On Thanksgiving, humans in the U.S.A. usher in the holiday season by celebrating their gratitude for the harvest, welcoming family, friends, and newcomers to the table, and tormenting their canine companions with the enticing smell of food we are not allowed to eat.
A relatively recent addition to the Thanksgiving festivities is the National Dog Show, a competition that features breeds ranging from Affenpinscher to Whippet. The dogs on parade in the show are the crème-de-la-crème of purebreds, whose provenance is pretty much the opposite of mine.
These show dogs are all descended from and considered to be exemplars of their breeds. As such, they all have proof of their lineage, including a certified pedigree that probably looks a little bit like this:
Their breeding has been scrupulously managed, tracked, and documented. Meanwhile, this is what my family tree looks like:
What Is He?
One consequence of being a mutt of unknown origin is that perfect strangers cannot seem to resist offering my People their theories of my parentage. I mentioned this phenomenon once before and said that I found it a tad impertinent. After all, I don’t walk up to humans on the sidewalk and accost them with questions about their family histories (granted, I can’t talk, but even if I could, I would consider this unseemly prying). Nevertheless, human strangers feel perfectly entitled to foist their unsolicited conjectures upon us; sometimes they are even aggressively insistent about doing so.
Their guesses range from highly likely to wildly imaginative to downright impossible. To illustrate this, My People and I put our heads together and came up with this list of all the hypotheses we’ve heard, ranging roughly from most frequent to least:
Jack Russell Terrier
German Shepherd Dog
“Miniature German Shepherd”
“Cat-Dog” (half cat, half dog)
A varied list, but certainly dominated by terriers. The shelter also listed me as a terrier mix; with my then disheveled coiffure and noticeable underbite, it must have seemed an obvious conclusion. So, too, was my shelter description seemingly culled from the stock phrases of terrier-speak: “spunky,” “scruffy,” “rough and tumble.”
Despite being fairly sure that I was some sort of terrier mix, my People, having brought me home, still harbored some doubts about the rest of my composition. Perhaps repeated exposure to all of those sidewalk genealogists triggered a desire for more certainty. In any event, one day the Guy came home with a DNA test kit that he had bought on impulse. (An anomaly, to be sure, since his impulse buys usually tend towards craft beer, chocolate pudding, and soppressata). The Lady responded with a fair bit of eye-rolling, calling it a waste of money. The Guy, however, shrugged her off, suggesting that at least the test might finally sate their curiosity while also giving them a chance to play at being swab-wielding police technicians.
This was in the early days of our relationship, when my People were still getting to know me, and I them. I think that as much as they treated the DNA test as a lark, they also held some hope that it would be a shortcut to understanding me, a magic key that would decode my identity. This is just how some humans are at the start of a relationship: looking to classify people using known criteria rather than understand them through sustained interaction. The latter, of course, requires much harder work from both parties.
So it was that they swabbed my cheek and sent the sealed envelope to the lab, preparing themselves for disappointment by acknowledging that contamination was common with these types of tests and that, after all, it was just for kicks anyways.
Having been warned that DNA test results based on a swab of an admittedly squirmy dog’s cheek could be unreliable, my People were prepared for a surprise or two on the test results. But their skepticism did not prepare them for the report they received a couple of weeks later, detailing my probable ancestry:
Thus, according to the analysis included with my classy certificate, I am over 75% Chihuahua, 10-15% Dalmatian, and 10% Pekingese.
Do you notice anything missing? No terrier. Maybe because, despite appearances, I actually don’t have any terrier ancestry. Maybe because my swab sample was contaminated with some Pekingese saliva from the water bowl at the dog run. Maybe because the company behind the test kit didn’t have that many breeds available for comparison, so it couldn’t match my sample to anything in its database.
In addition to the certificate above, my People received a “Breed Identification” report, which detailed the characteristics of the three breeds listed. According to this document, my Chihuahua lineage may carry a tendency to be suspicious of humans other than my own People, while the Dalmatian will hold a grudge, and the Pekingese can be a picky eater. The report also included, in bold type, the caveat that any individual dog might not exhibit the breed traits listed. (Needless to say, I am very friendly towards almost all humans, I forgive and forget, and I’ve never met a piece of food I didn’t want to eat.)
After receiving the test results, my People chuckled (“Dalmatian?”), stowed the documents in my file folder, and promptly forgot about the whole thing. Over the subsequent months and then years, we got better at communicating with each other and, as result, got to know each other much better. They no longer felt the need to consult a lab test to find out what kind of personality I had because they had come to know me and could see very well for themselves what sort of dog I was.
Of course, I could have told my People at the start them it would just take time, if only I’d known how to talk to them. But in a way, I can’t blame them for wanting a short cut to understanding me, a dog personality rubric, if you will. It seems to be a natural tendency of you humans to want to dig up your roots in the hope of knowing both your ancestors and yourselves.
In my case, to know for certain would bring an end to the mild annoyance of the sidewalk genealogists and might perhaps even answer some questions about me. My People could have tried another, better DNA test, but in the end, they decided not to keep digging for my roots.
So, I am left wondering and imagining who my ancestors may have been. And I say, why not? Who’s to say my great-grandfather wasn’t a Dalmatian, or my aunt a Lhasa Apso? We are all, in the end, dogs.
This post is in response to The Daily Post’s weekly writing challenge: “Digging for Roots.”