Love in the Time of Dog DNA Testing

What happens when you find out your Chihuahua isn’t really who you think she is?
Birdie. Photograph by Claudia Gavin

Birdie. Photograph by Claudia Gavin

This is my third Chihuahua. That’s what I used to say about my dog, Birdie, until this summer, when I got her DNA tested. That’s right — I paid nearly a hundred dollars to ship some glorified Q-tips to a laboratory in Lincoln, Nebraska, so that Science could tell me who my dog really is, deep down in her soul. I wouldn’t have done it 10 years ago, but then, no one did. In 2015, though, this is where we are: Dog DNA testing is so common, its popularity was spoofed in a Funny or Die video in which a dog owner is peer-pressured into the test. Some people do the test for pragmatic reasons — pertaining to health or behavior — and some people do it for fun, as a novelty. Me? I did it for love. But I’m getting ahead of myself.

Let me start at the beginning.

As a kid, I wasn’t allowed to have a dog, so naturally I became obsessed with them. I got a glossy coffee-table book about dogs, with lush color photos, and I’d page through it slowly, the way my more sophisticated classmates were probably poring over their parents’ issues of Playboy. I looked at the sun shining on the Irish setter puppies, at the cocker spaniels in a basket, at a scruffy wolfhound pup with liquid eyes, and I felt indescribably bereft. I wanted so desperately to embrace them all that I developed a compensatory behavior: I’d kiss my knee, which stood in for all the little round puppy skulls. Kisses for you, golden Lab pup. Kisses for you, friendly Dalmatian. Kisses for you, beagle hound. Kisses and kisses for all of them.

I found only one dog vaguely repulsive: the Chihuahua, with its abbreviated muzzle, bulging eyes, bat-like ears, and whiskers that sprouted like errant hairs from a witch’s moles. Inevitably described as having a “saucy” expression in breed manuals, the Chihuahua seemed arrogant and unkind. In fact, in years to come, I’d often say to people, “I like all dogs … except Chihuahuas.”

Then came Hannah. I had recently separated from my husband and was spending lots of time at my local bar, which is to say I was an easy mark. When I saw a palm-size yellow puppy shivering in the corner of a pet-store cage — so unbearably tiny, with big black eyes — I was convinced she needed rescue. Did I pause, momentarily, when the guy working there told me she was a Chihuahua puppy? I don’t remember. I just remember my credit card got declined and I was frantic that he run it again because I had to have this dog. Thankfully, it went through.

I had Hannah for 13 years. In that time she grew up, and I learned that many of her breed synch up perfectly with my own breed, i.e., nurturing, indoor-oriented person in need of cuddling and affection. Not all Chihuahuas are “saucy,” it turns out. Some are shy and sweet and deferential, as Hannah was. They like to sleep a lot, can be paper- or litter-trained, and adore their owners with a purity of focus that borders on the pathological. They also have a hilarious flair for the dramatic. People think they’re cold when they tremble (which they do a lot), but mostly, they’re emoting.

For me, getting a Chihuahua was like finding the perfect match on a dating site. I’d been looking for someone whose notion of an ideal Sunday was lying in bed and reading the New York Times, and here she was — granted, in the form of an illiterate Chihuahua, but damn if she wasn’t the most companionable creature I’d ever known.

Though Chihuahuas tend to live longer than any other dog, Hannah got sick at 12. After a year of awful treatments, which she obviously resented, the decision was made. I held her while she was put to sleep; I repeatedly kissed the top of her little round head as she faded away — her head that was exactly the size and shape of my knee. Little Hannah, perfect for me in every way.

OF COURSE the next dog had to be a Chihuahua. In my grief over Hannah, I turned to the members of my Chihuahua meet-up group (no, really), who introduced me to Cupcake, a longhaired Chihuahua puppy, less than a pound. Cupcake was too little to be of any use in the dog-show ring, so she came home with me, was rechristened Millie, and developed a deep attachment to a green velveteen frog. Less than a year later, when my boyfriend and I split up, she and the green frog moved to Los Angeles, leaving me Chihuahua-less once again. At least for a couple months.

I wasn’t planning to get a dog when I went into the shelter — I thought I’d just say hello to the Chihuahuas, as I missed having one around. A staffer there really wanted me to see the one she liked, a happy and active Chihuahua that wriggled frantically when she held him. I asked about the one curled in a ball with half-closed eyes — the lazy-looking one. “Oh, that’s Blossom. She only has three legs. All she wants is for people to hold her — all the time.” She said this like it was a drawback. Blossom crawled into my lap right away when I took her out of her cage. I rubbed my hand over her smooth black head; it felt just like Hannah’s. She wagged her tail furiously while her too-bulgy eyes gazed into my own. Okay, then. Time to go home.

