A Dog’s DNA, Part 1

Ourselves, Our Dogs

Who are we? What are we made of? And why should we care?

With the advent of DNA kit testing, the question takes on new complexity, but as with many new inventions, we may end up putting far too much stock in the science of self-identification.

I’m annoyed by the ancestry.com commercials showing people discovering their heritage and then drawing immediate conclusions about behavior, temperament, or what traditions they should celebrate, ignoring other possibilities DNA cannot explain.

For example, the guy who trades in his lederhosen for a kilt because he discovers he’s more Scottish than German. Ridiculous. If you have celebrated an existing ethnic tradition for years, you don’t need to change it because of blood line discoveries. And the woman who discovers her Nigerian heritage, though it’s one of the smallest fractions of her genetic make-up (the rest being white European), and automatically concludes that her inherent courage must have come from the Nigerian element.

Yes, white Europeans have a history of being selfish, imperialistic bastards and, yes, your Nigerian heritage may have been underrepresented and, thus, underappreciated, but I think behavioral characteristics and personality traits are less genetically driven than those profiting from genetic testing would like us to believe. Moreover, statistically, I don’t believe your courage is more likely to have come from the 17% component than from the 55%, to paraphrase the commercial’s numerical details.

As the age of social media has proven yet again, people are notorious for getting stupid about “smart” technology.

However, the fact that many DNA kits also test for health concerns helps to offset some of the folly in a process that involves and sometimes encourages faulty reasoning and false conclusions.

But what about DNA in dogs? Little boys may be made of snails and puppy dog tails, but what are puppy dog tails made of? And why should we pay to have the double helix of our dog’s genetic identity unwrapped?

Health and healthcare are a factor, but curiosity is probably the main driver. So, after receiving a coupon in the mail for one dog DNA service, we found ourselves investigating our dog’s ancestry. We know he’s a mutt, but many of his traits suggest, to me at least, that there’s a greater chance of high percentages of only a few breeds rather than lower percentages of a longer list. However, I base this belief on assumptions that are, in all likelihood, wrong.

Breed Standards, Rescue Ethics, and My Dogs

Four years ago, I wrote a post as the mom of our first family dog. In a critique of the Westminster Kennel Club Dog Show, then in its 139th year, I confessed to the event’s power to draw dog lovers to the screen, but I was less than enthusiastic about the program’s style, approach, and canine eugenics-oriented purpose.

“A sucker for the mixed breed, I can’t help cringing inside at the sight of enthroned purity, even as I’m drawn to watching the Westminster Kennel Club 139th Annual Dog Show (2/16 on CNBC, 2/17 on USA). The more dog shows I watch, the more I want to watch, and yet, as each event wears on, so grows the sense that I’m watching a travelling circus freak show.”

From “The Perfect-Pooch Parade”

Neither my tone nor my comments improved much from there.

“I detest the way animal health and well-being seem to have been compromised long ago for the sake of handicapping aesthetics. Such tailoring has made Dachshunds and corgis prone to back problems, Shar Peis more likely to develop skin irritations, toys and some terriers so tiny and fragile as to break bones easily, and very large dogs subject to shortened lifespans.

Not to mention all the breed-specific genetic diseases of the organs and other inner workings. . . .”

From “The Perfect-Pooch Parade”

Looking back, though, I realize some of my views were unfounded and some comments unfair, that I didn’t understand the seriousness with which recognized professionals in the dog breeding industry preserve pedigrees and safeguard canine health. Genetic diseases derived from all the original cross-breeding, while still a problem in dogs, are largely perpetuated outside the spotlight of the show dog community, who hates those practices as much as I do: profiting from pure breed popularity using impure pedigrees, puppy mill facilities, designer breeds blended from the same, and so on.

It’s not all about perfection in the American Kennel Club (AKC), Westminster Kennel Club (WKC), and similar organizations. It’s also about perfect sustainability, which necessarily means ensuring really good health to perpetuate generations of good quality dogs, inside and out.

So, it is true that one of the purposes of dog shows in America and around the world is preservation of breed standard characteristics. But while this is similar to the goal of conservation of species in the wild, it is not quite the same. The domestic dog breeding ecosystem is almost entirely human generated, the benefits of registration are focused more on breeds than on the dog species as a whole, and the system is highly controlled by humans.

