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 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.

Over the Top

Jana, a white golden retriever, smile happily as she shows off the sand coating her entire body.
Jana was happiest at the beach, covered in as much sand as she could rub into her fur.

Two people sent me this article for the July 4 New York Times on the absurd lengths that people go to to “pamper” their pets. I am skeptical that it is truly pampering for many (most?) pets. It’s really what the human owners think of as pampering or as necessary; I do not think that the pets themselves would choose … OK, where do I start:

Neuticals? Too easy. These fake manly bits exist exclusively for the humans who cannot get past the horror of neutering … a human. Dogs don’t care. In fact, dogs who suffer miserably when forced to live in a human world following human rules are generally far less frustrated, less anxious, and possibly less aggressive post-alteration. Many more of them actually get to remain in their comfy homes, too.

Gender non-conforming pets? Since the reasons given for what is termed “gender reassignment surgery” in pets sound plausibly medically justified, I am not too upset about the examples given. But the discussion of gender-(non)conformity and pets is … absurd. The ideas of gender come from the humans. The dogs go about their doggy lives peeing in whatever position  works best for them and don’t give each other any grief about how (or where) they do it. We could learn from them. And, yes, they mount one another, even if they are female. It’s not all about sex; sometimes it’s about status or control. It’s a very doggy thing to do, even if it is rude.

The idiotic haircuts and styling are a step too far. Even dogs who enjoy going to the groomer — and most dogs don’t — don’t need all that fuss and oh-so-human bother. Let dogs be dogs.

Which brings us to the worst offense: Cosmetic surgery. I cannot believe there are vets who would do this, but I guess in any profession, there are some who are just in it for the money. “Popular procedures include tummy tucks, nose jobs and eyebrow and chin lifts,” according to the NYT article. Seriously? Isn’t there a veterinary code of ethics? In what universe is forcing unnecessary surgery on a sentient, sensitive, loving being who cannot (and would not) consent even close to ethical?

Again: Let dogs be dogs. Want to pamper your dog? Forget the spa and the glitter. Head for the dog beach or a nice creek. Spend a couple of hours walking in a forest, preferably where the dog can safely be off leash. Heck, stay home, toss a ball for a few hours (“Heaven …” Cali murmurs), and fire up the grill. Throw an extra burger or steak on for your best buddy. (“Is that even possible …?” Cali wonders. “Does it have to be a tofu hot dog?”). Wrap up with a long belly rub (for the dog) while you watch TV together (DOGTV is not necessary or even very interesting to many dogs) or sit outside and stargaze.

Dogs love to be pampered, sure. But their idea of pampering is not the same as ours. If the spa really wanted to appeal to the dogs, they’d replace the oatmeal soak and blueberry facial with a “rotten fish roll” — and I don’t mean bread. Or, they’d swap out the mud “mask” for a (post-shampoo) chance to wallow in a mud bath — then shake off in an all-white room provisioned with a freshly laundered white bedspread and pristine rug to roll on. That’s the ticket!

Buyer Beware!

Cali came from the best breeder I know! Do your research before taking home an adorable puppy.

I shouldn’t even need to say this … but don’t ever buy a puppy online.

First of all, you’re exposing yourself to scams. Unfortunately, internet fraud is very, very common, and people are not above making a buck by offering nonexistent puppies for sale to gullible people, lured in with adorable puppy photos. Read more in this Washington Post article, “How much is that doggy on the website.”

A law passed a few years ago attempted to crack down on internet puppy sales by requiring that seller have a physical location where buyers could see and pick up the puppies, but that’s hard to enforce.

A second problem with puppy purchases is, of course, the likelihood of purchasing a puppy mill puppy. This is terrible for so many reasons, among them: It feeds a business model that is based on mistreating dogs; the breeding dogs are often not only mistreated, they are unhealthy and could pass genetic, temperamental, and other flaws on to their puppies; and the puppies’ first weeks are spent in unhealthy, frightening, and damaging conditions. This makes everything from house training to manners and socialization far more challenging and sets up new puppy owners for a lot of unnecessary challenges and, often, failure.

One way to avoid puppy mill puppies is not purchasing online. Another is not purchasing at pet stores. If the risk of puppy mill puppies isn’t enough to convince you, consider that you and your family could also get sick. Another Washington Post article (shout out here to the best newspaper in America!) has more: “People are getting sick from a bacterial disease — and pet-store puppies might be to blame.”

