Wednesday, March 5, 2014

The Wisdom Panel DNA Test

When Brisbane was a deceptively adorable puppy, dog breed DNA tests were just beginning to hit the market. When I first heard about them, there were only two available. The Canine Heritage DNA test was done with a cheek swab, but only tested for the 20 most common breeds at the time, and did not include Australian cattledog, border collie, Australian shepherd, Shetland sheepdog, or any other breeds we thought Briz might contain. The other product on the market was the Wisdom Panel, which required a blood sample but could detect over a hundred breeds. The test kit itself cost over $100, and a vet appointment for a blood draw was an additional cost.

I knew Brisbane's mother, Sally, was a working Australian cattledog, but his father was a huge mystery. His breeder had been intending to produce a litter of purebred cattledogs, but on the way back from visiting the stud dog at the next ranch over, Sally jumped out of the back of the truck. A different neighbor returned her the next morning, apologizing for letting his beagle mix get to her. She produced a litter of seven puppies, two short-haired and houndy-looking, two tri-colored curlies including Brisbane, and three white fluffies with markings only on their faces.

I have been collecting breed guesses on Brisbane his entire life. Corgi fans often suggest his dad was a corgi mix. Sheltie-lovers are sure he's a sheltie mix. When he was a bitey little monster we joked that he was a land-shark.

The only sure thing was that he was half Australian cattledog, and that he has inherited 100% of the heeler temperament from his mother. I've always thought of him as a funny-looking ACD. Experienced herding trainers have watchied him work sheep and said that he is an absolute natural and needs very little training or direction. He's better at herding than a lot of purebred herding-breed dogs. I had always figured that his dad must have been a hodgepodge of other herding breeds.

By the time I finally got around to forking over the money for a DNA test last year, the technology had improved tremendously. Mars Veterinary had bought out pretty much all of their competitors, and had grown their database to over 200 different breeds. Ongoing research means their product just keeps getting better. I followed their instructions for carefully collecting a cheek swab, and mailed it off.

I also made this for Brisbane's fans when I announced I was getting him tested:

After three weeks I got the results, which were...unlikely.

I was ready to write off the DNA tests as amusing but obviously inaccurate. However, I noticed that on Amazon.com every bad review was followed up with a reply from the company requesting that the customer contact them. I sent them a picture of Brisbane and also this picture of his mother, asking them to tell me with a straight face that she was actually half bullmastiff.

A month later, an actual geneticist from Mars Veterinary called me and geeked out about dog breeds with me for nearly an hour. I learned that the sample dogs used to develop the breed algorithms were all AKC registered. Sally was from working lines and not a perfect match with the AKC dogs, so the computer came up with bullmastiff as a false positive. The geneticist was able to look at all of the possible results, and gave me a new analysis with the breeds that showed up in every projection. She said the bullmastiff genes were very strong, and that the Cavalier King Charles spaniel showed up in every projection. Here is Brisbane's official result:

I am very happy with this result, the Cavalier King Charles Spaniel is definitely the piece of the puzzle that I was missing. Brisbane has very spanielly ears and a perfect spaniel tail as well. AmStaff and mastiff is a very common mix. The best part is that the geneticist thinks Brisbane's dad was a mid-sized, short-haired, stocky, tri-color dog with big floppy ears. Sounds like a beagle to me! Here's what that "mixed breed" could mean.
According to the geneticist, the Xolo shows up as a false positive for a lot of pitbull-type dogs. I was hoping it meant "Mexican street dog", but apparently the Xolo genes cluster pretty tightly with European terriers. I see two spitzy-type breeds on there, which could explain why Brisbane carries his tail curled over his back instead of straight like all the identifiable breeds in the mix. Patricia McConnell, one of my favorite authors and behaviorists, has a great explanation of some of the finer points of interpreting breed DNA tests if you'd like to read more.

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