Excluding thoughts on my personal aesthetic preferences among dog breeds based on appearance and movement, other criticisms from the earlier post were equally valid.

“. . . As with any collector society turned obsessive, there is much to satirize.

“The meticulous, yet highly subjective nature of the judging of these animals as the best of the best in their breeds, groups, and shows not only flies in the face of common dog-owner instincts and preferences (for instance, the golden retriever has never won a best in show) but also, due to breed stereotypes, [overly] restricts people’s sense of the quality and value of any given dog as a pet.

“These factors combine both to weaken the genetic hardiness of dogs through excessive, subsidized, and poorly managed and imitated pure-breeding, and to warp pet industry, dog owner, and service provider perspectives of what constitutes a dog worth having.”

From “The Perfect-Pooch Parade”

In a word, it’s the snobbery that galls me most. This is not to say, as I suggested in the original post, that dog shows and breed preservation are a waste of time, and at least there is no cash prize for the handler, owner, or breeder winners of best in show. That would mar their purity of purpose. However, many rescue organizations hold exactly that view and worse in their distaste for the breeder community. The rationale of this kind of rescuer? “Why breed when there are already so many dogs that need good homes?” “Rescuing saves a life; breeding does not.”

As I’ve said, this view is a bit short sighted in terms of breed longevity and preservation, but it is the very specializing nature of the breed type that lies at the heart of what I see as an elitist mentality. Despite their deep love of dogs, breeders who might otherwise have rescued mutts, which are referred to, granted with some dignity, as “all-American” dogs at the dog show (agility only), won’t touch rescued animals with a ten-foot pole.

The peer and internal pressure of perfecting show performance, reproducing superior pedigrees, and gaining the reputation of owning the perfect dog for its breed leaves little room in house, heart, budget, or calendar for adopted dogs.

Pride and vanity in handlers, breeders, and owners whose dogs excel in competition also shift the focus away from breed preservation and onto the use of individual dogs to give humans status among their peers and fame in the televised show ring. As I said in the previous post, the competition becomes “more about the show-ers than the shown.”

One could argue that using dogs as athletes, workers, and even companions is just as selfish of humans as using them in conformation competition is. It’s true that we crossed long ago the line of exploitation with dogs, but some people push farther beyond it than others. And now, who knows all the system-focused uses dog breeders, both reputable and suspect, are making out of dog DNA testing?

Rescue organizations aren’t perfect either. In their desperation to save every animal in their chosen breed, variety, or circumstance, in hard economic times in particular, some rescuers can prove less than honest and straight dealing with prospective adopters. You think you’re getting one thing, and you end up with the likes of Elyse, our first family dog whose health and pain problems accompanied what we only later learned was a more advanced age than the rescue organization had portrayed.

In our case, the family of the rescue coordinator wanted to keep a puppy we had our eyes on for themselves as well, leaving us with fewer, more complicated options among adoptees. For breeders and pure breed seekers, the main issue with rescuing is that you do not know the history or family heritage of the dog you’re getting, which carries with it higher risk of behavioral and medical problems.

We believed we owned a rescued, presumably pure-bred Brittany a few years back, but given all her health problems, her miniature size, and other factors in our adoption, I would be much more curious to learn the truth of that assumption than I am to learn my new dog’s data. Elyse is buried in the backyard, and I’m not digging her up just to satisfy a curiosity that will likely result in greater anger at the situations that created her.

Now, with more joy and a lighter heart, I go in search of the pedigree of our current dog, Ethan. We did get our wish for a better situation with this second dog than we received with our first. After a rough first year of adjustment for all of us, Ethan has come through happy and confident. He is smart, healthy, mellow, young, athletic, just as beautiful as Elyse was, and also a rescue.

We have wondered about his make-up since we got him, sometimes going up to him and playfully asking, “What are you, Mister?” but he never answered. So we’ll get to scratch the itch with science. With help from family, we ordered a DNA kit, which was actually more expensive than the human kit some relatives ordered. Any day now the results will arrive.

