although he will bury it. One time he ‘buried’ a whole cooked lamb heart under the pillow on my mum’s bed! He does have some other behaviours that are probably because of his village dog genetics. He is lazy, loves to lie in the sun and is happy to follow the sun around the house or lie in the garden for hours each day. Village dogs would be at an advantage to rest and conserve energy as much as possible. Kipper also loves to observe. He sits on the bed looking out the window, watches people and dogs closely when we are out and about and stands and stares at me when he wants something. Village dogs probably closely watch the humans to get scraps of food from them and avoid things that get thrown at them.
Although Kipper is a village dog, the DNA results told me that he also has short stretches of DNA in common with these breeds:
- Bavarian Mountain Scent Hound
- German Shepherd Dog
- Coton de Tulear
- Welsh Terrier
It is common for Village dogs to have short stretches of DNA that match purebred dogs. This can be because these breeds and the village dogs share a distant common ancestor, or it could be because of a more recent mating between a purebred and a village dog.
This could be useful as knowing the breeds that make up your dog can give clues to some specific behaviours. Scientific studies have determined that five behaviour traits with the highest breed heritability are: trainability, stranger-directed aggression, predatory chasing, attachment and attention-seeking. In other words, these behaviours have been the ones selected for when modern breeds were created. The relationship between these five traits and their association with certain genes also have some surprising similarities with humans. For example, genes involved in your dog’s energy level are the same as the genes involved in the resting heart rate, and sleep patterns of humans.
So what does breeding for traits such as herding, hunting and companionship mean for us when we are trying to train our dogs? This was tested in an experiment, conducted in the 1950s, where puppies of different breeds were provided with a bowl of food and whenever the puppy started to eat, a heartless experimenter hit the puppy on the bum and yelled “No”. The evil experimenter would then leave the room. Basenji puppies immediately devoured the food as soon as the experimenter left the room. But Shetland sheepdog puppies didn’t eat the food. This shows the importance of genetics in this behaviour as although the puppies were raised differently, it was their breed that predicted how they would react when they were treated cruelly. Basenjis are genetically different from many other breeds as, having been first brought over from Africa in 1937, they have never been crossed with the European breeds like Shetland sheepdogs have. Basenjis are also closely related to village dogs so if you have a dog with these genetics that steals food its perhaps a better idea to manage the dog’s environment by not leaving food where it is easy to take when they are alone. And teaching a leave cue by rewarding your dog for doing as you ask when there is food you don’t want them to eat. This will be much kinder and more likely to succeed than trying to bully them, like in the experiment, into behaving in a way that is going against thousands of years of genetics.
But what if your dog is a mixed breed dog? How will this impact their behaviour? The Dog Genome Project has researched this. They mated Gregor, a typical active and neurotic Border Collie, with Pepper, a typical laid back and stolid Newfoundland. Gregor was named after the 19th Century geneticist and monk Gregor Mendel who studied heredity in peas. Mendel came up with the theory of inheritance that is used today to explain the personality traits found in Pepper and Gregors’ puppies. The personality of these puppies fell somewhere in the middle relative to their parents; they were more affectionate and easy-going than Gregor, but more intense and excitable than Pepper. However, when this generation were mated to each other, to create Gregor and Peppers grandpuppies, the behaviour traits found in these puppies appeared an assorted mix of those found in their grandparents. The dogs of the grandpuppy generation collectively exhibited practically every possible combination of the behavioural characteristics found in their grandparents. This resulted in, for example, a puppy which was very affectionate with people and sociable with other dogs (Newfoundland characteristics), but that made lots of intense eye contact and startled easily (Border Collie traits). This means that the recent fashion of breeding two different breeds, usually but not exclusively poodles crosses, creates dogs with an eclectic and random mix of traits inherited from both breeds.
This might lead us to conclude that pedigree dogs are best if you are choosing the dog with the right temperament to fit into your family. However, there is also the problem of inbreeding with pedigree dogs. Inbreeding is a measure of how closely related your dog’s parents were. Often with pedigree dogs, close relatives, like brother and sister, are mated to each other to produce puppies that closely conform to an arbitrary breed standard. A dog's level of inbreeding is known to impact dog health and how long they live for. On average, dogs that are inbred tend to live shorter, unhealthier lives. The Coefficient of Inbreeding (COI) measures the proportion of your dog’s genes where the genes on the mother’s side are identical to those on the father’s side. The higher your dog’s COI, the more inbred your dog is. Kipper’s DNA test gave him a COI of 0% which is excellent: , according to his genetics, Kipper will have a long and healthy life.
