Are Doggy DNA Tests Worthwhile?

A Puli dog walks on a dirt road.
Is your dog part Puli? Probably not, no matter what the DNA panel says. Creative Commons photo by Rennender

DNA tests started out as a fun way to try to figure out a mixed-breed dog’s genetic makeup. Many people I know who’ve done them have gotten results that made me a little skeptical — high percentages of extremely rare breeds. I am not a geneticist, though, and it all seemed harmless enough.

But.

People are using — and the testing companies are marketing — these tests in two ways that could be very, very bad for dogs: to attempt to predict dogs’ future health problems and to “tailor” behavioral training. And, according to an excellent column in Nature, the tests are extremely inaccurate.

Let’s start with the problem of trying to tailor behavioral training to the supposed mix of breeds in your dog. Your dog is a unique individual. Whether purebred or mixed, each dog’s behavior is affected to some extent by genetic drives — some dogs want to herd everything; some want to chase whatever moves. It’s also enormously affected by personality and experience. Within a breed, within a litter, even, the personalities and drives can be very different.

A good trainer tailors her teaching to the individual dog, of course, but she bases her work on the dog in front of her — not on some possibly wildly inaccurate list of breed percentages. If a dog is half Lab and half German shepherd, do you reward with food half the time, since the shepherd half might not be food focused? Do you use harsher methods half the time if your dog’s ancestry might lie in a military dog line? It’s silly when you start to parse out what it might mean in day-to-day training and life. A smart dog owner will choose a trainer who uses motivational methods tailored to the dog based on her hands-on experience working with that dog.

But a far more dangerous use of these tests is in attempting to predict future illnesses. The Nature article, and these related articles in the Washington Post and the Undark website explain the problems with this in great detail. In sum:

  • The mapping of a single gene mutation to a specific disease is far from foolproof. Genes express themselves differently in different breeds, so a gene that is linked to a condition in one breed might not behave the same way in another breed. And no one really knows what happens in mixed-breed dogs.
  • Having a specific gene mutation might (or might not) increase the risk of a particular disease. Basing a decision to euthanize your dog on very imprecise data, rather than on the actual dog’s health and symptoms, is cruel.
  • People unnecessarily panic when they get the results that show gene mutations — which might be completely meaningless. They pay for — and subject their dogs to — unnecessary, stressful, and expensive tests, which generally don’t tell them anything conclusive anyhow.

The truth is, genetic testing in humans works much the same way … results are often highly inaccurate; they are not predictive; and they could cause people to panic and get unnecessary “treatment” for a disease they think they might get some day. But as an adult, you get to make that choice for yourself. Subjecting your dog to it — or killing him out of fear of what might happen — is horrible!

The testing companies are businesses. They make money by selling you the tests. They also make money by selling the huge amounts of data they collect on test subjects. Veterinary clinics are also businesses, which many people lose sight of. Some vets are ethical and don’t push expensive tests. Others … not so much. Vets can make money by suggesting further testing, special diets that they sell, treatment … there is a definite conflict of interest that can exploit loving pet owners’ worst fears.

So, if you’re curious about whether your pup has some Puli or Xoloitzcuintli in his past (unlikely), go ahead and do the test. Just don’t base decisions about his medical care on the results. Train, and care for, the dog in front of you — his behaviors, his quirks, and his medical symptoms.

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Choosing a Dog Food

I’ve gotten some questions about choosing dog foods, particularly since this post was published: Should Your Dog Go Grain-Free? Here are some guidelines (and opinions) I recently provided to people who asked:

  • I’ve seen wonderful results with dogs eating mostly or entirely raw diets. These can be fresh, frozen, dehydrated, or homemade. I personally would not do homemade; it’s a lot of work, I don’t want all that meat in my vegetarian kitchen, and it’s challenging to ensure you are meeting all of the dog’s nutritional needs.
  • For dehydrated, Honest Kitchen is a good brand that is easy to find in good pet stores and online. If you buy directly from the company, you get free treats and other rewards (well, your dog does …).
  • For frozen, Primal and Instinct are nationally available; check in high-end pet stores for local or regional brands. Cali eats Steve’s Real Food, which is not available everywhere. Getting frozen food delivered is really expensive. Learn more here: Dog Food Advisor.
  • For kibble, I can’t say it enough: Choose a food from the Whole Dog Journal’s list. They look into ingredient quality and sourcing and manufacturing practices. They really do their homework.
  • Never buy dog food or treats at the supermarket. Health food stores and natural grocers are a possible exception. If you live in a less urban area, feed stores might stock a wide variety of pet foods and treats; watch quality and check ingredients, but these places might be less expensive than high-end pet stores.
  • That said, shop around. I’m considering switching Cali’s kibble to a brand that uses higher quality ingredients than her current Canidae. It actually costs less — and the real attraction is that I can get it at the high end store where I get her frozen food.
  • For dog treats, look for things that are simple: dried meat or fish, locally baked, few-ingredient biscuits. Avoid anything with artificial colors, preservatives, or ingredients you can’t pronounce. (That’s good advice for choosing your own treats, too!)
  • There’s no need to specifically seek grain-free foods, but many of the top brands have little or no grain. I do avoid wheat and especially corn, a common filler in cheap dog foods. Most of that filler ends up on your lawn. And, corn is a common allergen in dogs.
  • If your dog is gassy or has digestive issues, try a diet change. The protein could be wrong, or there might just be some ingredient or combination that doesn’t work well with your dog’s digestive system.
  • Food sensitivities are a common cause of itchy dogs. And ear problems. If your dog seems itchy and you don’t think it’s a seasonal allergy, take a look at her food. Eliminate corn and wheat. And chicken. If that doesn’t help, consult someone knowledgeable about canine nutrition (NOT necessarily your vet!).