Meanwhile, the dog show offers a chance to make some educated guesses as to his breed make-up. My current hypothesis follows.

“What are you, Mister?”: The Guessing Game

Ethan was advertised as a Vizsla/Labrador retriever mix, and the Vizsla characteristics are demonstrable. However, I’m not as convinced of the Lab content. He does have the oilier, coarser short-haired coat of a Lab on his back and tail, he sheds like a Lab, his skull shape bears some resemblance to a Lab’s, and his tail is Lab like when he’s relaxed.

But he’s also wirier, more aerodynamic, uninterested in retrieving, and less water friendly than a Lab or any retriever. Instead, he likes to sprint, climb, tear the stuffing out of animal toys, destroy rope toys, and rip cardboard boxes to shreds. He naturally scent-tracks very well, and he likes to sunbathe, avoiding water at every turn.

So, some of those facts changed, for me at least, Ethan’s advertised type from “Vizsla/Lab” to “Vizsla/??”. But I assume nothing at this point, not even the Vizsla content, seeing as I have recently how wrong owners can be about the heritage of their mutts.

First, Ethan came from the U.S. Virgin Islands, not known for its Vizsla strays. The islands tend to be much more rife with pit bull mixes, as one would expect. Ethan’s an anomaly in that sense. Based on the smidgeon of what we know of his background and the tiny bit that we can guess, it seems unlikely that he would also contain hound, though some characteristics suggest it.

Therefore, if he does have Vizsla in him, setting aside the Lab question for now, the most likely additional higher percentage group present in Ethan’s blood would be terrier, based on the more common incidence of terriers compared to hounds. In order to narrow that down further, I’ve been studying the appearance and movement of the sporting, working, and terrier groups prior to the best in show round of the Westminster competition this week. Admittedly, despite my prejudice against Ethan’s having Lab in him (too boring?), it is still possible that Lab or some kind of retriever or other sporting breed is present.

Second, if he does NOT have Vizsla in him, the mixture could be quite substantial and surprising. Behaviorally, Ethan’s actions say “hound” to me more than they say “terrier.” Keen scenting, lower energy, slightly less mischief, and legginess are strikes against the terrier group. On the flip side, smaller stature, slender limbs, and a curly tail together work against the hound group. Independent thinking/disobedience or orneriness is a characteristic of many terrier breeds as well as hound breeds, and although he is not bad in this regard, there is some stubbornness in Ethan.

All from the lay perspective, having no knowledge of minute genetics, and now that I’ve looked at them more carefully, I’ve ruled out the following previously considered possibilities as of this week:

  • among hounds: beagle (too thick boned), foxhounds (too stocky), redbone coonhound and other coonhounds (too stocky and tall)
  • among non-sporting: shiba inu (entirely wrong shape and coat despite similar coloring and tail curl), spitz breeds (entirely wrong shape, coloring, and coat despite tail curl)
  • among herding: most herding breeds, including the Canaan dog, despite its curly tail, except border collie and similar shaped medium-sized shepherd breeds
  • among terriers: most terriers, including the more common bull, staffordshire bull, pit bull (too powerful, wrong face shape, build), and all the large-headed, small-bodied terriers of the British Isles (too confident)
  • toy group: highly unlikely, hardly worth mentioning?

Still in the running to be part of Ethan’s DNA for me are the following.

Sporting breeds:

  • Vizsla – body shape, coloring, wiry build, narrow chest, deep-set chest, high pelvic tuck, ear shape, forehead/cheek wrinkles, crown shape, eye position and almond shape, pink/liver nose, sitting shape, tail thickness, musculature, cat-like paws, muzzle length/shape, athleticism, shyness/softness. Ethan’s traits NOT typically seen in the Vizsla: curly tail (usually docked), ample shedding, dark brown eye color (light, yellowish), oily medium-short coat (extremely short, sleek).
  • Labrador retriever – coat length/quality, tail, head shape, brown eyes
  • other sporting breeds such as Weimaraner (very similar to Vizsla), pointers (but half of the build is quite different), spaniels, though the coat is wrong (springers, Brittanys, but probably not cockers), and some retrievers, such as Nova Scotia Duck Toller, but due to its rarity that’s less likely; less so setters

