Doggie DNA test surprisingly accurate

Bob Patchen/MDN A quiet armistice between Otis and Brody, our cat, after a long day of moving into our new home in late December.

Before moving to Minot, my family and I had an English Springer Spaniel, named Sawyer. At the very beginning of COVID-19 in April 2020, he suddenly became very ill. We thought he had gotten into the garbage and eaten something that he should not have eaten. We were wrong. He had a very aggressive stomach cancer.

At our vet’s recommendation in our old hometown in Pennsylvania, we had him euthanized on June 16, 2020. I was 1,400 miles away in Minot. My wife was forced to make the decision. I still have the picture from that day, moments before Jodi handed his leash to the vet attendant. She wasn’t allowed to go in with him because of COVID-19 restrictions. It was heartbreaking.

It took us a long time to heal as a family from that experience. The same thing happened after our first dog, Austin, passed away. At first, we weren’t sure if we’d ever get a dog again. Then, as we healed, we started talking about possibly getting another dog.

More than three years later, on August 6, we happened upon a Standard Poodle/English Shepherd mix or a Shepherdoodle, the last of the litter of pups. As soon as Jodi laid her eyes on him, I didn’t have a chance. He was now part of our family. After a lot of back-and-forth on names, our oldest son wanted to name him Napoleon. Our middle son, who enjoys watching professional wrestling, said, “He looks like the WWE wrestler, Otis. We should name him Otis.”

Otis has now evolved to have several nicknames: Oti-Wan Cannoli, The Big Woo, Velcro and Deuce. Deuce is probably not what you’re thinking; get your minds out of the gutter. He shares a lot of mannerisms with Sawyer. The big one is that he smiles just like Sawyer. Velcro is because if my wife is home, he is attached to her hip. Each nickname has a backstory, and he answers when called to all of them.

On a whim, in October, I emailed the press relations team for the dog DNA testing company Embark. I asked if they provide a test kit, and I’d write about the experience in a column — this very column. They agreed and gave me access to their vet. I have been very impressed with the entire process and how quickly we received our results back. So, after receiving the results, I fired several questions off to Embark’s veterinary geneticist, Dr. Jenna Dockweiler. Some of those questions were to understand language and other specific details that I’m not going to write about in this column.

With the results in hand, the Big Woo is 50% Standard Poodle, 44% English Shepherd and 6% Scottish (Scotch) Collie. According to the test, there is some Scotch Collie in the deeper roots of his family tree on the maternal side. Another part of the testing process is a health component that tests for 256 different health risks. A total of 11 applied directly to Otis, all negative, and the other 245 were also negative. The other 245 are linked to other breeds of dogs, but good news there. The amount of information that is available through the testing covers a wide range of things, like traits, chance of inbreeding, wolfiness and predicting his adult weight.

By the way, his wolfiness is medium, which explains the nickname Big Woo, and his predicted adult weight is 67 pounds. We’re not surprised by that at all. He has gotten a lot bigger than we expected. After reading through all of the results, the first question I asked was to have the general process of genetic testing for dogs explained.

“Embark currently tests for over 350 breeds and varieties, over 250 genetic health conditions, and approximately 35 physical traits. After obtaining a sample via a cheek swab, your dog’s DNA is then analyzed at our state-of-the-art, CLIA-certified, dog-approved lab facility. At the lab, we extract the DNA and run it on our custom-built testing platform, which is a proprietary microarray with over 230,000 markers. This chip produces a detailed view of a dog’s genome, which we run through our proprietary bioinformatics pipeline — created by the top dog DNA scientists in the world. This is how we discover your dog’s ancestry, health, traits, relatives, and more,” wrote Dr. Dockweiler. “I’m pleased to hear Otis is clear of all the conditions for which we currently test! If he did have a genetic predisposition to one of these diseases, we would potentially be able to make changes to his diet, lifestyle, or veterinary monitoring to help prevent, delay, or mitigate the effects of that disease. This is why it’s important to test prior to any symptoms if possible!”

The second question I asked was far more specific regarding his DNA profile showing 6% Scotch Collie. I asked how close the ancestry lines between an English Shepherd and a Scotch Collie are on a DNA genome. I’m going to provide Dr. Dockweiler’s full answer, but to sum it up, they’re close.

“To determine breed ancestry, we look at long stretches of the genome in dogs of known breeds from our reference panel. When we see identical long stretches of DNA in two different individuals, this means they were inherited from the same, somewhat recent, ancestor. If we add up all the stretches of DNA that match perfectly to one and only one breed, we are able to identify how much of their DNA must have been inherited from that breed. We then do this for any other breed found in the dog, and from all that, we can understand what percentage of the dog’s ancestry came from each breed,” wrote Dr. Dockweiler in an email exchange. “However, genetic ancestry analysis is sensitive to the genetic diversity within individual breed populations. So a mixed-breed result for a dog that is a registered purebred could mean that it carries genetic diversity that is not captured in our current reference set, or that the dog genuinely has a recent ancestor from another breed. In Otis’s case, Old-Time Scotch Collies and English Shepherds share ancestry. In addition, Old-Time Scotch Collies are a landrace breed, meaning they are genetically heterogeneous and loosely connected through a shared geographical area and function (rather than a strict breed standard and closed stud book). The more formalized English Shepherd breed was likely developed from the Old-Time Scotch Collie. It is possible Otis’s small amount of Scotch Collie ancestry represents a true recent ancestor, or it may be due to genetic diversity within the English Shepherd breed not fully captured by our reference panel.”

The most surprising thing is how accurate some of the trait predictions, besides his predicted weight, are compared to how he behaves. His appetite, for one, came back normal. We had to start him as a young puppy with a bowl that slowed down how much he ate. Because he comes from a larger litter, I’m sure when he was still with his litter mates, eating was a contest to see which pup could get the most food. But now, his bowl routinely has food in it because he doesn’t finish the serving size recommended by the brand of food that we’re feeding him. We are feeding him high-protein puppy food because of his size and energy level. He does like to steal off the counter if no one is looking.

Needless to say, I’m thoroughly impressed with the Embark DNA panel, and the funniest part of the Embark test is that it shows you relatives of your dog if you choose to share the information, and Oti-Wan Cannoli comes from a long line of dogs with very fancy names, all first cousins: Red Bank Whisper of Smoke, Major Winston Churchill, White O’Morn Freya, and Isabella Dawn Monroe Shepherd. With all of those fancy first cousins, it feels like Oti-Wan Cannoli will have to be his “name of record.”

To our new neighbors in Burlington, sorry about the barking. We’re working on it.


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