From the start, there were signs that Birdie (“Blossom” was jettisoned the first week) might not be a purebred Chihuahua. For one thing, she pulls on the leash like we’re doing the Mount Airy Iditarod. Also, she wants to cuddle with everyone who comes into my apartment. Is it a human? Is it breathing? Let’s cuddle! Not that Chihuahuas are unfriendly, but they tend to be cautious about new people. Then there’s what a friend of mine calls the “face-spooning.” Small dogs don’t like to have a human face next to theirs — it’s too intimidating. Not so Birdie, who constantly wants to go to sleep with her head on my shoulder. When she’s not on top of me, she has to have her right paw outstretched and touching me, as if to say, “She’s mine.” And I am. So much so that yesterday I found myself saying aloud to her, in a syrupy voice, “I’m so glad we’re together.” I don’t think I’ve ever said that to my boyfriend.

It was this deep love that led me to the DNA test. Birdie was found wandering the streets of Fox Chase; that was all I knew. I felt frustrated by that — I wanted to know her. And because it’s 2015, I turned to science.

MARS VETERINARY — based in Portland, Oregon — unveiled the Wisdom Panel DNA test in 2007, and it’s been growing in popularity. The tests are sometimes recommended by behaviorists, who say learning your dog’s breed can be useful in training: If your mutt turns out to be a herding dog, for instance, you can tailor her exercise to her instinctive behaviors, so she’ll stop trying to corral your cat in the hallway.

DNA tests have also become a tool for what some call “dog racism” — a charge leveled against the board of a luxury co-op in Manhattan this summer after residents received a notice saying dogs would be DNA-tested to determine their breed. Many apartment buildings have breed restrictions, which can be influenced by a property’s insurance company. Pennsylvania prohibits breed profiling by insurance companies, but building owners can do it. Take Lindy Property Management Co., which manages 30 apartment buildings in the Greater Philadelphia area. Their policy prohibits usual suspects like pit bulls, but also forbids the Karelian bear dog and the Russo-European Laika. Are people around here really that interesting? Who has a Finnish bear dog? (If you do, call me. I want to hug it.)

Another professional use of dog DNA testing comes courtesy of a company called PooPrints — also contracted by property owners — that tests residents’ dogs so that their fecal matter can be identified when dog waste is left in a common area. Poop-shaming is apparently very effective.

Still, the most widespread use of dog DNA testing these days is among the general public — specifically among those who adopt dogs at shelters and know little about their pet’s history, which can be disconcerting. Smudge had a whole life before me? How is that possible? It’s a preference for the known over the unknown. Plus, it’s fun to suddenly see your dog’s ridiculous behaviors — he loves playing with lemons! — through the prism of pseudo-scientific knowledge.

For such curiosity-seekers, it’s easiest to order a testing kit like Wisdom Panel online. They send you instructions and the tools — a couple of swabs — along with a postage-paid box. You send it out, and a few weeks later you get an email, like the one I received: “Congratulations! Birdie is a Chihuahua, Shih Tzu, Bloodhound, Samoyed Mix.” The results, they tell you, are a “likely combination.”

But were they likely? The shih tzu didn’t seem like a stretch, as it’s a small dog, too, but bloodhound and Samoyed? I tried to assess. Did Birdie have a bloodhound’s nose for detail? I never noticed any particular skill — half the time, I have to find her rawhide chew before she starts crying even though it’s just underneath the pillow she’s on. As for the Samoyed, I thought maybe that’s why she pulls so hard when I walk her: Something in her genetic material thinks it’s running across the Arctic tundra rather than a Mount Airy sidewalk. Birdie is also very chatty, and if cute-dog videos are anything to go by, Samoyeds are talkative as well. Just as I was beginning to embrace at least the Samoyed part of the puzzle, I noticed an asterisk. Turns out the bloodhound and Samoyed were the two breeds in the report that were “detected,” but “at a lower confidence. Such results are not included in accuracy calculations.” Shoot.

In fact, none of the people I asked who’d done this testing — and there were many — got definitive results unless their dog was purebred. We may have a ways to go before science catches up with our dog obsession.

NOT LONG AGO, in a used bookstore, I found a ridiculous and enchanting book: The Complete Chihuahua, Fifth Edition, copyright 1971. It seems that my addiction to Chihuahuas may be geographically predestined. Though they’re originally from Mexico, the book claims, there’s a strong Philadelphia connection: The first Chihuahua to be shown in the U.S. debuted at the Philadelphia Kennel Club. Then there’s this Philly Chihuahua story, which is a heartbreaker: In 1889, dog expert James Watson spent a year searching Mexico and the Southwest for the perfect dog. He finally found the Chihuahua of his dreams — a seven-month-old, 16-ounce puppy — in Juarez. And then: “That dog I unfortunately lost in Philadelphia when carrying it about in a small basket and paying some business calls. I put it down somewhere and that was the last of my best Chihuahua.”

I can relate to James Watson, crisscrossing the Earth for the perfect little apple-headed pup. His description of the dog he lost in Philly doesn’t sound anything like Birdie, but I’ve decided my little street Chihuahua descends from the first-ever street Chihuahua in Philadelphia. This is about love, after all. We believe what we want to believe.

Published as “The Spikol Chronicles” in the November 2015 issue of Philadelphia magazine.