Hounds:

  • Basenji – facial wrinkles, curly tail, overall size, sometimes similar coloring
  • Dachshund – more of an honorable mention since I have strong doubts; likely only a sliver (such as some part of his size and coat) if anything; shape is way off
  • less likely: sight hounds – too delicate and with much pointier, more slender heads and tapered noses with bulging side-set eyes, though Ethan has similar build and high stepping trot to some
  • even less likely due to rarity, despite physical similiarities: Ibizan hound, Pharaoh hound, Cirneco dell’Etna

Working, Herding:

  • Rhodesian ridgeback – mainly for their wrinkled forehead and squared crown in relation to the muzzle, along with short hair
  • Doberman and German Pinschers – eye position, sleekness, overall shape, face shape
  • German shepherd – coat only
  • some shepherds and border collie – actually rather unlikely the more I think about it . . . but I know genetics can be sneaky.

Terriers:

  • Manchester – similar to a Doberman in appearance but small
  • Parson Russell – face shape and he jumps rather high
  • maybe a bit of border terrier for face shape

Best guess from analysis assisted by WKC dog show and AKC website:

If I were to pick the largest number of possible ingredients going into the oven that made my dog, it would include but perhaps not be limited to:

  • Vizsla
  • Labrador retriever
  • German shepherd
  • springer spaniel or Brittany
  • Doberman
  • Dachshund
  • and some terrier blend

If I were to pick the smallest number of possible ingredients, it would include one of the following:

  • Vizsla, German shepherd
  • Vizsla, Labrador retriever or
  • Vizsla, retriever (non-Lab)

I told my husband we should take bets before the results arrive, but he declined. He knows I’d win, or at least come closest. (Spoil sport.)

Stay tuned for Ethan’s DNA results and our reactions to his pedigree!

Below: Ethan is less excited to solve the puzzle.

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Culling the herd, an original poem

Here’s to a more contemplative, considered, measured Earth Day 2018 (on, around, or far from 4/21), as for all intended days of remembrance, tradition, action, and activism.

Here’s to an antidote to do-something-ism, the arrogance of action for the sake of acting without intelligent, careful thought, patience for information, debunking myths, withholding judgment, uncovering assumptions, probing conventional understanding, and placing a check on emotionalism. Certainty is impossible, but near-certainty must be earned, not used as an excuse or a form of denial beforehand.

Here’s to Earth, to people, to animals, to reason, and to love. To a balanced appetite for details and the big picture. To doubt, to questioning, to human rights, and never killing to punish. To you, if you’re with me on these–if you, too, would cull the herd mentality, whether it claims to come from truth, patriotism, freedom, control, justice, safety, mercy, love, or God.

And here’s a poem of sorts.

Culling the herd    © 2018, Carrie Tangenberg

Sometimes to love animal
 means to love human-animal balance,
 if love is a balanced act of
 compassion, reason, acceptance,
 for human is animal, too.

I couldn’t pull the trigger
 in everyday conditions,
 but I don’t begrudge the hunter,
 farmer, game warden, parks
 ranger, zoo keeper, veterinarian,
 wild survivor, adventurer, 
 conservationist, naturalist,
 lost traveller who may have to,
 want to.

Who am I to stop everything?
 Save everything? Or anything?
 Start something? What exactly and why?
 What is wisdom, wise action here?

Cull the herd, naturally.
 Cull the herd naturally.

What does it mean?
 What is natural? What unnatural?
 Where is the line between?
 And which herd will it be?
 And how?

Curiosity, discovery,
 fascination, wonder, awe,
 anxiety, annoyance, frustration,
 disgust, confusion, amusement,
 anger, sadness, startlement,
 fatigue, and sometimes fear—

These are the feelings
 of living among wild prey
 when one owns a dog
 and a yard with grass
 you don’t want dug up
 by any but yourself,
 and a house built on
 pavement ant pandemic.

But free will is never free,
 never without consequence.
 What if making a difference 
 means doing more harm than good?
 Did you know? Do you? Always? 
 Respect the what-if, at least.

I don’t get squeamish
 reading about creature
 death, butchery, predation,
 and harvesting for food,
 watching wild death
 on TV or the Web, or watching 
 vet shows, trauma, surgeries, 
 sorrows.

