Question of the Week, June 12

Huck, the 6 1/2-year-old mystery mutt in question, knows nothing about his ancestry. We asked him.

Meet Huck. He’s a pound puppy I adopted nearly six years ago in Boise, Idaho.

I can tell you lots of things about Huck. He’s built like a horse and uses his long legs as bludgeons when wrestling with other dogs. He’ll eat almost anything, kibbles to compost. Mountain biking and backcountry skiing are his favorite activities, but he won’t turn down a good nap session and he doesn’t like to get out of bed early in the morning.

One thing I can’t tell you about Huck is his breed.

The Idaho Humane Society told me he was a German wire-haired pointer and border collie mix. Given that the average border collie could walk underneath him, it’s unlikely he has much of that lineage. Based on the input of his veterinarians I’ve started telling people he’s an Irish wolfhound-Lab mix.

But who knows? It’s been a mystery, but recently I gave him a DNA test, provided to the News&Guide by Embark, one of the producers of the tests. Unfortunately, the results didn’t come in before press time, but see the sidebar for information on how you can guess what he is and win a prize, as well as find out the results once they’re in.

Knowing Huck’s genetic makeup is a curiosity for me, not a necessity. But for some dog owners, the breed assigned to their new family member at the shelter can have serious consequences.

“There are unfortunately cities with sweeping legislation against all bully breeds,” said Amanda Penn, general manager at the Animal Adoption Center. “In addition to pit bulls that includes boxers and bulldogs. It can be hard to adopt anything with a short muzzle.”

Jackson lacks such legislation, and Penn said people here are open to owning all sorts of dogs, including those seen as undesirable in some places. That being said, some breeds seem to be more popular.

“Around here we see a lot of working dogs like heelers or shepherds, and that’s what people want,” Penn said.

Though the populace here is perhaps less discerning about breed than in other places, the Adoption Center still has to assign one to the animals it has. Calling it something, even if that something is just an educated guess, gives potential pet parents an idea of what the dog might be like.

Adoption Center staffers, like in most shelters around the country, use visual clues to help them make a determination. Things like size, shape and color can be giveaways, as can more nuanced features like the shape of the head. Dogs like heelers and poodles are noticeably unique, making them easier to identify, but some evade easy classification.

“If we have no idea, we try to be educated in our guesses,” Penn said. “We can’t guarantee it 100 percent. We’ll sometimes label them as a heeler mix or a shepherd mix, or we can just call them a mixed breed.”

Studies have found that visual identification is accurate a measly 10% to 15% of the time, said certified professional dog trainer Ashlea King, so for those unsatisfied with calling their dog a mixed breed, or the more lowbrow term “mutt,” enter the DNA test. The test, usually just a cheek swab the pet parent sends to the lab, can reveal a variety of things.

First, of course, the test can list the breeds that collide in any particular dog, and many include percentages indicating which are the dominant ones. From that information many of the tests will compile lists of potential character attributes and health problems. Though it may not be true in all facets of life, the expensive tests are truly worth it, Penn said, as they offer more detailed, accurate results.

However, that information may not be entirely helpful.

“Even if that dog is 20% border collie that doesn’t mean it will act the way people expect a border collie to act,” said King, who has worked with and in animal shelters for 12 years.

Knowing the breeds that make up your dog can be fun, and will help you answer the question most commonly asked of all weird-looking pups: What is that? But King said the knowledge may not offer as much predictive benefit as an owner might hope for. The way DNA interacts is difficult to say, and just because a dog is part German shepherd doesn’t mean it will suffer from hip dysplasia later in life, for example.

Switching the basic descriptor for a dog from breed to personality would be helpful, King said. Because of the interplay between all the breeds that can make up a dog — sometimes as many as five or more — shelters could help potential dog parents by categorizing their canines by characteristics.

Some shelters have switched to systems that assign a dog a color, she said. For instance, green might mean energetic, and purple may indicate a couch potato.

“We’ve done such a good job as the sheltering community to get people to take into account lifestyle,” she said. “We’re really needing to look into different solutions to give accurate representations of personality.”

That type of categorization would have been helpful when I adopted Huck. A guess at breed was about the only signifier the shelter gave me. Once I got him home I discovered he wasn’t really housebroken, was prone to running away and barked incessantly. I may not have rejected him if I had known those things — crazy dogs need love, too — but I would have made different decisions in his training.

Now, almost six years in, his breed makes no difference to me. For all the irrational reasons we love our dogs, I care more about his love for running, his personality quirks and the weird way he licks the air when he gets really excited. However, I am excited to know if I’ve been accurately describing him all these years, and I’m sure other dog owners, even though they wouldn’t love their dogs any more or less, would like to know their weird mutts’ makeup.

“We always recommend owners do it,” Penn said. “It’s always really fun to see what they are.” 

Contact Tom Hallberg at 732-5902 or thallberg@jhnewsandguide.com.

Tom Hallberg covers a little bit of everything, from skiing to long-form feature stories. A Teton Valley, Idaho, transplant by way of Portland and Bend, Oregon, he spends his time outside work writing fiction, splitboarding and climbing.

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