Where should you get a puppy?

If you are particular about getting a specific breed, look for a reputable breeder. Good signs include:

  • Very thorough interview before breeder will even consider selling you a puppy
  • Breeder will not ship puppy to you; you must pick up the puppy in person
  • Breeder does not breed huge numbers of litters
  • Breeder insists on taking puppy back if you change your mind
  • Breeder knows where “her” dogs are; all of them, even older puppies whelped years ago
  • Breeder can prove that genetic and health checks are done on all breeding dogs
  • Even better — you know dogs who came from this breeder

If you’re less attached to getting a purebred puppy, look at breed rescue and other shelters and rescues in your area. The plus: you will meet your dog before taking him home. The minus: no guarantees on breeding, health, temperament, or early experiences. These dogs could come with a lot of baggage. Then again, so can a well-bred puppy. Don’t believe me? Read The Education of Will for a harrowing example.

The bottom line is, there are no guarantees, but choosing your puppy carefully is an essential first step. Relationships are hard, even when they’re with adorable four-footed fuzzballs.

 

Racial Profiling

A new dog shows up at our park play group. Is Cali interested in meeting or playing with this newcomer? Is she curious? Is she hesitant, cautious? Or does she simply head for the other side of the park and ignore the new pup? And what about Jana?

That depends on several things.

When the newcomer is a puppy, I can be absolutely certain that Jana wants nothing to do with him or her. Cali might, but she tends to watch new pup interact with some other dogs first.

What about adolescent and adult dogs? Large dogs get a wide berth. Small dogs get more interest. But the one time I can be certain that Cali will go right over and say hello to a new dog is when that dog is a golden retriever.

Cali’s very wary of shepherds and huskies. She’s open to small poodles and terriers. A little nervous around very high-energy dogs. Very leery of big dogs, though once she gets to know them, she’s fine. She finds boy Labradors overwhelming, but has had a few Labby girlfriends. Cali’s the most relaxed with her sister Dora and a couple of other dogs she knows well, all Labs or goldens. Anyone who shows any interest in her ball is definitely off the potential friends list. Unless it’s a golden; then they can talk.

Cali is racially profiling dogs. Jana does it too. When Jana was a puppy, if we saw another dog up ahead on a walk (we didn’t have a great neighborhood park with a play group), she’d react completely differently, depending on the breed. Jana is a little broader-minded than Cali; she loved Labradors and goldens equally from early puppyhood. A Lab or golden up ahead would mean eager dancing at the end of the leash and maybe even pulling toward the potential pal. Any other dog, big or small, and Jana would slow down and walk very close to me, a bit nervous and unsure. She’d be fine once she met and got to know a dog of any breed, as long as the dog had good manners. But retrievers, dogs who looked like her — they were OK from the get-go.

It’s not just based on experience. One of the first nonfamily goldens Cali met at the park was an unusually bad-tempered young man who snarled and lunged at her. That did not make her wary the next time she saw an unfamiliar golden.

It’s not only a golden thing, either. A smooth-coated collie puppy I was working with, the lone collie in a sea of Lab puppies at a service dog training school, literally danced with joy the first time a staffer brought her smooth collie service dog to visit. I’d never seen him so happy, and he was generally a pretty cheerful guy. Then there are the German shepherds at the park. The young girl likes to play with Cali. Cali has, on a couple of occasions, accepted the play invitations. Sometimes, while she’s thinking about it, another shepherd, either a young male or an older, long-haired shepherd, will show up. Young girl is immediately off to play with the other shepherd. During breaks in that play, though, she tries again and again to invite Cali to play. She strongly prefers shepherds, but young golden girls are second.

We can’t really hold it against them; people racially profile dogs all the time. What else would you call legal restrictions on owning dogs of certain breeds or apartment rental policies or insurance policies that exclude specific breeds, without any attention to an individual dog’s personality and behavior? But I don’t think dogs learned it from us; I think they are hardwired to recognize — and feel more comfortable with — dogs of their own breed.

It’s a Dog’s Life

A recent op-ed in The New York Times considered the question of whether it is ethical to have pets. For most non-domesticated animals, whose lives as pets means being confined to cages or tanks, the writer was quickly able to establish that, no, it is not: the best we can do is a life of “controlled deprivation.” She — and I — have a harder time answering that question with regard to dogs and cats. I know little about life with cats, so I’m really only considering dogs here.

