Breed Identification – Unintended Consequences

How do you know what breed – or mix of breeds your dog is?  We know our dog Coral is an Irish setter because we purchased her from someone who we know has been breeding Irish setters for over 20 years.  Not only does Coral look like an Irish setter (one who is bred for the field, not for show), but so did her mom, dad, grandmother, siblings, cousins, and aunts that we personally saw.    She also is registered with the AKC as an Irish setter (which, by itself isn’t necessarily a determining factor) and we have her pedigree listing registered Irish setters going back several generations.  In addition, every veterinarian she’s ever been to has identified her as Irish setter in her clinical records.

But what if you don’t have that sort of documentation? 

Did your dog come from a shelter, a pet store or a previous owner, all of whom gave you their opinion about your dog’s breed, or mix or breeds, without any real way to know other than physical apperance?  Did the shelter tell you your dog was a Labrador mix, and your veterinarian said nope, she thought your dog was more likely a shepherd mix?  Do you think your dog might have some “pit bull” in him, even though his shelter or veterinary records identify him as a Boxer mix?

Recent research by Dr. Victoria Voith, a veterinary behaviorist, has shown that physical appearance is not an accurate way of identifying breeds, as this method has quite a low percentage of agreement with the results of DNA testing.

Turns out, breed identification may be more important than we think.  In a recent article* in JAVMA (Journal of the American Veterinary Medical Association) the authors encourage veterinarians and animal shelters – and we would include ANY facility or business that houses, cares for, or trains dogs – to rethink their policy of identifying breeds based on visual inspection or owner opinions that aren’t factually based (i.e. the owner actually knows the sire or dam).

The reason for this is that identifying a dog as being of a certain breed, or mix of breeds can have consequences.  Certain breeds are banned in some cities, including Denver.   Although some states prohibit the practice, some insurance companies will deny coverage or increase premiums for ownership of certain breeds.   Some airlines won’t fly certain breeds, and some children service providers won’t place children in homes where certain breeds are owned.

As alternatives, the authors suggest use of the term “American Shelter Dog” (coined by Marder and Voith) or the “All American Dog” (as suggested by the AKC) or simply the term “mixed breed” for dogs of unknown parentage. 

Perhaps modifying terms for the latter could be added, such as small, medium, large or extra large, based on weight and/or height criteria established by the facility or business.  However, if the breed of one or the other parent is known with certainty, it’s important to note this for medical reasons at least.  Some breeds are predisposed to certain diseases, while others have genetic conditions that are breed specific.
Misidentification can also create erroneous assumptions about behavioral tendencies. In addition, the behavioral predispositions of hybrid animals can be completely unlike the behavior of either parent.

The current best practice regarding breed identification that seems to be evolving is to avoid identifying a dog as a mix comprised of specific breeds in any sort of permanent record based only on appearance or someone else’s opinion, when there is no first-hand evidence or documentation to support the ID.  Instead, generic terms as those suggested should be used to avoid unintended consequences.

*Simpson, R.J., Simpson, K.J. and L. VanKavage, 2012.  Rethinking dog breed identification in veterinary practice.  JAVMA 241 (9): 1163-1166.


  • Laurene von Klan

    Reply Reply

    What would the authors say about how information from DNA testing should be used? If a DNA test has been done and the dog comes up with several breeds in his or her test, which one should be used? And are all tests reliable enough in terms of breed identification to be used?

    • Suzanne and Dan

      Reply Reply

      As we understand it, if the breed percentage of a dog comes up less than 25% it can’t be deemed reliable. In other words, if DNA shows a dog’s DNA is 60% Golden Retriever, 20% Labrador, 10% Springer Spaniel, and 10% Malamute, only the Golden Retriever determination can be counted on to be true.

  • Evelyn Haskins

    Reply Reply

    I do worry about the acuracy though of DNA alalysis.

    I know a dog that is known to have a Bernese Mountain dog mother/dam. Her father was described as a Border Collie. This seems quite likely as he is certainly black and white, but shorthair.

    But DNA analysis identified both Cardigan Corgi. and Kerry Blue Terriers

    Apaet from the fat that no Cardigan Corgis were seen around one wonders HOW such a dog could impregnate a Bernese Mountain Dog.. Neither was a Kerry Blue Terrier seen around, and they are extremely rare in Australia.

    One wonders whether or not a Border Collies actually share DNA sequences with Corgies as they are both Working Dog Breeds from the British Isles. This would seem entirely logical, and far more lilely than this dog (who looks most like a Great Dane) having any recent common ancestor with Corgies

  • Obviously, we shouldn’t be hard-coding any breeds on a mongrel dog’s record, since it is impossible to determine ancestry once you get away from purebreds.

    I sometimes use “type”, ie, small-c collie type, just to give an idea of size, haircoat, etc.

    A dog is considered purebred if he can trace his ancestry in an unbroken line back to when the stud books closed on his breed; ie, when the breed achieved recognition with an accredited registry. This could be FCI, AKC, CKC, UKC, ADBA etc. It has nothing to do with his looks, or what somebody knows about his parents, etc. It is the registration that makes him purebred and nothing else.

    This whole DNA My Mutt thing sounds sexy, but the fact is that there is no evidence to support DNA testing in mixed breed dogs as being accurate. In fact, I can’t find anything about it in the literature at all so in my mind it is just a party game.

    Mars claims an accuracy rate of 80% or so in F1s, ie, dogs whose parents are both purebreds of different breeds, but after that it drops off significantly. They also won’t testify in court as experts, so don’t stand behind either their methods or their results to a degree I would consider worthwhile.

    While I agree totally with the advice to stop identifying dogs as Breed A x Breed B, since people in shelters and pounds are notoriously bad at it anyway, my opinion of the online survey done by Maddie’s Fund is that it only shows one thing, ie, that two unvalidated methods disagree with each other.

    Using shelter dogs of unknown origins in a study of this kind means that you have to pretty much take the results on faith. In other words, it is just as possible that the visual ID is accurate and the DNA not.

    That’s not science, that’s marketing.

    There is a way to test this in a controlled, blinded setting but to date nobody has done that, likely because it would take years, be very expensive and since people seem to be buying into it in the absence of any evidence, why bother?

    There is a fair degree of accuracy in purebreds because the AKC gave thousands of samples from each breed to the canine genome gang. Even still, it is not 100%.

    As for the breed-related disease idea, well, fortunately, most harmful mutations are recessive so it’s always a roll of the dice, purebred or mixed.

    Finally, the biggest problem with this whole thing is that most mixed types are not the product of two, or even four, purebred dogs. They are multi-generational, randomly bred dogs that are in the process of reverting to the pariah type.

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