My qualification for dog guessing is that I spent my childhood studying the American Kennel Club breed book the way other kids studied baseball cards and automobile grills. It has stood me in good stead. My proudest moment in dog identification came when I correctly asked, about a small dog scurrying around a plant nursery in the Adirondacks, “Is that a Schipperke?”
Yes! It was.
I have also correctly identified Brussels Griffons on the leash in Manhattan.
But, faced with photographs of mixed breeds and having to pick more than one ancestral strain, I realized that I don’t really know anything about what happens when dogs interbreed. I am now a firm believer in getting mutts as pets, but I tend to think of all mutts as Labrador retrievers mixed with something, if they are big, or poodle mixes if they are small, with a few chihuahuas thrown in.
I’m not alone, apparently. Elinor Karlsson, a genetic researcher at the Broad Institute, who runs Darwin’s Dogs among other projects, said, “People look at dogs as a something and a something. Turns out that it’s way more complicated than that.”
The Darwin’s Dogs program — an attempt to draw on dog owners to build a database of purebred and mixed breed dogs — has been collecting DNA by asking dog owners to take a saliva sample and send it in, along with photos and answers to a very detailed questionnaire about the dog’s appearance and behavior. So far, it has 17,400 dogs signed up, and 400 dogs with their DNA sequenced. The program does not charge, so far, for the genetic sequencing, and does not promise an immediate result.
Credit Fred R. Conrad/The New York Times
But from its own data and other canine genetic research, it has the answers on what breeds went into the making of each dog in the survey.
If you want quick results for your own dog, there are other ventures. Embark, a company founded by Adam Boyko, a dog geneticist at Cornell University, says it has the most accurate DNA test among commercial services.
For $199, an owner can send in a dog’s DNA, as you would if you were getting human DNA tested. His company tests 200,000 so-called genetic markers, or sites in the DNA, similar to the number tested at the Broad Institute. It then provides a complete report to the pet owners on the dog’s breed, or breeds and genetic health factors.
The goal of the MuttMix survey, for Dr. Karlsson, is to learn how good people are at identifying dog breeds.
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It may also serve to attract people to the Darwin’s Dogs project, which is of use both in studying dogs and in studying human health problems like Obsessive Compulsive Disease that have analogs in dogs.
As to the mutts in the survey, I can’t give anything away, but good luck with “Maxine,” and “Jack,” two dogs in the survey that stumped me.
If you get Maxine right, well, then, lah di dah. Not that I’m competitive, you understand.