Is DNA testing of dogs taking the love affair too far?

I am a mixed breed. Mum was born and bred in Sydney and, on her side of the family, we can trace our lineage to William Henry, who arrived here in 1801 as a convict. Dad, on the other hand, was from what is now Slovakia – the Slovak half of what was Czechoslovakia – when he was born in 1922. He arrived here in 1950 and he and mum began to produce our mixed breed family a few years later.

Dad was not a pet person and mum was afraid of canines. As a result, we grew up without a family dog. Mum and dad both softened that stance in later years, after we left home, and we were allowed to bring our dogs when we visited.

While dad did eventually come to appreciate ‘man’s best friend’, he most certainly would not have appreciated the following little titbit of news that popped up last week: In 2020 alone, Americans spent nearly $104 billion on their animal companions, according to the American Pet Products Association – a sum that is the equivalent of the GDP of Slovakia.

A country spending another country’s GDP on dogs? That would not have gone down well. I can picture him shaking his head in disgust. As a dog lover myself, I’m not so shocked. But on reading that fact, I did wonder what exactly the Americans were spending that money on? Vet bills? Fair enough. Toys? Well, you’ve got to keep our canine friends happy occupied.

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It turns out, though, that there’s something else into which our friends in the US are channelling their furry friend finances – DNA tests. That’s right, dog owners across America are shoving swabs into their canine companions’ cheeks to get a saliva sample, as many of us have done to ourselves in the past couple of years to test for COVID.

In this case, though, there are no concerns about a virus and, given how much dogs drool, no difficulty in getting a saliva sample I would imagine.

Once the sample is taken, off it’s sent by mail, with owners awaiting results to come back a couple of weeks later. “Results for what?” I hear you ask. The simple answer is the dog’s lineage. Just as many of us are using and other resources to test our DNA to find out our origins, many pet owners are keen to do the same.

Again, I can picture dad shaking his head in bewilderment. He might have accepted the idea of finding out more about his own heritage through DNA testing but pets? “My goodness!”, he would have exclaimed in his hybrid Slovak–Aussie accent.

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On one level, though, DNA testing dogs makes sense. Some owners are keen to find out if their dogs really are the pure breed they paid for. Others might want to know if their dog’s lineage might help explain certain behaviours.

Many of the results, though, might be reinforcing often incorrect stereotypes about certain breeds. Allen McConnell, professor of psychology specialising in the relationship of humans and their pets, said: “The owners’ desire to understand, predict and anticipate their dog’s actions makes wanting to know something about its breed useful in the owner’s eyes.”

While stereotypical statements such as ‘Labradors as are good with children’ or ‘pit bulls are aggressive watch dogs’ can often be inaccurate, they may also help guide understanding of an animal, said Prof. McConnell.

I wonder whether it might cause more anxiety than it’s worth, though. It certainly would have if I’d spent money on a doggy DNA test and told dad about it!

Read: Pets could soon be allowed to travel in plane cabins

My brother and his wife have gone down the path of human DNA testing in recent years. As a result, I now know that I am descended from King James I of England, and in turn Mary Queen of Scots, and before that King Henry VIII.

Maybe that’s why my marriage ended in divorce. The thing is, though, I would be one of hundreds of thousands – if not millions – of Australians with Henry VIII’s blood in them. And not all of them got divorced!

When I get my next dog, most likely a mixed breed like me, I’ll probably spend an inordinate amount on toys and bedding for it. But I think I’ll leave the DNA testing to my friends in the US.

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Andrew Gigacz
Andrew Gigacz
Andrew has developed knowledge of the retirement landscape, including retirement income and government entitlements, as well as issues affecting older Australians moving into or living in retirement. He's an accomplished writer with a passion for health and human stories.
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