What kind of dog is that?

The answer may surprise you.

We’re endlessly curious about dog breeds. And because an estimated half of the pups in the US are several breeds, “What kind of dog is that?” makes for great conversation.

Questioning dogWhile it’s fun to guess, you’ll never know the breeds of a dog without a DNA test.

Take these “quizzes” by the National Canine Research Council to see if you can guess!  Which dogs are part Laborador Retriever?  Which ones have German Shepherd ancestry?

Visual identification of breed(s) is highly unreliable, and determining what breeds a dog is simply by looking at them is extraordinarily difficult. Researchers found that among dog experts including veterinarians, breeders and trainers, the majority of the time they couldn't even name ONE of the correct breeds of a mixed breed dog.

And it’s no surprise to those who’ve seen puppy litters, as the babies often bear little or no resemblance to the parents. Scientific researchers like Scott and Fuller found the same thing; despite knowing the purebred parents of the dogs, there was significant variation in the appearance—and behavior—of littermates.

And though DNA tests are fun, they can only identify your dog’s ancestors… little else.

Even after getting a DNA test on your mixed breed dog, you won’t know what influenced what. Does 12% Labrador mean your dog’s metabolism?  Or just the tail? Does 5% Beagle mean he’s a carrier of MLS? Or does he just have that baying bark? We can’t be sure.

Furthermore, when it comes to predicting behavior based on breed, it’s not that simple.

Similar to humans, behavior is influenced by a variety of external factors. Ask parents of multiple children; they may come from the same gene pool, but act very differently!

Dogs are individuals. Even among racing Greyhounds who’ve been bred generation after generation for their speed and desire to chase, there are some who could care less about running. Folks in the racing industry estimate that only 70-80% of purebred racing Greyhounds are fit to race. And this is 20-30% within a closed gene pool; now think of the variation that exists in the open gene pool of mixed breeds!

Behavior cannot be predicted based on breed, what a dog looks like, or DNA results.

While we’re always seeking to know more about dogs (and recent research suggests they’re doing the same thing about us), we can’t judge them based on appearance or breed. All dogs are individuals.

Appearance doesn’t correlate with behavior. Geneticists know that, for instance, the genetic program that results in a blocky skull isn’t the same one that builds the brain. In fact, inferring behavioral and cognitive traits from physical properties of the head and skull was phrenology—discredited last century. (This is just one of the reasons breed bans don't make sense.)

And breed doesn't determine behavior, either. This is why many of the “game-bred” dogs rescued from Michael Vick’s fighting operation have gone on to live couch potato lives. They looked a certain way, and could be trained to act a certain way when abused -- but when placed in a loving home, their individual preferences and personalities shined.

Dogs have nearly 20,000 genes. Only 1 of them determines a dog’s head shape. Less than 1% of dogs’ genes determine their physical appearance. And every single gene interacting with the environment makes every single dog an individual.


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All images and photographs are courtesy of HSHV staff and Jeffrey E. Roush of Two Cat Studios.