BORED

Dogs have evolved as domesticated companions to humans, so in their case, it’s not at all unnatural to include them in our homes and families as pets and family members — if we do it right.

Most pet dogs live a pampered, but far less than ideal, life. I honestly don’t think that most dogs enjoy long days spent home alone, even if they get to spend that time on a $100 memory foam bed (or on your $1,000 plush, memory foam dial-a-number luxury bed). Even dogs who have canine company spend much of their “home alone” time sleeping, staring out the window … or worse. Many dogs experience severe anxiety when left home. At best, their lives are boring, revolving around a few minutes of dining once or twice a day and, if they are lucky, one short walk. Many pet dogs don’t even get that. The really lucky ones get a daily walk with a person who is focused on them, not simultaneously on the phone and/or dealing with a child or two.

Jana enjoys springSome dogs — most of the dogs I know well — are luckier than that. My friends with dogs tend to be more engaged than the average dog-owned person. These dogs get regular walks, usually more than one a day. On these walks, they actually get to stop and sniff things. Some of them get to go to parks and play with their friends (yes, dogs have friends!), they go to the beach sometimes, on car trips, to dog-friendly cafes, to laser therapy appointments (hi, Jana!), acupuncture, agility or Rally classes … any number of enriching, fun activities. They get excellent health care, they eat carefully selected, healthful diets and treats, and they own baskets full of toys. For these dogs, life is pretty good.

Considering the broad range of doggie experience, it is hard to answer the question of whether sharing life with dogs is ethical. The dogs I described in the previous paragraph are a minority of American dogs, though, and only a tiny, tiny minority of the world’s dogs live like that. Put that reality together with my absolute inability to imagine a life without dogs and, well, it’s a dilemma.

As a person who loves dogs and has the means to offer my own dogs a good life, and who teaches future dog professionals, I’ve pretty much dispensed with the question of whether to have dogs. Instead, I think about this question: How is it possible to ensure that our lives with dogs are ethical? By ethical, here, I mean that in deciding to bring dogs into our homes, we commit to making the dogs’ lives interesting and fulfilling, to allowing the dog(s) to develop their full range of doggy abilities and enjoy a high quality of life.

This would include, of course, providing everything on ALDF’s Animal Bill of Rights — for pets, that is shelter, food, and medical care. But I think our obligation goes beyond that. The Bill of Rights also mentions “an environment that satisfies their basic physical and psychological needs” — and what that means is different for every dog.

As I consider returning to a more structured work life — you know, the kind of job where you actually have to show up at an office several days a week, rather than working at home, wearing yoga pants and taking frequent toss-the-ball breaks — I think about how Jana’s and Cali’s lives will change, and how so many dogs’ lives consist of long, lonely, boring hours punctuated by brief interactions with their tired, busy humans.

This question became urgent for Deni as she agonized over how and where Alberta should spend her retirement. No ordinary dog, Alberta has a college education; she’s been a local celebrity, a model, a career dog. Her retirement, forced by health issues, leaves her young, energetic, educated, and accustomed to days filled with new experiences, travel, encounters with dozens of people a day, and constant stimulation. On my best days, I can’t provide all of that for my dogs — most people cannot, even though we all do the best we can.

Would Alberta be best off with her family, even if that meant watching Deni head off to a work day with a different dog? Or would she be better off with a different family, most likely consisting of people and dogs she knows and loves, living as a more ordinary pet? Was retirement to Montana, as part of Deni’s extended family, the best choice? Alberta is fortunate in that all of her options were good ones, with people who love her and who understand that a dog needs more than a comfy sofa and a basket of toys to lead a fulfilling life.

Improving can be simple. Make a commitment to your dogs to take them for more walks, or to go to the dog beach once in a while. Spend a few minutes a couple times a week interacting with a puzzle toy or even just throwing the ball more often. (Cali suggests at least 10 minutes every hour as a starting point.) Leave the phone at home next time you go for a walk, and let the dog stop and sniff whatever she wants (that one’s from Jana). The funny thing is, once you build this new interaction into your relationship with your dog, you’ll feel better, too!

Kudos to Jessica Pierce, who wrote the NYT op-ed and is the author of a new book on the ethics of keeping pets, for raising these questions. Thanks to her, maybe more of us will think about — and improve — our pets’ quality of life.