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'Mostly Chihuahua, or Mostly Rat Terrier'

Boston Globe correspondent Scott Kirsner chronicled his attempts to use dog DNA tests to figure out the genetic ancestry of his shelter dog Louie.

The first canine genome was decoded in 2005 by researchers at the Broad Institute and their collaborators. And in 2009, Wisdom Health, a subsidiary of Mars Inc., launched the first dog DNA tests for consumers. Kirsner and his wife bought the latest version of that product, the Wisdom Panel 4.0, which said that Louie was 62.5 percent Chihuahua. The rest of him was an even split between miniature poodle, cocker spaniel, and English springer spaniel, according to the test.

 
But then, Kirsner says he ran into Embark Veterinary's Chief Operating Officer Zenobia Moochhala, and he asked her how Embark was different from Wisdom. She said the Embark test was more accurate, because it looks at 230,000 doggie genetic markers, compared to Wisdom's 1,800. 
 
So when Kirsner used the Embark kit on his dog, the results were slightly different from Wisdom's. "Embark and Wisdom agreed about some aspects of Louie's heritage, like ancestors that were probably miniature poodles and cocker spaniels. But Embark pegged him at just about one-third Chihuahua, and 36 percent rat terrier," Kirsner writes.
 
In order to figure out which one was more accurate, he consulted Elinor Karlsson, director of the vertebrate genomics group at the Broad, who told him that there's no method currently to  measure the accuracy of the different tests.
 
Even Moochhala acknowledged that dog DNA testing is a new space and that there's isn't an objective third party that can judge which test is more accurate. 

But canine DNA testing isn't just about determining ancestry, Kirsner says. The tests also told him that Louie was free from 14 genetic conditions that were common in his breed mix. But even that, the Broad's Karlsson tells him, may not be great news. "There is only a tiny percent of diseases, many very rare, that we can test for," she says, adding that it isn't yet possible to flag dogs that are likely to develop conditions such as heart disease, diabetes, or cancer. 

So in the end, Kirsner says, he found that dog DNA testing is mostly still a novelty, even as the dog DNA testing market seems likely to keep growing. His advice? "If you get a dog DNA test done, I'd recommend you do just one."

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