I would, I do not like to see
 blood up close, so bright,
 so red, so shiny, fresh, raw.

All it took was a clip
 of the quick on my dog’s
 left back toenail to
 send me into panic
 where I’m usually calm.

It wouldn’t stop bleeding.
 General Chaos conquered.
 It was Easter 2018.

Bleeding eventually stops,
 and so do breeding, foraging,
 fleeing, hiding, sleeping,
 mating, hunting, scavenging,
 migration, habitats, and life.

We can’t stop everything,
 but everything stops, even
 rivers, seas, forests, islands,
 valleys, mountains, plains,
 planets, stars, solar systems.

Even senses, motion, heart,
 brain, growth, and breath.

Even love, even faith, even hope,
 even panic, idiocy, evil, insanity,
 and this listing of word lists.

If this post or poem resonated with you, you may also enjoy:

Five-Phrase Friday (34): Earth Day, Every Day

Call of the Wild Poetry

Five-Phrase Friday (1): The Poetry Politic

Between Dust and Star

Today Star Wars: The Last Jedi opens in the theaters, but I’ll be waiting to see it until the heat dies down and the Christmas season ends. It’s important to me, but not so much that I would insist on joining the literal crowd. Life is, as it turns out, already quite crowded enough.

I was scanning satellite radio today, which I do not normally do, while running errands, driving through our snowy streets with my dog in the backseat, when I happened upon a mind-blowing discussion. The BBC radio program Crowd Science on Sirius XM, in my first time listening, was airing an episode about the science of household dust.

What struck me, among other things, is the living diversity resident in our everyday dust bunnies. Millions of microbes, fungi, insect and arthropod parts, dead skin, hair, and mostly fabric fibers. VOCs, too, to be sure. One perspective urged policy changes in the safety of household products to reduce the numbers of toxins sold to consumers, while another noted that we can safely live with a fair amount of dust and that some of the ways it is created (bacteria pooping out gold, for instance) may actually be beneficial.

Interesting as well was the expert perspective on how and how often to dust one’s home. Not too frequently but just enough so that the dust doesn’t permanently attach to the surface of furniture and other materials, which it will do for a few different reasons, by a few different chemical processes. One has to do with bacteria, another with humidity changes, and I forget the third. Dust on surfaces of dressers and tables can become permanent film that only a professional restoration service will be able to lift.

One’s dust can reveal under a microscope quite a lot of specifics about who one is and where one lives. Bald residents without pets will have far less hair in their dust bunnies, as a volunteer resident of Australia helped the program to reveal. And certain plants and fungi only live in certain areas, laying their detritus in the trims of our doorways to the outside. Dust is usually gray, even if you have colorful hair and a vibrant wardrobe, due to the blending of many colors that can be seen individually only when examined up close.

My own thoughts from the program?

Although we have the traditional saying from the Bible “ashes to ashes, dust to dust,” little did we then know how much more than inanimate dirt our dust contained. Even after we die, the microbes we have shed comprise our ashes, especially when mixed again after, say, crematory sterilization, with the living ecosystems in outdoor soils, material surfaces, and liquid solutions. In death, there is always life, not just the promise of new life. It is not a linear, isolated cycle but a multifaceted, continuous whirlwind.

This quite changes the view of our bodily rest.

If spiritually we find peace, rest assured, our bodies and their shed layers never really do. We might as well say the remains of our deceased have been laid not to rest but to writhe and wriggle, freeze and thaw, moisten and re-crystallize, expand and contract, and generally remain restless and teeming with all kinds of life, as long as some trace of themselves stays detectable by microscope in their bodies’ places of final rest.

It lends new meaning, but perhaps less importance, to the notion that our molecules go literally everywhere whether we are alive or dead, and that our skin sheds enough to help create a whole new being left behind from our person repeatedly during our lives.

The bottom line is that there is no true separation on a physical level, none that we can see and distinguish with our hands and eyes unaided by science, between our biological lives and the lives of millions and millions of others of too many different living species to count.