Choosing a Protein

  • Some people prefer to feed a diet with multiple protein sources. When Cali had digestive issues as an adolescent, I decided that that made it too hard to know what was causing the problem.
  • I tend to avoid chicken-based kibbles, since many dogs are sensitive to it and since a lot of the larger dog food manufacturers aren’t using the highest quality chicken. I don’t want my dog eating meat from animals that were loaded with hormones and steroids, for example.
  • Very few dogs need exotic proteins. Don’t spend the money unless you know your dog is allergic to the more common, and more affordable, meats.
  • Pay attention to your dog. If she’s always hot, seeks the cool spot in the house, or gets hotspots or other inflammatory problems, avoid lamb and other “warm” proteins. Beef and turkey are neutral. Duck and most fish are “cool” proteins. On the other hand, if your dog loves the sun and wants to sleep under the covers and suffers even in a Florida winter, do look for lamb-based foods. You might think the idea of warming and cooling foods is mumbo-jumbo, but it has definitely helped both Cali and her sister Dora resolve recurrent hotspot issues. I’m a believer.

A Helping Hand Could Keep Some Pets at Home

A golden retriever carries a box of dog biscuits
Delivering pet food could keep some dogs out of shelters (photo by Sae Hokoyama)

Not all dogs and cats who end up at shelters are unwanted. Some families abandon their pets because they cannot afford to feed them or house them or provide needed veterinary care.

An article I read recently in the New York Times suggests that the “no-kill” shelter movement might unintentionally contribute to the problem. By focusing on getting dogs and cats into new homes, the shelters might be neglecting the reasons many of those animals are in the shelter in the first place.

It might be time for some creative thinking and number-crunching. I’d guess that it costs less to feed a dog than to house him in a shelter until he can be placed in a new home. It certainly has less of an emotional cost for the dog and all the humans involved.

Whether they never should have gotten a pet in the first place, or they were doing fine until a health crisis, job loss, or other financial disaster hit, many people who love their pets find themselves short of cash at one time or another. Finding ways to keep these families intact (pets are family too!) makes more sense than sending the dogs and cats to languish (or die) in shelters.

I don’t for a minute think that that is the only reason animals end up in shelters, but it’s probably possible to make a significant dent in the problem.

Here in Missoula, an organization called Animeals (which also has a cat shelter and cat adoption, foster, and hospice care programs) addresses some of these issues throughout Montana. Animeals runs a pet-food bank and delivers food to homebound, disabled, and senior pet owners, often providing the help that allows them to keep their pets. It feeds homeless animals as well, delivering food to volunteers who feed feral cats and dogs. Animeals also has programs to help families in crisis and to assist impoverished pet owners with vet bills.

Some Meals on Wheels programs across the U.S. deliver donated pet food along with the humans’ meals. And I am sure that other cities or states have local initiatives. Check into what’s happening in your area and consider donating pet food or some of your time. It’s a relatively easy way to make a big difference.

 

A New Puppy!

No, I am not getting a new puppy! A good friend is getting one though, so I have been thinking about puppy prep lately. In no particular order, here are some things we talked about.

Socialization

We visited my favorite local training school, Sit Happens, so that my friend could meet her puppy-to-be’s kindergarten teacher. We watched several young puppies play in carefully supervised small groups, and talked about drop-in playtime, classes, and, in good time, a more formal manners class. Little Maisy will be very well educated. Best of all, I get to go to puppy class, and I don’t have to get up in the middle of the night with the puppy!

Food

We selected a good quality, reasonably priced food for Maisy, making sure that it was from a brand on the Whole Dog Journal’s approved list. They do all the homework of choosing quality foods, checking on the manufacturing processes, where ingredients are sourced, and whether the foods are nutritionally sound and include high-quality, identified, meat-based proteins.

