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DNA & The Well-Mixed Mutt
Dogs are more than the sum of their parts

After years of flattering inquiries about our canines (“Oh, what a beautiful… what is he?”) and faltering replies (“Maybe…a Cocker/couch-potato mix?”), I decided to explore the new mixed-breed DNA testing.

Not that I couldn’t hazard some serious guesses about their ancestry. Upon rescue, Ticker appeared to be tan, but once rinsed of an entire puppyhood’s worth of dirt and neglect, his coat was actually white: white with faint ticking that, with age, has returned to the original dirty tan. Since our home already included two Retrievers, we thought to train this stray for my parents. Dad had just endured heart surgery, and Ticker could be the perfect cardiac rehab dog: Ticker for his own ticker. Within a week, we concluded that our own hearts needed a third dog.

Guesses as to Ticker’s lineage began with an inventory of the canines we recognized from 10 years of twice-daily walks: Dachshund? Neapolitan Mastiff? A few cheerful mixes? Our urban gene pool mostly offered “Pits.” Even our Golden Retriever and our Labrador-mix —according to the kids who came over to ask, “Those dogs bite?”—were guessed to be a “Pit,” a “Rott” or a “Rott-Pit mix.”

True enough, Ticker’s chest and legs are a bit stocky, but not massive. His shoulders and head are slight as a sighthound’s. And, if we’re going by bad PR and stereotypes, he is a biter. (A three-time, never-breaks- the-skin nipper, actually.)

Taking into consideration his Whippet-like waist, markings that suggest a Brittany or English Setter, and an early penchant for shredding upholstery and relieving pillows of stuffing (not sure which breeds were built for that), we announced him as a Whipbull Terrier.

So what did DNA testing reveal about Ticker? That he’s a remixed mixed-breed. Only 15 percent of dogs tested have as much miscegenation (perhaps you’d prefer the term “well-socialized heritage”?). The one hint of a progenitor the report offered: Dalmatian. And yet, the firehouse in our old neighborhood didn’t keep a dog, and the only “heats” on those blocks were barbecue grills and insurance fires.

“Looking at Ticker,” the test states we “should see”: [blank]. Okay, no clear parentage. It suggests we “might see”: [blank]. Okay, so no grandparents from the Old World. It does allow “a chance of seeing” traits from: Flat-coated Retriever, French Bulldog, Labrador Retriever.

Whipbull Terrier clearly needs amending: Ticker is a French Labation. A Bullcoated almador. Indeed, Ticker possesses a Dalmatian’s intelligence, stamina and family-oriented fixation. From the Flat-coated Retriever, he could have inherited his food motivation and eagerness to fetch. From the Lab? Perhaps his love of swimming, car rides and licking dinner plates. And from the French Bulldog? A comical personality? An ability to put up with endearing diminutives and humans blowing raspberries on his pink belly? It all feels a bit like gerrymandering personality quirks to fit a zodiac sign, or attributing character flaws to “precognitive memories.”

Barrett’s analysis provides a different perspective. A rescue from rural Ohio, he’d been bounced among a few homes for being “just too much dog.” At first, we took him to be an overly blond Golden Retriever. Lithe, but with an exceptionally broad head and prominent nose, he is affable surfer dude. A canine Owen Wilson.

As he’s aged, he’s thickened to 115 pounds and his feathering, especially on his tail, sports hairs that easily reach 10 inches. Some Newfoundland? Part Great Pyrenees? There was a slight mottling in the face and ears to suggest the latter. But zero instinct to herd. Zero interest in pulling carts. (True, we’ve never offered him any carts, although there is the occasional promise of a pet donkey if he finishes his homework.)

As for behavior, Barrett is a people person, preferring to supervise gardening from the truck’s back seat, watch from the porch for the last-to-arrive home, flop on the carpet and amuse himself by repeatedly triggering the songs in his stuffed songbird collection. Sure, he chases deer like a Foxhound, sniffs out rabbits like a Beagle and stands chest deep in our pond like a water buffalo—but this hardly illuminates his lineage.

Barrett’s DNA test reveals one clear progenitor. We “should see” aspects of: Chinese Shar-Pei.We read these words with the same quizzical amusement with which we read the fortune cookies our pan-Asian carry-out tosses in the bag along with the won-tons. His parent or grandparent was a dog that in 1978 was considered by Guinness to be the rarest in the world? A dog introduced to the U.S. in 1966 and only recognized by the AKC 17 years ago had found its way to Appalachian Ohio and evinced itself in a dog possessing nothing like the breed’s “short, harsh coat…loose skin covering the head and body…small ears… ‘hippopotamus’ muzzle shape”? But even more curious, Barrett shares none of the Shar-Pei’s “independence, wariness around strangers, or possible aggression with pets and people.”

Barrett’s report concedes that his other ancestors are as remote as Ticker’s. Oddly, the Labrador Retriever and Flat-coated Retriever rear their handsome, promiscuous heads in his case, as well.

So has this genetic information enriched our understanding, changed the doting, ever-watched-over lives we offer our companions, tempted us to collect new breed-specific knick-knackery? Bark readers, I suspect, know (and share) our conclusion: Dogs are beyond a single, double, or even motley, answer. Rather, each companion is an ongoing question, a partner with whom we share our mixed-up, muddled, ever-more-hybridized planet.
 

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This article first appeared in The Bark,
Issue 50: Sept/Oct 2008
Michael J. Rosen has written a shelf-full of books; among the most recent are Dogs We Love and, for middle-grade readers, Our Farm: Four Seasons with Five Kids on One Family's Farm. fidosopher.com
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