The implications are up for grabs. Be grossed out. Claim it as an incentive for wildlife conservation (“we are one, literally”) and the fight against climate change, which may be inevitable regardless of human effort (the fight and the change). Justify strange personal hygiene habits. Do what you will with the information.

I find it fascinating whatever the outcome. The fullness of life is restored in my eyes. We’re not alone, in so many ways, and now in so many more. With knowledge come further questions and mysteries to explore. What does it mean for DNA testing or insect phobias or the obsessively compulsively clean? Are identity errors somehow possible because of these minglings and cross-contaminations, if you will? How can allergens in food products take our blame, or at least all the blame, for auto-immune conditions when the number of possible allergens in our environments is so unimaginably large? Far more in the air and environment than in our food, and even more so when we ingest them with our food. #washyourhands

Can we be too clean? What then? If we all live in such bodily zoos, should we re-define what it is to be dirty? How do all the tiny lives of our dust affect our thinking, behaviors, and fates? How does our awareness of them change our sense of ourselves? Of who we are as individuals or groups?

Above all, how does this influence our answer to the question of what it means to be human? If cleanliness is next to Godliness, do we not now see that it was always a pipe dream to strive for divinity? For purity? For resemblance to the necessarily unnaturally immaculate deity? For this vision of God does not allow for God to know dirt first hand.

When the lines of our very beings blur so completely like this, what implications could the inherent blending have for other lines in our lives? Other boundaries? Limitations? Segregations? At what point do physical differences then stop influencing minds and societies? At what point should they? We have more in common, as they say, than we have of differences. This turns out to be truer than we had ever before imagined.

However, I am no more or less motivated now to dust my home. Housekeeping was never a calling for me, but at least now I feel a little better equipped to cut down on my household dust and keep it in check.

The BBC’s dusting experts say to (1) use a natural-bristle brush to lift the dust, holding a vacuum hose inches away to suck up the lifted particles; (2) concentrate on the areas of the house between hips and shoulders, the places most visible to guests, and (3) dust regularly but not frequently so as not to increase health hazards, though meaning well, by excessive diligence.

Use a HEPA filter on your vacuum cleaner. Dust often enough to prevent the humidity cycle from laying down that cement-like, microbe-moistened film layer on the night stand. Clean every room thoroughly once a year, rotating from one room to the next each month so as not to live only for spring cleaning—all spring long. Use the right tools or hire a cleaning service, and don’t go overboard with sterilization.

If you’re worried about the effects of toxins on child development, reproductive health, and cancer prevention, there is evidence you should be aware of them in order to mitigate the risks. Above all, spend more time outside the home if you are usually a home body (like me, unfortunately); chances are your indoor environment is much less healthy than the outdoor. Keep moving.

“All we are is dust in the wind,” or, you know, the doldrums. Pieces of ourselves lay scattered about our homes and workplaces and vehicles and yards and apartment buildings, and those pieces are lifted easily when disturbed—that is, until they crystallize on our furniture.

So if you want to make your household objects your own in a really primal way, no need to mark your territory Fido style. Just neglect your dusting for a bit, and voilà, pieces of you are embedded in the baseboards, the chairs, the counter tops, your appliances, your books and electronics, and even the porcelain throne, to say nothing of the carpet. Just be ready to share that space with millions upon millions of other lives.

And remember, if you must clean, you won’t just be killing strangers and unknown neighbors—fungi, insects, mites, plant sheddings, pet sheddings, bacteria, and parasites. You’ll be erasing bits of yourself as well.

This reminds me of the practices of Ethan Hawke’s character Vincent/Jerome in the 90s sci-fi film Gattaca. Working for a space exploration company toward his own voyage to space, the heart-defective Vincent borrows the identity of the genetically perfect but paraplegic Jerome through blood, urine, hair, nail, and other bodily samples that he uses for access and carefully spreads around his workplace while Hoovering up his own “de-generate” cells.

Knowing what Crowd Science has imparted, it strikes me how not only impractical but impossible erasing his true biological identity would really be if anyone in authority had bothered to screen more regularly and rigorously. And outer space would have remained only a dream for our underdog hero, though as he says at the end, we will all still have come from the stars.

Heavenly, long-dead stars or living, putrescent particles, it is all in where—and how—you look.