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Black and white dog with blue eyes, may not be the assumed breed and helps us understand myths about breed labeling.

Myths About Breed Labeling

One of the most commonly asked questions about dogs in our shelters is, “What kind of dog is that?” The reality, as you will discover below, is that trying to guess a dog’s breed from physical attributes is not very accurate and the very act of labeling (or in many cases mislabeling) a dog’s breed can impact their chances of finding a home. We are here to bust a few of these myths about breed labeling by meeting pets who live in the shelter. 

Shelter pets are predominately unknown breeds with an unknown history; Because of that, LifeLine’s dedicated team members get to know the pets and evaluate as much health and behavior information as possible. This helps adopters find the best fit for their families and lifestyle. There are often preconceived notions made about dogs based on their looks which means it can be very challenging finding pets the homes they deserve.

Societal assumptions can be detrimental in a few ways:

  • They contribute to a fear or hesitation of interacting with a certain-looking dog
  • Pet owners face discrimination when looking for pet-inclusive housing
  • Pets are overlooked in the shelter environment for adoption or foster

Through the research below, you’ll see why you simply can’t judge a book by its cover or a dog by its blocky head!

Myths vs. Reality

Myth: Breeds can be determined just by looking at a dog.

FACT: In a 2009 study by Victoria Voith and associates,  87.5% of dogs ID’d at their shelter to be a certain breed/breed mix turned out to not have those breeds in the DNA analysis when later tested. Because a dog’s physical traits are determined by a small percentage of their genes, DNA tests can reveal hidden breeds that are not apparent in a dog’s outward appearance.³ 

Myth: A dog’s breed is a good indication of its behavior.

FACT: A study of over 2,000 dogs taught researchers that breed means very little in predicting the behavior and personality of an individual dog. That appears to be especially true for traits that are most commonly associated with a dog’s personality, like cuddliness, friendliness, or aggression. Breed offers little predictive value, 9% specifically, for individual dog breeds, and no trait was unique to a single breed.¹

Myth: Pet-inclusive housing is affordable and easy to find.

FACT: Not everyone can afford pet deposits, additional rent, or DNA testing to determine a dog’s exact breed which are all unfortunately common factors in finding pet-inclusive housing. Many properties require a pet screening that preclude dogs of a certain breed that have been deemed “aggressive”. In a 2021 report published by the Human Animal Bond Research Institute and the Michelson Found Animals Foundation, 72% of renters surveyed said that pet-friendly housing is hard to find. Fifty-nine percent said it’s too expensive. At the same time, 76% of property owners or operators surveyed said their properties are pet-friendly, but only 8% of those properties were free of restrictions. 

Myth: Appearance or perceived breed does not impact a dog’s length of stay in a shelter.

FACT: Dogs in the “bully breed” group were available for adoption twice as long as dogs in the “non-bully breed” group in each study period.²

Unconscious bias is a factor that can affect potential adopters. We encourage our community to come meet some dogs and spend time with them in a play yard to see their personality and activity levels. Deciding to choose a pet isn’t always easy. We have several different foster programs, and even trial adoptions, so you can bring home a pet to see them in a home environment. Pets are often shy or noisy in the tough shelter environment. Take them home to see their true personality shine.

What We Learned

Embark Vet kindly donated 10 dog DNA testing kits to our LifeLine Community Animal Center and we curbed some curiosities of our own. With the kits donated by Embark Vet, we were able to test 10 dogs each with different looks. We found that even those who shared similar features varied in the percentages of breed they shared. And even those who looked nothing alike in color, shape, and size, shared DNA similarities that were not distinguishable without testing. 

Toro, who most of our social media followers guessed was a mixed breed of German Shepherd, also harbors 46% Boxer DNA. These genetic results don’t just explain her coloring and face shape, but also how her Boxer DNA may make her more likely to drool often and how the combined Boxer and German Shepherd DNA may require her to get more exercise to release energy and practice intelligence during training. 

Varsha and Tecna were revealed to be purebred pups, American Pit Bull Terrier and Jindo, respectively! Embark’s ability to trace a pet’s family tree, showed us that Tecna has immediate family, even some in the Georgia area. This information can be exciting for pet owners to connect with each other. Additionally, dogs like Varsha and Tecna, can show us the diversity in genetic factors like “wolfiness”. We know it sounds silly but by definition, wolfiness is the presence of some interesting, ancient genetic variants. Embark assigns each dog a wolfiness score based on markers within these regions. Most dogs, like Varsha who scored a 0.9%, have wolfiness scores of 1% or less. Dogs with higher scores, like Tecna’s 4.1%, are found more rarely. 

Mango Pew provided the LifeLine and Embark teams with an exciting research piece through her 28.6% Supermutt result! Supermutt simply means a dog descends from several generations of mixed-breed dogs. Over time the DNA from so many mixed-breed dogs is so small that it can be hard to attribute to any one breed. It simplifies the complexity of DNA testing. 

