Going to see a man about a dog: Canine DNA tests lead to family reunions

Going to see a man about a dog: Canine DNA tests lead to family reunions
Maggie Davies

Services that identify breed and health issues also reveal relatives – a thrill for humans, even if their pets are unaware

Vardis, a black dog with a blocky head and a friendly disposition, arrived at One Tail at a Time, a shelter in Chicago, in September 2021. Almost immediately, he got pneumonia. While he convalesced, he went to live with a foster family, who were curious about his background and decided to get his DNA tested through a service called Embark. Like 23andMe or Ancestry for humans, the service analyses genetic samples to identify a dog’s breed, potential health issues, and possible family members.

The test revealed that Vardis was half golden retriever, half American bully, and that he had a sister in Chicago named Brunch who had been adopted through another shelter. When Vardis was moved to a new foster home, his new foster mom, Jessica Jones, got in touch with Brunch’s owners, and they arranged a reunion last November at Jones’s house in suburban Berwyn.

As soon as he saw Brunch emerge from the car, Vardis began straining at his leash, dragging Jones across the lawn so he could get to his sister.

“I don’t know if he knew her,” says Jones, “but he greeted her like one of his dog friends we see around the neighbourhood. Their style of play is exactly the same.”

Dog family reunions have taken off. The increased number of pandemic puppies combined with lockdown boredom have inspired humans to track down their dogs’ relatives and arrange meetups. This is as much for their own sake as for the dogs.

“Humans want to talk to other humans,” says Abby Smith, director of the Chicago rescue group Felines & Canines. Just before the pandemic, Smith started a Facebook group for humans to share photos of adoptees and resources about dog care. The group quickly became a way to arrange reunions of littermates.

Other reunions have been facilitated by Embark and Wisdom Panel, another dog DNA testing service. The tests cost between $80 and $200, depending on how much information you want, and the marketing emphasises that this is a serious scientific endeavour: the tests can identify potential health problems. The ancestry element is marketed as a fun bonus.

The technology to match dog DNA has existed for approximately 20 years, says Becca Foran, head of research and development at Wisdom Panel, but techniques have improved substantially in the past five years. Embark and Wisdom Panel have scientific partners – Cornell University’s College of Veterinary Medicine and Neogen, a Michigan-based animal and food safety company, respectively – and claim to have tested a combined half-million dogs with 99.9% accuracy.

I must confess that I got the Embark test for my own dog, Joe, a floppy-eared mutt who arrived at the shelter from northern Alabama unaccompanied by any siblings. The test was simple enough. I swiped the inside of his cheek and under his tongue with a swab (according to instructions, I showed him a treat beforehand so he would get all slobbery), put the swab inside the liquid-filled tube provided by Embark, screwed the lid on tight, gave it a shake and dropped it in the mail. It took all of three minutes and probably would have taken less if he hadn’t tossed his head so much during the swabbing.

Ostensibly, I wanted to be responsible and test for genetic abnormalities, but secretly, I was curious about Joe’s dog family and his early puppyhood and I hoped he would find relatives. This is not uncommon, says Wisdom Panel’s Foran. “We typically think of dogs as orphans, especially if they’re adopted from a shelter,” she says. “DNA testing is a window into their past.”

Testing can also provide insight into a dog’s behaviour, and even its psychology. Knowing that a dog is part German shepherd, for instance, can explain some overprotective tendencies.

Joe wasn’t a Labrador retriever as I had thought, but a great Dane/hound mix with a touch of cocker spaniel. There were eight dogs whose owners had also used the Embark service who were as closely related as half-siblings, aunts and uncles, or cousins.

This doesn’t mean they’re Joe’s actual close relatives, though, says Ryan Boyko, Embark’s co-founder (with his brother, Adam) and CEO. Genetic interpretation is much more complicated in dogs than it is in humans owing to a tendency toward inbreeding. “If you’re as closely related as first cousins for humans, that means you are first cousins,” he says. “For dogs, you could very well be third cousins nine times removed. If you dive really deep on a dog, sometimes there’s a neighbourhood unfixed male dog that gets around. That’s not the kind of thing that happens very often with people.” And that is why Embark is very careful to say a dog is “as related as” a cousin, not the real thing, and why Joe is still waiting to find his dog-family.

When Embark and Wisdom Panel find a direct relative, though, like a sibling or a parent or child, those relationships tend to be accurate. There’s no guarantee, however, that the dogs will automatically recognise each other just because of a genetic bond.

Alexandra Horowitz, the head of the Dog Cognition Lab at Barnard College and author of several books on dog behaviour, says that there have been studies that suggest puppies prefer blankets with the odour of their littermates or their mother over that of a stranger. “But in their interaction behaviour, they don’t show the delight of a great reunion with a long-lost sibling unless they really have lived with them for a long time,” she tells me.

Preliminary studies suggest four months is the threshold – but there hasn’t been much scientific research on the subject yet.

There has, however, been a deluge of anecdotal evidence of connections between reunited canine relatives. Dogs, of course, are social animals and love to play together anyway, but dog owners report astonishing similarities. Take Odie and Odin, for example, a pair of brothers (but not littermates) from suburban Philadelphia whose owners found each other through Embark and began chatting through the site’s DM service. Their owners discovered that both dogs love sitting on people’s feet and getting scratches and can’t eat chicken. They began making tentative plans for a reunion, which was moved up after Odin hopped the fence to visit his neighbour, who turned out to be Odie’s dog-walker. The two dogs look and act so much alike, she recognised him immediately.

The two dogs finally met in October for a rambunctious playdate. “I’d like to believe they figured out there was some sort of connection,” says Julie Woldin, Odie’s owner, “but they reacted as if they were buddies and they played.”

Like many things pet-related, a lot of the dog family reunions seem to be as much for the benefit of the humans as for the dogs. Ozzy, a two-year-old German shepherd-pit bull mix who lives in suburban Chicago, is prone to skin and stomach problems, and his owner, Debbie Beler, has found comfort and advice from talking with the parents of his littermates, whom she met through Hoof Woof and Meow, a rescue group based in Elgin, Illinois.

Ozzy’s five siblings have the same skin and stomach issues, managed through medicine and special foods; several have also gone through major surgeries, owing to a shared tendency to eat random things off the ground. “Being in touch with the other owners makes you feel like you’re not alone,” Beler says. “Everyone else is going through the same thing. It gives you friendship and a network. When one of us is down, it’s good to hear about how the others got over the hump.”

The dogs finally reunited on their first birthday with a big playdate in Beler’s backyard. “I can’t say that they recognised each other as siblings,” she says, “but I can say that they embraced each other’s presence.” That summer afternoon, while the dogs got their paws muddy and destroyed toys together, the owners finally got a chance to chat in person. “I think we were more excited than they were,” says Beler. “It was neat to physically compare them and see how they were doing. It gave my heart a nice fullness to know they were being taken care of. I will push for a reunion every year.”

(Article source: The Guardian)

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