Many of us adopt dogs of unknown heritage. If adopting from a humane society or pet rescue organizations, they will make a "best, educated guess" on what breed (or breeds) they believe is part of the dog. We may be told that the dog is probably a "shepherd mix" or "he has some lab in him", a guess based on what the dog looks like and what they know of his behaviour.
Then once we get the dog home, we might have guesses of our own about what type of breed our dog is - especially when we keep getting asked, "What type of dog is that?" That's where dog DNA testing and DNA kits come in.
Knowing what type of mixed breed dog you have can be a fun conversation at the dog park. Plus it can be interesting for us owners to see the mix of breeds in our dogs; it could result in an "A-ha!" moment when our dog's behaviour or personality traits suddenly seem to make sense ... or the results may be a complete surprise, providing an interesting topic of discussion or debate for the owners.
Certain breeds of dogs are more prone to specific health conditions. For example, some breeds are more prone to hip dysplasia, cancers, or back problems. Knowing the type of breed you have can help shape discussions with your veterinarian. Your vet can let you know what symptoms to watch for.
Dogs have been purpose-bred for many types of jobs. Some breeds are meant to be working dogs and need a job to do. Other examples include breeds that are extremely high-energy and have an innate need to run; breeds that have a tendency towards stubborness or independence and thus can be more challenging to train; breeds that are great for tracking; breeds that are very vocal; and so on. Knowing this type of information can help pet owners figure out the best way to approach training while taking into account the breed's natural tendencies.
Many brands of dog DNA kits are easily available these days and the DNA samples can be done at home. Generally, owners take cheek swabs from inside the dog's mouth and mail the samples back to the company for testing. The results are mailed back in a few weeks. Reports often contain the primary breeds in your dog's mix, as well as secondary breeds and sometimes even minor breeds that are somewhere in the mix too.
At this time, it appears as if most of the reviews of DNA kits is positive, but that could be skewed by the novelty of simply having an answer for the breed mix in the dog. There have been numerous reports of people repeating the test (with the same company) and getting different results, or running tests using different companies or kits and again getting different results (also see this one, or a more comprehensive report is available from the Veterinary Information Network).
The accuracy of DNA kits also depend on how large a database is available for testing. The accuracy may improve as databases grow.
There are also downsides to having owners take the DNA samples themselves. First, there's the risk of contamination of the sample. For example, if your dog eats, drinks, or even licks something within an hour or two of taking the sample, it may be contaminated and unusable.
Secondly, there's the risk that enough cells aren't collected to have a sample large enough for testing.
Be sure to carefully read the instructions for the kit, and follow them as closely as possible in order to collect the best samples you can.
The majority of dog DNA kits are less than $100. For many people, it's worth the cost to satisfy their own curiosity. The test results might be eye-opening and you'll think to yourself, "Yes, I can totally see that!" or ... you might think to yourself, "No way, Fido can't possibly have that breed in him." Maybe the DNA testing is worth it just for the amusement or entertainment factor, giving you something to talk (or laugh) about!
Or perhaps you'll simply decide that you don't care what breed mix is in your dog, and you'd rather spend the money on some extra dog treats.
If you do decide to give it a go, view it as a fun thing to do and don't take the results too literally.
"If you can't decide between a Shepherd, a Setter or a Poodle, get them all
... adopt a mutt!"