Monday, April 4, 2016

The Wild Boreal Chihuahua

By far and away the two most common questions I am asked by new puppy owners are "how big will he get?" and "what breed is he?". These are not subjects we are taught in veterinary school and although with experience our educated guesses improve, they are still just educated guesses. The frustrating part is that some clients judge our overall skill and knowledge as veterinarians based on these guesses and it can take years to live down a bad one. Consequently I've honed the art of being vague while sounding knowledgeable.

The question of breed guessing came to mind the other day when my own DNA test results came in. My wife had given me a "23 And Me" analysis as a gift and one of the findings was that I am 3.2% Neanderthal, which puts me in the 99th percentile of all people tested. I like to think that nobody would have guessed this, but my wife disagrees.

A similar test exists for dogs and I have had numerous clients over the years test their mixed breed dogs, perhaps frustrated by my knowledgeable vagueness.

The most popular of these tests purports to identify a truly astonishing range of breeds, from Affenpinscher to Yorkshire Terrier, including such oddities as Bergamasco, Glen of Imaal Terrier and Xolitzcuintli. I cannot vouch for the accuracy of this apparent extreme specificity and in fact, at the risk of hearing from someone's lawyer, I will confess to a tiny bit of skepticism. In contrast, for the majority of my DNA "23 And Me" is only willing to express confidence that it is generically "European", despite the fact that most of my known ancestors, back 13 generations in some cases, are German. But back to dog breeds I can say that despite the impressive list, the tests are missing one type and that that gap trips people up here, and I suspect throughout western and northern Canada.

For example, Mr. Jackson came in the other day with Bruiser, a 120 lb mound of muscle and fur that eats squirrels for lunch and begs to go outside when it's -40C. Mr. Jackson was perplexed because Bruiser's DNA breed test marked him as having a lot of Chihuahua. Bruiser resembles a Chihuahua the same way Mike Tyson resembles me.

So here's the thing.

The thing is that many of our clients get their dogs from shelters and the shelters here are full of dogs from remote First Nations communities in the north. So, am I saying that the northern Manitoba bush is seething with packs of wild boreal Chihuahuas? No. What I am saying is that when the indigenous people came to North America across the Bering land bridge around 15,000 years ago they brought dogs with them. These dogs are not any particular breed, they are simply, and beautifully I might add, "dogs". The Aztecs began breeding these dogs into a specific line that became what we now know as Chihuahuas. The DNA test then sometimes picks this up as the closest match for Bruiser and his friends. Look carefully at the next Chihuahua you see and take note of the curled tail. The other breeds with curled tales are all northern breeds in the family group sometimes called the Spitz type. Other members of this group are Chows and Akitas, who's DNA  sometimes also cross-reacts with our reserve dogs.

Fortunately for Mr. Jackson's ego Bruiser's test also highlighted husky and lab. Chihuahuas are actually very tough, but they do have an image problem with some people. Especially people who name their dog Bruiser.

I have a lot more to say about purebreds, crossbreds, mixed breeds etc., but I'll save that for another day.

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