Dog DNA test; Decoding your mysterious mutt

dog dna test

Do you share your life with a magnificent mutt? Have you ever wondered what lies beneath that loveable exterior? A dog DNA test may hold the answers for you. 

Despite being around since 2007 dog DNA tests have only recently become popular for dog owners.

But can a dog DNA test actually provide any useful information? Or is it just a way of satisfying our curiosity about our dog’s history?

Actually, knowing your dog’s ancestry can provide useful insights that may help you better understand your dog’s character traits, and appearance.

But perhaps, more importantly, any genetic predisposition for particular illness or conditions.

How does at-home Dog DNA Testing Work?

Several companies offer at-home dog DNA test kits. Simply order the test kit online, and you will receive everything you need to take the DNA sample at home.

Once you receive your kit, read the instructions carefully. The DNA sample is usually gathered by taking a cheek swab from your dog using a small brush that is provided.

However, most kits suggest a wait time after your dog’s last meal. And also require you to air dry the swab before placing it in its return container.

Follow the steps carefully before sending the swab back in the prepaid envelope. Then all you need to do is to wait for the results that are sent back to you usually via e-mail or via password access online.

How do they know what my dog’s ancestry is?

OK, so you’ve taken a sample from your dog and sent it back as instructed. But how does the DNA of your dog help identify what breeds are in its ancestry?

Each of the companies that offer DNA testing has an existing DNA database of the most common pure breed dog breeds recognised by the Kennel Club in the USA and in the UK.

During the process of analysis, the DNA markers in your dog’s sample are compared to the thousands of DNA markers contained in the reference database.

So, if your dog has DNA markers in common with a dog breed in the existing database, its ancestry can be identified.

But what happens if your dog has parentage that is not recognised by the Kennel Club in the USA or the UK? Or what if your dog is the result of many generations of mutts?

How accurate are dog DNA tests?

Most of the dog DNA tests are accurate in identifying the breeds of a given dog if they have a pure breed within three generations, parent, grandparent and great-grandparent.

However, if your dog’s genes have been diluted over many generations of mixed breeding, it can prove more difficult.

Sometimes called village dogs, these are the type of dog that people used to refer to as mongrels or Heinz 57’s.

In these cases, the gene pool is so diverse that any trace of pure breed lineage may not be able to be identified in the DNA results.

While current tests are not perfect. The accuracy of the results is increasing as more breeds are added to the company’s databases.

How to choose a DNA test

Every business that offers a dog DNA test uses a different database, and some of those databases are more extensive than others. This means that the tests vary in the number of dog breeds that can be identified.

Also, while all the tests provide breed information. Only some will give you potential health risks associated with the ancestral breeds.

Not only does the information vary from test to test but also turn-around times differ and of course so do the cost.

So what are the top dog DNA tests on the market? We’ve rounded up the three most popular, Wisdom Panel Insights Dog DNA Test, Embark Dog DNA Test and DNA My Dog. All of the tests mentioned use cheek swab samples that you take at home.

Wisdom Panel Insights Dog DNA Test

  • Screening for more than 185 breeds and varieties
  • Over 1800 genetic markers
  • Identification of purebred ancestors present in the first three generations (to the great-grandparent level)
  • A predicted weight profile
  • Extensive behavioural information on the breed(s) detected
  • The test can be run for mixed-breed, designer, or purebred dogs
  • Affordable
  • Results usually take around 3-4 weeks.
  • Offers genetic mutation testing for two inherited health conditions

What we like

Mars Veterinary who produce Wisdom panel has a long history in the field of canine genetics. Their Dog DNA test results are well presented and easy to understand. What's more, their extensive reference database provides excellent results for most dogs.

Wisdom panel also offers you the option of testing for a pure breed, designer or mixed breed dog. With the pure breed and designer dog options providing additional comparison charts to dogs of the same breed.

What we don't like

The only thing that Wisdom doesn't offer is a full health report on the ancestral breeds of your dog.

However, once you know your dog's lineage, it's easy to look up the specific breeds and research any known health issues.

Embark Dog DNA Test

  • Screening of more than 160 breeds and varieties
  • Over 200,000 genetic markers (100 times more than the competition)
  • Genetic mutation testingfor over 160 canine health conditions
  • Identification of purebred ancestors present in the first three generations (to the great-grandparent level)
  • Partnered with Cornell College of Veterinary Medicine
  • Embark will update your results if new information is found (where possible)
  • Tests for village dog DNA
  • Updates are regularly sent on the progress of your test
  • Detailed vet report
  • Results usually take around 8 weeks

What we like

Embark provide a health report that can be shared with your vet outlining potential health issues related to your dog's breeds. They are partnered with Cornell College of Veterinary Medicine and will update your results retrospectively as new data is added to their system.

Not only that they are the only one of the three tests reviewed that includes village dog ancestry (currently about three-quarters of the billion or so dogs alive today are village dogs).

What we don't like

Embark have the longest turn-around time and are the most expensive by some margin.

DNA My Dog

  • Screening of more than 84 breeds and varieties
  • Dominant breeds, personality traits, and health concerns
  • Results usually take around 2-3 weeks
  • Breed level composition

What we like

This is the only test out of the three that offers a breakdown of your dog's breeds by level. These levels equate to the percentage of each breed in your dog.

For example, if your dog has over 75% of DNA from a particular breed it is classed as Level 1. Level 2 represents 37-74%, and level 3 equates to 20-36% and so on.

What we don't like

DNA my dog has the smallest reference database by far and screens for only around 84 breeds and varieties.

Unfortunately, this means that the results are not as accurate for heavily mixed breed dogs.

Our top pick

If you want to test your dog out of curiosity, then it’s hard to beat the Wisdom Panel for value for money and accuracy.

With an extensive database that includes the greatest number of dog breeds. This test offers a fascinating insight into your dog’s makeup.

Not only do you get a breakdown of a parent, grandparent and great-grandparent breed. But you also get detailed character traits of each breed as well as an estimated weight profile for your dog.

Although Wisdom panel  do not offer a genetic health profile for breed type, if you are happy to do a bit of research yourself it’s not difficult to find potential genetic health concerns for breed types.

Are dog DNA tests worth it?

If you are curious about what breeds lurk within your dog, then it’s well worth investing in a dog DNA test.

Not only do the results give you an insight into the history of your dog. But they also help in understanding character and behaviour traits.

As these tests become more popular the databases of reference DNA will grow and help develop even more accurate results.

So even though the results are sometimes surprising, part of the fun is guessing what unique mix your dog is before the report comes back.