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Funny... you don't look like a retriever

DNA dog testing can deliver surprising results, alert owners to breed-specific health issues

Hey there, time traveller!
This article was published 23/5/2011 (2165 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.

My golden retriever, Bella, is black. It's taken me a while to get used to calling my black Labrador a golden retriever. But at least I understand why she's doesn't possess the same golden locks as others in her kin. Her fur is black because of deoxyribonucleic acid. No, I didn't take her for a cut and colour, but rather -- as you might remember from high-school science -- she's black with brown eyes because of her DNA.

 

Kind-natured Zoe looks like she's smiling.

FRANK ADAM PHOTO

Kind-natured Zoe looks like she's smiling.

If you were like I was back in Grade 10, you were thinking about what to do on the weekend when you should have been learning about dominant and recessive genes -- knowledge that would have come in handy if you were trying to understand, all these years later, how genes pass traits onto offspring.

When you're a human, you usually know who are parents are. You can see why you're short or tall and blond or brunette. If you're like me, you might be inclined to complain that you got your father's thighs and not your mother's... but I digress. When you're a canine mutt, tracing geneology can be more complicated.

Humans understand the importance of knowing what breed our pups are. Aside from being able to explain why your golden retriever isn't golden, it's good to know what sorts of ailments your dog may be pre-destined to develop.

This is something Dianne Snider understands. She won a contest I held at the Winnipeg Humane Society's annual Yappy Hour fundraiser. Snider and her dog Zoe beat out entrants of the contest called Mutt Mystery to have the mutt's DNA assessed by Viaguard, a Canadian canine DNA company.

As part of the contest, Frank Adam of Adam York Photography took the picture of Zoe you see in this column. You may notice that Zoe looks like she's smiling. Snider isn't surprised by this. It's typical of her mutt's personality. Snider says Zoe "couldn't have a more perfect temperament." She listens well and even allows her canine housemate to rule the roost.

I noticed Zoe's kind nature, too. As Snider performed the DNA test, which requires an owner to swab the inside of the dog's cheek for 20 seconds, Zoe stood still. This was no small feat, as there were dogs swarming all around her.

Viaguard assesses levels of genetic mix and assigns values, from one to five. Level one is rarely seen in mixes -- it means that 75 percent of the dog is purebred. Level three denotes breed-specific grandparent lineage somewhere in the past; whereas, level four indicates genes from a great grandparent. And level five suggests measurable traces of a distant breed.

When Snider got Zoe from the Winnipeg Humane Society, she was told that Zoe was a "small Italian greyhound crossed with a terrier mix." The WHS wasn't far off in its description -- through DNA testing, Snider discovered that Zoe is a level three greyhound, schnauzer and poodle with a level four papillion mix.

When I asked Snider why she wanted Zoe to be tested, she described her dog's medical issues. Zoe has had back surgery. She was lucky; most dogs in her situation would have had to have gone to Saskatchewan for surgery, but a veterinarian here was able to quickly operate on her. Her disc surgery was typical of dogs with longer backs.

Snider noted that she can see the greyhound in her dog, because "when she's shaved down, her body is sleek." However, she adds, "the other mixes were a surprise."

Despite her dog's lineage, Snider cares most about her dog's personality. Like other owners, she knows that when you care for a dog, it's the personality the matters most.

It's a good thing I chose my dog for her personality, because I guessed her breeds incorrectly. My dog, Bella, which I believed was a black Labrador/collie cross, is a completely different mix than anyone would have guessed. As it turns out, she's a mix of golden retriever, German short-haired pointer and level five schnauzer. I have always thought that from certain angles, Bella's face seems more slender than a typical Labrador, but I would never have guessed the breeds on my own.

Many of the ailments facing Bella's breeds are similar. One thing I need to be more vigilant with is exercise -- according to some dog-care books, German short-haired pointers need more exercise than other breeds. This might explain why Bella gains weight so easily.

The Viaguard test is useful for owners who want to understand potential medical issues their dogs may face. But it's also just fun to learn about your dog's breeds -- I know can't wait to walk Bella and tell those I meet along the way that my black Labrador is actually a golden retriever.

For further information on canine DNA, go to www.dnamydog.com

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