Knowing the ancestry of a mixed breed is crucial for providing type-specific care and training and understanding the dog’s behaviour. But don’t rely on looks alone – a dog that looks like a Labrador cross could well have no Labs in his family tree at all, as Sarah Morris of Blackdog DNA explains…
I have always been fascinated by dogs and their behaviour and so, when I decided on a change of career in 2010, I signed up to the Coape Diploma. One of the most fundamental aspects of Coape’s training is to look at the individual breed of a dog, and see what kind of activities may be missing from his life.
Behavioural problems frequently occur when owners underestimate or ignore what kind of activities that particular dog was bred to do. Labrador Retrievers, for example, were bred to hunt and pick up game birds out in the sporting field. Fox Terriers were bred to hunt and chase vermin, digging down into the ground to find it.
During my studies, it occurred to me that if you do not know the breed ancestry of your dog, as is often the case when adopting a crossbreed from a rescue centre, how do you know what the dog’s needs are? So, in 2011, I started my own company to provide breedspecific training and behaviour advice for mixed breed dogs.
It was as a result of having a DNA test done on my own Battersea crossbreed, Buddy, that I realised the importance of knowing what breeds make up a much-loved mutt. Buddy was rehomed to me as a ‘Labrador cross’, but I had my suspicions because he rarely, if ever, retrieved anything. He had a cool, independent character and yet he had superb conformation and a wonderful flowing movement when he walked or ran.
Buddy’s DNA test showed that he was a German Shepherd Dog crossed with a Border CollieDalmatian! All his personality and behaviour traits suddenly fell into place and I was able to include breed-specific activities in his daily routine.
For his German Shepherd ancestry, I included plenty of one-to-one training sessions, eye contact and daily grooming, as guarding breeds appreciate a strong bond with their owners and these activities promote that bond. Dalmatians originate from hunting dogs, so I used scentwork games to stimulate his brain and nose – Buddy just adored following a scent and he particularly enjoyed having to hunt for his food in the garden. To satisfy his Border Collie herding instincts, I used food games and puzzles to occupy his brain and nose as well as off-lead agility training.
Dog genetics is a complex and relatively new area of research. Genetic scientists at the University of Sweden discovered that dogs possess a gene that enables them to absorb and utilise carbohydrate in their diet; wolves do not have this gene. This supports the modern theory of how dogs evolved. Thousands of years ago, some wolves became scavengers around human populations, living on their food waste and evolving into dogs as these scavenging wolves interbred. This gene would have been advantageous to those newly evolved dogs, as they would be able to make use of more of the food types freely available to them.
Coape also taught me to look at the natural movement and actions of a dog; in scientific terms these are called ‘motor patterns’. You will typically see a Pointer stop on three legs and point, you will see a Basset Hound run along with his nose to the ground, and you will see a Border Collie crouch down and stalk when he’s working. In crossbreeds you will often see clues to their ancestry simply by observing their movement and behaviour. However, it is important to treat every dog as an individual character. I have a lovable, lolloping Labrador Retriever in my training class – but he wouldn’t retrieve anything if his life depended on it! There are always exceptions to every rule!
You can’t always guess what breeds are in a dog just by looking – appearances can be deceptive. In genetic terms, the appearance of a dog is called the ‘phenotype’ and the actual blood ancestry is the ‘genotype’. Take coat colour, for example. The black colour is what is known as a ‘dominant gene’ so that means a dog only needs to inherit one black gene from one parent for the dog to have a black coat.
Now think of a litter of Labradors (and I simplify this a great deal to explain the basics): a black Labrador can carry a yellow coat gene, but because he also carries the dominant black gene, his coat will be black. But breed two such Labradors together and some of the puppies will inherit two ‘recessive’ yellow genes and will inherit a yellow coat.
In genetic circles, the appearance of the Labrador is seen as containing all the ‘average’ genetic traits: average coat length, average ear length, and average leg and nose length. This is why many very mixed feral dogs end up looking just like a Labrador, without that breed ever appearing in their ancestry!
ALL MIXED UP
Mixed breed dogs do not usually take on a little bit of the appearance of each dog in their family tree. The rules of genetics are sometimes quite random and yet quite specific. I like to make the analogy of watching those little balls in the National Lottery machine. You never know what is going to come out when two mixed-breed dogs have a litter of even more mixed-up puppies.
Take the black and tan gene, for example. Think of the coat pattern and appearance of Rottweilers, Dobermanns and Manchester Terriers. They all carry two copies of the black and tan gene, because it is a recessive trait. A crossbreed of any of these dogs will not come out black and tan, unless the other parent also carries the gene. I have seen lots and lots of Rottweiler crossbreeds and nearly all are brown!
Another dominant gene is one that produces a short coat, as seen on a Staffordshire Bull Terrier or a Dalmatian. If you mate a short-coated dog with a longcoated dog then the puppies are most likely to inherit the gene and have a short coat. So, potentially, a Whippet crossed with a Springer Spaniel will look like a Whippet – but perhaps with a few spots on his tummy!
Although the Kennel Club dictates what the breed standards are for each pedigree dog, there are still many dogs that do not conform to these strict standards because they carry certain rare genes in their ancestry. Did you know that you can also get long-haired Rottweilers, black and tan – or even silver – Labradors, and long-haired Greyhounds? Approximately 12 per cent of racing Greyhounds carry the recessive long-haired gene. In pedigree circles these dogs are deemed to have mismarks, or are not of show standard – but in genetic terms, they are all part of nature’s wonderful mixed tapestry.
KNOW YOUR TYPE
So, what if you have just found out that your shorthaired black dog is actually a Labrador mixed up with a bit of husky and some Border Collie? You can then provide breed-specific games and training activities for that individual dog.
Labradors usually just love to be with people, they love to use their noses to follow a scent, and, of course, they love to retrieve! Huskies are high-energy sled dogs, they hate being left alone for long periods, they love to run, dig and escape, and they also love to howl. Border Collies have an instinct to herd sheep, so activities like dog agility or flyball will provide a natural outlet for this instinct.
Discovering the true breed ancestry of your mixed breed will allow you to tailor an individual training and behaviour programme to your dog, which takes his specific behavioural needs and capabilities into account.
So what do you need to take a DNA test? Just a cheek swab. The easiest way to get a sample of DNA is from a body cell, and the soft, pink lining of the skin on the inside of the mouth is the quickest way to take a sample. Actually, it is the same procedure that is carried out by the police if you are unlucky enough to get arrested! The only difference is that the results will show your dogs original ancestry – and not (we hope!) a string of convictions for burglary!
Sarah Morris (First Published in Dogs Monthly)
About the author
After a career in a front-line public service, Sarah Morris set up Blackdog DNA in 2011. Passionate about dogs and their behaviour, she volunteers as a kennel socialiser at Battersea Dogs & Cats Home where she has regular contact with rescue dogs in kennels. She intended to adopt a mixed-breed rescue dog from Battersea, but despite her best-laid plans, she was chosen by an elderly yellow Labrador, Leo, who is now 15 years old