Unlocking mysteries with dog DNA testing

Jun 6, 2023, 10:49 AM | Updated: 2:47 pm

SALT LAKE CITY — We’ve heard of companies like Ancestry and 23andMe that help people find family connections and learn where they came from. There’s another company that’s trying to do the same for dog owners, who are using it for a lot more than determining their dog’s breed.

Arguably the toughest thing about having a dog is eventually having to see them go. But Jasper is still going strong, even at his age. Wayne Watson says Jasper is likely his favorite.

“Probably about 14 (years old), that’s what I’m guessing,” Watson said. “He’s number eight.”

Which is partly why he wanted to know more.

Wayne Watson adopted Jasper, who was rescued from a hoarding situation with over 140 other dogs in 2012. (Photo courtesy: Watson family)

“After we had him for a little while, especially when he was younger, he looked so much like a miniature pinscher. I mean there’s some days…the chihuahua, you could see it come out, but other days he would his stance, he looked like a miniature Doberman pinscher,” Watson said. “Our daughter, who is a veterinary technician, suggested that we use this Embark vet DNA testing, which is like 23andMe and Ancestry, but it’s for dogs.”

Dog DNA testing

The idea to make the test available for dog owners comes in part from Adam Boyko, an associate professor at Cornell University.

“We were doing research grade array testing in my lab looking at 200,000 markers across the genome,” Boyko said. “But if you wanted to buy a dog DNA test, the most advanced on the market was only looking at 300 markers across the genome. So there was no research value to it, and you also weren’t getting a good, accurate result.”

Boyko is also co-founder and chief science officer at Embark. In his research, he says he was surprised at how many dog owners wanted to help and how much they became attached to what they could find.

“We need to give owners and veterinarians and breeders you know this cutting-edge information. There’s clearly a demand for it,” he said.

And that brings us back to Jasper.

“So we did it and come back and there’s no pinscher Doberman at all in him,” Watson said. “He’s half-chihuahua, a quarter Australian cattle dog, (an eighth) small poodle…and then the rest is just a big mix.”

While there’s no Doberman in Jasper, there’s another reason Watson got the DNA test. He rescued Jasper from a shelter after he was found in the home of a hoarder in Ogden in 2012 — with 148 other dogs. We covered the story here on KSL TV.

Watson says Jasper has always been afraid of other dogs.

“He’s really scared. And I know if you can imagine 150 dogs all in a house smaller than this, probably fighting for their existence — it probably wasn’t very pleasant,” Watson said.

But he thought if just maybe he could find a dog sibling, maybe that would be different.

“I really thought that maybe if we get him together with some of his relatives… he just doesn’t like other dogs, he’s terrified. But I thought maybe if he got somebody… I don’t know what I was thinking,” Watson said with a laugh. “I was thinking maybe if he got together with some of his relatives he might be more of a ‘dog person,’ but he just doesn’t like other dogs at all.”

He said they did find several of Jasper’s cousins and a sister, but they have all passed away.

Still, that’s OK. Watson says he’s grateful for what they did learn about Jasper, even if it’s likely he’ll have to remain more of a “person person” than a dog person.

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Unlocking mysteries with dog DNA testing