Toys

I suggested getting lots of chew toys, especially ones that can hide treats. Maisy will spend a few hours at home each morning and afternoon while her family is off at work or school. She’ll need to develop a hobby, preferably one that doesn’t entail thousands of dollars in repairs and remodels to the house. So. Chew toys.

A play pen

Little Cali, age 10 weeks, shares Jana's dog bed
Cali appreciated the comfort of her big sister’s dog bed from her first day home. She never chewed on or ripped it. Not all puppies are as wise.

I lent the doting parents an ex-pen to create a safe space for Maisy when she can’t be supervised. I suggested taping heavy-duty plastic to the floor, as my friends did when our girls (Cali and Dora) were young. Whenever the humans are away or distracted, I advised putting Maisy in her safe space with some chew toys. Of course, when they are home, they will spend lots of time playing with her and cuddling her outside the pen. And rushing her outside!

Maisy also has a large crate to sleep in, complete with cozy crate pad. And a plush bed for when she’s mature enough to sleep on it, not destroy it. Cali was ready for a big-girl bed pretty quickly, and Maisy might well show similar good sense and appreciation for creature comforts.

Grooming

I advised getting the puppy used to having her teeth brushed right away. It’s best to start slowly, letting her lick some tasty chicken-flavored dog toothpaste off the brush (or a finger), then gently starting to brush. Cali loved brushing her teeth as a puppy. Now she’s reluctantly willing to do it, for a cookie.

Same goes for nail trims and brushing. Start right away but introduce it all very gradually and use lots of treats. It’s so much easier to trim a dog’s nails when she’s used to having it done. Cali doesn’t love it, but I can Dremel her nails in a few minutes with minimal fuss. I know several people who cannot touch their dogs’ nails and whose vets or groomers need at least two helpers. It shouldn’t be that traumatic. If you are fortunate enough to get your dog as a youngster, take advantage of the opportunity to introduce grooming early and painlessly.

Sleep

I advised the new puppy parents to rest up, since Maisy will demand a lot of time and energy during the first days as she settles in — and even more throughout her adolescence. I was exhausted for several weeks after getting Cali, and she was a pretty easy puppy.

It’s worth it though; Maisy will no doubt be a great addition to the family.

Not Guilty

Everyone knows that when a dog has done something he knows is wrong, he’ll act guilty, right?

Wrong. Dogs don’t really do guilt.

Dogs do learn not to do things that make their owners act like crazy people. They might, when their favorite human becomes unhinged for no apparent reason, try to soothe or appease the source of dinner and walks.

But chances are that whatever behavior has triggered the human’s meltdown happened in the distant past (more than five minutes ago) and was perfectly normal dog behavior. The dog is unlikely to connect his own past behavior with the human’s antics. And if he did, he’d probably still not see any reason to feel guilty.

The common misconception that they do feel guilty arises from, well, appeasement behavior that looks a lot like what humans interpret as guilty or apologetic behavior.

This image (below) — in fact this entire blog post — explains it all. As social animals, wolves and dogs need relationships. They need to communicate, trust each other, and mend the inevitable rifts. They need to prevent other pack members from harming them, hence the broad range of appeasement behaviors. They don’t need guilt.

It’s important that dog owners understand this. Assuming that a dog feels guilty inherently includes an assumption that he knows he did something wrong (or why would he feel guilty?). This is often not the case, so any anger or punishment from the human is simply baffling (or terrifying) to the dog.

The typical  human response to a “guilty dog” is to punish. An appropriate reaction would be to teach the dog what to do and what not to do. Or to manage the situation so the dog didn’t make the same mistake.

  • Dog ate food that was on the counter? Don’t leave food out. Teach the dog that the counters are off-limits.
  • Dog pooped in the house? Don’t leave the dog home for so many hours. Take him for a good walk first thing in the morning. Make sure he goes before you leave.
  • Young puppy chewed your stuff? Provide him with appropriate chew toys and teach him that your stuff is off limits.

Those are all situations where a dog might show appeasement when confronted by an irrationally angry human. Not one of those is a situation where the dog did something “wrong” (in a dog’s world), though he may have broken a house rule or transgressed a human norm.

Dogs need to learn the rules. It’s possible, but it doesn’t happen by magic. Work at it, go to training classes.

If your dog is showing behaviors that you sill think look like he “acting guilty” — and he’s done something wrong, what’s going on? He might know that you’re angry; if you have a close relationship, he might even know whether you’re angry at him or just generally grumpy. In some cases,  he likely knows that you are angry about something he did.

But don’t assume that his attempts to calm you down mean he knows that what he did was wrong and he’s sorry. He just wants you to stop being scary and mad and crazy. He really just wants you to move on, to throw the ball or get him a cookie.

Still a Hero

Cali, a golden retriever, smiles happily and wears a colorful bandanna after her grooming.