An Interview with Embark Vet

Spokesperson and veterinarian at Embark Vet, Dr. Jenna Dockweiler, was also kind enough to answer a few additional questions for us on this topic:

1. What is the importance of DNA testing for pet health?

Even seasoned professionals, like veterinarians and shelter staff, aren’t always accurate, and research has shown that, for over 80% of shelter dogs, the breed designation they receive from the shelter does not match the breeds in their DNA. Knowing a dog’s breed mix can give you clues about their personality and health information. For example, spaniels love to sniff. If a dog’s breed mix includes a large percentage of spaniel, that dog and owner may enjoy exploring scent detection activities together. Spaniels are also prone to ear infections, so the owner can learn the signs of ear infections and how to clean their ears properly.

2. What are some common things you all encounter with dog DNA testing that most would be surprised to learn?

One of the things that most surprises people about dog DNA testing is the frequency with which dog owners can find and connect with their dog’s relatives. 90% of dogs tested with Embark will have at least one dog in our database as genetically related as human first cousins (what we call “close family”) and almost 1 million messages have been exchanged within Embark’s relative finder feature.

One of the most remarkable stories is that of a dog owner who learned through DNA testing that her dog, Diego, would soon go blind due to a genetic health condition. Diego’s ophthalmologist recommended she get a second dog to be his companion through his vision loss, and when she DNA tested her second rescue dog, Dixie, the results confirmed that Dixie was, in fact, Diego’s sister!

3. How have you seen DNA testing help pet owners?

DNA testing helps pet owners in a few different ways: Determining breed mix is a difficult task, visually. In fact, many Golden Retriever mixes are black, something a lot of pet owners don’t realize. Embark analyzes a dog’s breed ancestry by comparing their DNA to our reference database of dog DNA from over 350 breeds, types, and varieties. With over 250 inheritable health conditions in Embark’s database, testing can help identify genetic health and the probability based on the pet’s ancestry. Learning about genetic health predispositions is also crucial – DNA testing can indicate if a dog is at-risk for known inherited genetic diseases. In some cases, knowing about these risks means a dog’s care can be altered to avoid the disease altogether.

4. What do you think DNA could instead do for pets when it comes to resolving these unfair restrictions?

Pet DNA tends to be held against them when it comes to issues like housing options. 

American Pit Bull Terriers (APBT) is the most common breed in Embark-tested dogs and Embark supports the AVMA policy that opposes breed-specific legislation. While DNA testing can pose a challenge in areas or housing situations that have breed-specific bans, it can also help battle misunderstandings about these dogs.

We’ve heard from customers with remarkably social, friendly dogs that receiving DNA results confirming their dog had a high percentage of a breed subject to discrimination helped illustrate how misunderstood these breeds can be. For example, we heard from a customer whose dog was 97% APBT, who told us her dog was so reliable that she helped socialize and train countless puppies, participated in many group classes, and was the only dog friend to many anxious pups. After being told countless times that her dog must be mixed with a Labrador Retriever to make her so friendly and solid with other dogs, this owner was able to confirm that her dog was an APBT who had an extraordinarily positive influence on all the dogs and people around her. 

Many dogs who look like they have breed ancestry that would be subject to bans may have a smaller-than-expected percentage of that ancestry. For example, one of the dogs at LifeLine who received a DNA test as part of Embark’s Home for the Holidays donations last year, Uub, has the appearance of a single breed APBT, but his APBT ancestry is just 38% of his breed makeup and is almost equal to his 32% Siberian Husky ancestry. At the same time, some dogs with almost no visual trace of any banned breeds may have more of it than expected. 

5. How is Embark helping shelter pets through DNA testing?

Animal shelters across the country have told us that DNA testing can help rescue dogs get
adopted. By providing important genetic information, dog DNA testing helps shelters give
prospective adopters insights into a dog’s breed mix and characteristics they might have. By
reporting on a dog’s predicted adult weight or how much they are likely to shed, DNA testing
can help potential adopters prepare for their new family member.

Adoptable Pets

There are still a few dogs who have not yet been adopted and would happily join you at home! Our LifeLine adoptions team can share the Embark DNA results so that you and your new best friend will be going home informed.

Meet Dalin, Rice Cake, and Bavette through LifeLine’s Community Animal Center at 3180 Presidential Drive, Atlanta, GA 30340. 

Dalin's DNA results help dismiss myths about breed labeling.
Rice Cake's DNA results help dismiss myths about breed labeling.
Bavette's DNA results help dismiss myths about breed labeling.

More information and research to understand myths about breed labeling can be found at:

¹ Washington Post

² The Impact of Breed Identification, Potential Adopter Perceptions and Demographics, and Dog Behavior on Shelter Dog Adoptability, Ohio State University Study

³Pawplanning Mythbusting DNA Testing

Maddie’s Fund Canine Identity Crisis – Breed Labeling Affects Adoption

Pet-inclusive Housing Report

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