But this isn’t the full genetic story as some of our dog’s DNA is altered by the environment that their parents lived in. This phenomenon is best explained by an experiment in which rats were frightened when they smelled cherry blossom. These rats were electrocuted in a room that had the smell of cherry blossom pumped into it. When the offspring of these rats were put in a box with the cherry blossom smell, they were frightened without ever having been electrocuted. This means that the sense of fear was linked to the smell of cherry blossom and this had been passed on through the genetic code of the parents. This phenomenon scientists call epigenetic inheritance. Epigenetics provides a way for signals about the environment to be transmitted from one generation to the next. Signals like, 'Food is scarce, prepare yourself for poor nutrition'. In actual fact, this particular epigenetic signal is often demonstrated in humans. Pregnant women who have lived through a period of starvation, like during the holocaust or the Dutch hunger winter, have had children that are more prone to obesity and the associated diseases like diabetes because of epigenetic inheritance. What this means for our dogs is that the conditions that the mother lives in will determine what genes her puppy expresses. This means that when you choose a puppy, be sure to check out the living conditions of mum as well as her overall health and personality. The dad too, if possible.
Along with a breed and the COI I also got a genetic health test from Kippers Embark results. More than 200 genes associated with diseases in dogs are now known. In dog breeding circles, these DNA tests are used to say which dogs are allowed to breed because they can identify genes associated with genetic diseases. Kipper was clear for all 200 tests reported by Embark! Yay and woohoo!
When I first saw that Kipper was clear from all known mutations, I was really happy at first. That’s despite the fact that most, if not all, of these genes are likely from mutations that never occurred in his breed in the first place. Still, the authority that these tests had over me was pretty strong and if someone has asked my advice in the past about genetic health tests, I would have been all for it. But the day after receiving Kippers results, I found out from the course I am taking, The Behaviour Bible from School of Canine Science, that much of the science we have at the moment is pretty poor. Most of the genetic tests available are based on small, badly designed, underpowered studies. An underpowered study is one in which not enough data was obtained to draw a meaningful conclusion. And neither the accuracy nor their ability to predict health outcomes of genetic tests has been proven with follow up research. This means that we don’t know what percent of dogs with a ‘bad’ gene will actually get the disease. As well as this, without anyone regulating the dog genes industry, there are many potential conflicts of interest associated with making profits from pet owners. To clarify this point, the ‘The Behaviour Bible’ course spoke to experts who gave this example:
“a pet healthcare corporate database could be used to identify the breed of an owner's dog. The corporation owning the database might then notify the [veterinary] clinic (which might be owned by the same company) that a genetic test for a specific illness is warranted, regardless of that test's medical value. If the test comes back positive, the clinic vet might recommend preventative steps such as specific pet foods (made by the same company), periodic screening tests (performed by the company's clinical lab), and more-frequent exams (performed at the company's vet clinics), even though there may be low or no risk of disease in the first place.”
If that above quote is true, genetic health testing might just be a big money-making ploy by large corporations. So, I will wait until the science is more reliable, and the corporations more ethical, before doing health tests on the dogs I will have in future. Despite this, it is true that many diseases and behavioural disorders are genetically inherited. Canine compulsive disorder is one example. This is where a dog does repetitive behaviours, like shadow chasing and excessive licking. For example, flank sucking is a compulsive behaviour found almost always only in Doberman Pinschers. It is caused by a gene that is involved in making brain cells. Dogs showing multiple compulsive behaviours have a higher frequency of this gene than dogs with fewer compulsive behaviours. And some genes in cocker spaniels make them more likely to be aggressive. Genetic facts like this contradicts the popular phrase ‘there are no bad dogs, only bad owners’. Often, people love and look after their dogs very well, but the dogs’ genetic tendencies can make living with them difficult and sometimes impossible.
So, to conclude: what have I learned from Kippers DNA test? Well, apart from that the health test are almost meaningless and that COI is a better predictor of the overall health of your dog, I have learned that Kipper is an Eastern European Village Dog. But if I’m honest, I kinda knew it already. He looks a lot like one, I’ve seen pictures of dogs that look just like him that are village dogs, and his behaviour is like the village/street dogs in the documentaries and books I consume about the breed. But it’s good to feel certain about his breed as in some ways it is hard to imagine that my Kipper is genetically adapted to the harsh life of fending for himself. This dog who doesn’t like the rain and likes me to smooth out blankets before he lies down on them has the genetics of dogs that have been looking after themselves for millennia. He has even trained me to warm up a seat for him before he goes to curl up on it. He also has such a sweet, gentle and sensitive nature, I was going to say he wouldn’t hurt a fly but in actual fact he hunts them quite seriously and efficiently. I wonder if that is part of his genetic makeup too….