Cali’s annual exam takes place in late June every year, but she’s only recently completed this year’s visit. Cali is a “hero,” one of 3,000 golden retrievers in the Morris Animal Foundation’s Golden Retriever Lifetime Study.

Cali’s Montana doc is not part of the study, but, fortuitously, we were in California in late June. Her beloved Sonoma vet did the exam. Everything seemed to be fine. Cali’s nails were long, for a change. She also needed to have a large section of her dewclaw removed, which provided an additional large sample. Cali obligingly provided more than enough hair and other biological specimens.

Then the study people lost her samples. Not all of them, but the packet that included the nail clippings, those precious and rare clippings.

They told me that I had to send more samples within four weeks.

I told them that there were no toenails to be clipped.

They granted me two additional weeks.

We drove back to Montana. I got the sample collection kit in the mail. It said I needed to have my vet do the collection. Seriously? I pick up poop several times a day. I can’t be trusted to collect that, trim some fur … and clip nonexistent nails?

They agreed to let me do the collection.

The stern letter threatened to kick Cali out of the study if we missed the deadline. This was serious. Cali’s life’s work was hanging, literally, by a toenail.

I checked her nails daily, deadline looming ever closer.

With about a week to go, I walked Cali around the corner to meet the groomer in our new neighborhood. She got lots of cookies and attention. The groomer thought she could get some clippings. We made an appointment.

Cali wasn’t too sure about this, but the cookies helped.

The nice groomer agreed to save the nail clippings. I left Cali in her capable (I hoped) hands.

A couple of hours later, I retrieved Cali, freshly washed, trimmed, and bandannaed — and that all-important baggie of nail clippings.

I collected the remaining samples and dropped it all off at FedEx.

A couple of days later, I got confirmation. We’d made it. Cali is still a hero.

Just Stop It.

Cali, a golden retriever, licks her lips in anticipation of a treat.
No robot could replace this face

Stop. Just stop saying that soon ____ will replace dogs. Nothing and I mean nothing will replace dogs.

Here’s the latest, a “robot bloodhound.”

I have no idea how much money is poured into efforts to replace dog noses with machines that detect:

  • Cancer (multiple kinds)
  • Low blood sugar
  • Other medical conditions
  • Narcotics
  • Bombs
  • Contraband, including veggies in a traveler’s suitcase
  • Contraband, including smuggled animals, plants, or anything else in shipping containers
  • Scent trails on land
  • Scent trails on water
  • Cadavers (on land or under water)
  • Identify human cremains
  • Endangered / rare wildlife
  • Endangered / rare plants
  • Insects
  • Rats
  • Other pests and parasites
  • Truffles

I could literally list millions of things that dogs can be taught to identify and find by scent. Sometimes, humans don’t even know what the dog is scenting. But dogs are so smart and capable that we can teach them to reliably find it anyhow.

To replace the dogs, a machine would need to be able to identify the exact chemical combination that creates the scent. The machines, so far, are less accurate than dogs. This might be because identifying a scent is not a cut-and-dried, easily reproduced, often repeated set of identical steps.

It’s a process that requires thinking and intuition and understanding of the goal. Dogs can do all of that. They do it all the time, every, in their interactions with us — even without training. The machine does exactly what the human programmed it to do. It might be able to “get better” with practice, but only within parameters determined by the humans who programmed the algorithm. Regardless of what you might hear about how smart computers are, they are not thinking on their own.

Dogs are.

And, dogs can go into all kinds of situations, flexibly adjust to different working conditions, offer feedback on what’s happening, and learn from their successes and their failures. They can work in any kind of terrain and in weather that would defeat many mechanical imposters, uh, substitutes.

Additional dog teams can be trained far less expensively than fancy schmancy robots can be built and moved around to world to anyplace they might be needed. Dogs can hop onto a plane with their handlers and go help — at a disaster site, in a large-scale search-and-rescue operation, at a field hospital.

Remember, scenting is only one of dozens, maybe hundreds of ways dogs assist people. Or make our lives better without a specific task — just by being dogs.

So just stop it. Stop pouring millions of dollars into machines to “replace” dogs. Focus that money and effort on training dog-and-handler teams. That could prevent things like what I heard on the radio this morning: In a story on the return of remains from North Korea, which are likely to include the remains of many American servicemen who died there more than 60 years ago, a comment was made about how difficult it is to find human remains because there’s no technology that can detect them. Maybe there’s no technology, but trained cadaver dog teams could certainly find them. They wouldn’t falsely alert on bones from nonhuman mammals, either, preventing the “return” of nonhuman remains (which has happened).

And remember, each of those expensive robots does only one task. A different robot is needed for each task. The dog team? That dog can be trained to do multiple related (or unrelated) tasks. Besides, who wants to cuddle up with the robot bloodhound at the end of a tiring day of searching?