DNA Testing Helps Shelter Dogs Find Homes

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Knowing a little more about a dog's breed may help get him out of a shelter and into a forever home. Spot Us [CC by 2.0]/Flickr

Cher is an interesting dog. She weighs about 50 pounds, has a lovely brindle coat, and an outgoing, playful personality. The only problem? Nobody can quite figure out what mix of breeds she might be.

"She's gorgeous, but she looks like a hyena," says Lauren Frost, shelter manager of Furkids, no-kill animal rescue in metro Atlanta where Cher has been part of the foster program for more than 15 months.

Cher (right) knows all sorts of commands, is great in the kennel and in the car and gets along well with other dogs and even cats. But when prospective adopters check her out, they are a bit baffled by her looks. So the volunteers decided to do a DNA test to try to sort out the pup's confusing lineage.

They found she was half Staffordshire terrier, 25 percent Belgian Malinois and 25 percent Akita. They're hoping knowing her breed makeup will get adopters interested.

"We're using it to try and get her a home right now," says Frost. "It's just another tool in our bag of tools that we can use in difficult-to-place animals."

Dog DNA testing may be able to give you a peek into a pet's gene pool, but the results are hardly foolproof. When getting a good sample involves swabbing the inside of a squirming pup's cheek, user error can certainly come into play.

But done correctly, the test can boast as high as a 90 percent accuracy rate, says Juli Warner, senior brand manager for Mars Veterinary, maker of the Wisdom Panel DNA tests.

The company sells several at-home tests for people curious about their canine's lineage. But they also have a special test just for shelters to help them get dogs adopted more quickly.

The concept behind the shelter DNA test, called DogTrax, is like Carfax, the service that gives a history report on used cars.

"You know when you go and get a car and you know everything about that car?" says Warner. "We thought wouldn’t it be cool if you could get a shelter dog and you could know everything you can about that dog."

DogTrax is sold to shelters at a discounted rate, and the turnaround time is only four or five days (after it reaches the lab) versus the three or four weeks the standard consumer test takes.

Why breeds matter

Most shelter volunteers just make guesses when determining a dog's breed before putting it up for adoption.

"It's always an educated guess and it depends on the education level of the person working that day," says Frost. "Most of our staff has been in the rescue industry six to 10 years, so we've seen a lot. Sometimes we're right and sometimes we're wrong, but we try really hard."

Often the dogs that are most difficult to adopt are those that have big, boxy heads, says Frost. People immediately identify them as pit bulls and they're either afraid of the breed's reputation or live in an apartment complex where they aren't permitted.

"The DNA testing helps with stereotypes sometimes," says Frost. "We had a very large dog most people would classify as a pit bull-looking breed. She was very intimidating and we had a very difficult time placing her."

The shelter did a DNA test and found she was half boxer, half American bulldog.

"Even though we love pit bulls, when we were able to put in her bio that she wasn't one, it opened up a lot of opportunities," says Frost. She was soon adopted by a nice couple.

DNA success stories

At one California shelter, administrators came up with the idea of DNA testing to help speed up adoptions — specifically of their abundant Chihuahua-type dogs.

The Peninsula Humane Society and SPCA in Burlingame, just south of San Francisco, began DNA tests earlier this year, using the slogan "Who's Your Daddy?"

In February, the shelter tested a dozen dogs that all looked very similar. They found all sorts of breeds in the mutt mixes and named them creatively. A Chihuahua-Yorkie mix was a "Chorkie." A dog that was an amalgamation of fox terrier, Cocker spaniel and Lhasa Apso became a "Foxy Lhocker."

The DNA-tested dogs all found homes within two weeks, reported the Associated Press. That's twice as fast as any similar-looking untested dogs in the previous months.

The tests aren't commonplace at most shelters because they are costly and in many cases, not needed. But they're a good marketing tool, especially with difficult cases, says Frost.

"It's trying to do something different to get them to stand out in the crowd. It's kind of sad because you don’t want to compete with other dogs in need, but it's reality."