CSI: Dogs And Cats

Fluffy White Dog, DNA Helix, Ban
We Americans are crazy about our pets. We spend $41 billion a year on them. The late Leona Helmsley left her dog, Trouble, $12 million. We've all seen dogs and cats wearing hand-made sweaters, despite their having natural fur coats. And my family entered this arena of the overly involved pet owner. We had our dog's DNA tested to determine his ancestry.

DNA testing did not really embed itself in the American psyche until the O.J. Simpson trial. Since then, hundreds of people who have been wrongly convicted of crimes have been freed after DNA testing. And then, of course, DNA was back in the headlines during the tragically lurid search for the biological father of Anna Nicole Smith's daughter. Just to refresh your memory, the possible fathers in that case ranged from Anna Nicole's lawyer/companion to Zsa Zsa Gabor's ninth husband.

But I never thought DNA testing would be a part of my life. When my wife took our dog to the vet recently, she told him that she had heard about DNA testing for pets. Since we had rescued our dog from the pound, she told the vet that we really had no information about what kind of dog he was. Without DNA testing, I knew exactly what kind of dog he was: a little, white, fluffy dog. But my wife wanted more information. It wasn't as if she was going to return him if she got surprising test results about Marmaduke (not his real name since the dog would like his privacy protected). And she wasn't hoping that he was descended from Queen Victoria's Olde English Sheepdog or anything snobby like that. She was just curious.

I was curious, too. I was curious how much this DNA testing cost, but I was smart enough not to ask. If I had, my feelings about the testing may have gone from, "That my be interesting" to "Are you crazy? What's the difference?" But I understood her curiosity. And I was tired of answering, "We really don't know" every time someone came up to me and asked, "What breed of dog is he?"

While waiting for the test results to arrive, I admit that I wondered about them just as much as my wife did. I knew that no DNA test could explain why Marmaduke sometimes forgets that he is housebroken, or why he doesn't like to eat alone, or why he has the ability to make us smile no matter what mood we're in. But now that some lab technicians were going to be looking at his DNA - presumably in between solving crimes - I wanted to know what his canine genome had told them.

The results finally arrived. It turns out that Marmaduke is part Italian Greyhound, part Miniature Poodle, and part Toy Fox Terrier. But this fancy DNA test also concluded that Marmaduke is part what they technically call "mixed breed." Apparently, he is descended from many breeds, but their "signals" are not "strong enough to identify." In other words, we still don't really know what kind of dog he is. The good news was that the test proved that his father was not Zsa Zsa Gabor's husband.

The pet paternity people listed some typical characteristics of each breed that they said Marmaduke was descended from. Some of these were words that most people use to describe their dogs - like "intelligent" and "playful." When I first read them, I started to think that the report was much like what psychic charlatans tell their suckers - just what the paying customers want to hear. But then something caught my attention. One of the traits listed under Miniature Poodle was "seems to enjoy dog sports such as ... musical canine freestyle."

I had no idea what "musical canine freestyle" was, but I was pretty sure that Marmaduke had never participated in it. I went online and learned that it is a musical program performed by handlers and their dogs in which the duos dance and "interpret the theme of the music." I smiled immediately. I no longer felt that we were being silly for checking out our dog's DNA.

Lloyd Garver has written for many television shows, ranging from "Sesame Street" to "Family Ties" to "Frasier." He has also read many books, some of them real dogs.
By Lloyd Garver