Department of hybrid vigor

I have a dog named Cupcake, and no two people have the same idea about what kind of dog Cupcake is. Cupcake is a splashy-looking animal, so I’m accosted often by strangers who ask, “Hey, what kind of dog is that?” Even though I’ve got plenty of opinions, I reply, “I dunno — she’s just a mutt,” and wait to see if they’re the type who will smile and move on, or if they fancy themselves expert in the roughly 400 known canine breeds worldwide.

If they fall in the latter camp, they’ll scrutinize Cupcake’s blocky head and bat ears. Her brindle harlequin face and slightly mournful mien. Her longish legs supporting 60-odd pounds of mid-size-mutt body. Her white fur speckled like the canvas of an action painting. Her unremarkable tail curving up slightly, a question mark punctuating the mystery of her origins. 

Then they’ll step back and declare the mystery solved: “She is a Dalmatian / blue heeler / boxer / pit bull / German short-haired pointer / English setter / Catahoula leopard dog,” or some combination thereof. And I’ll say, “What an interesting idea!” though I probably disagree. If you have a mutt, you know what I mean: A mutt is a visual riddle, a puzzle worthy of pondering over a glass of something just addling enough to bend your thoughts in that fruitless direction: Hmm… the way she sneaks up on unsuspecting squirrels suggests pointer, but are pointers good scent hounds? Because Cupcake could not sniff out a slab of bacon unless you balanced it on the tip of her nose … And what about that nose? It’s too long for a boxer, though the shape of her face suggests otherwise…

The next time someone inquires about Cupcake’s origins, I will be ready with an answer:  “She is 37 to 74 percent bulldog, 20 to 36 percent boxer, 10 to 19 percent collie, and 10 to 19 percent Rhodesian ridgeback. I mean, isn’t it obvious?”

And should anyone doubt these stats, I’ll produce the “evidence”: Cupcake’s official Ancestry Analysis Certificate, issued just last month by the BioPet Vet Lab in Knoxville, Tennessee.

OK, I’m slightly embarrassed that I drained $60 from the family coffers to get my dog’s DNA tested, but when I saw the kit at my local PetSmart — when I learned that I could swab her cheeks, mail the sample to a lab, and get the results in two weeks — I couldn’t resist. If the tools are available to unravel any of life’s minor mysteries, then I will commence unraveling. For example, I didn’t hesitate about finding out the gender of my babies when I was pregnant. I understand that some people — like my husband —want to be “surprised,” but I never got that. Whether you’re informed by an ultrasound technician, by the doctor, a midwife or the cab driver who delivers your baby, it’s still a surprise. The difference is five months of suspense, and who needs suspense?  Who wants to wonder when you can know?

Of course with my babies, I really did know: They were indisputably girls. But some people doubt the reliability of the doggie DNA tests — like my vet, who practically did a spit take when I told him I’d ordered one. He cited a client whose dog was revealed to be a Labrador-Yorkie combo, as if that were reason enough to dismiss the findings. (I, however, like to think that if a Yorkie and a Lab were truly in love, they’d find a way to make things happen.) The consumer reviews on Amazon seem evenly divided between satisfied customers (“I knew all along that Sheba was part husky!”) and the bitter owners of teacup mutts (“They said Fifi is a Rottweiler!”). And in a recent Wall Street Journal article, a reporter had her apparent pit-bull mix tested by four different companies—with four different results, some quite outlandish.

If I’d done a little research, I would have known the test wasn’t foolproof.  If Cupcake were on death row for squirrelicide, it wouldn’t be deemed sufficient evidence to exonerate her. What I’ve since learned is that the bigger the lab’s database, the more credible the results. BioPet Vet Lab draws from a database containing the genetic markers of 63 breeds while the Mars Wisdom Panel database, for example, boasts 170 breeds (and costs $20 more). Oh, and if you suspect there are pit bulls gnawing on your dog’s family tree — like Cupcake’s — expect the results to be even murkier, since a pit isn’t technically a breed, but a collection of characteristics stemming from a variety of possible sources.    

So I guess I’m back where I started — wondering instead of knowing. But contemplating canine contradictions and trying to make them add up to a satisfying whole is one of the joys of mutt ownership. Maybe a little uncertainty isn’t such a bad thing. •

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