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How DNA Testing Helps Shelter Dogs Get Adopted


A black mixed-breed dog named Vardis wears a seasonal autumn bandana while standing in a pile of leaves.

Animal shelters across the country have told us that DNA testing can help rescue dogs get adopted. By providing important genetic information, dog DNA testing helps shelters give prospective adopters insights into a dog’s breed mix, characteristics they might have, and more.

At Embark, we believe that everyone should get to spend the holidays with their family. That’s why we donated 100+ Embark Dog DNA Tests to shelters in 2023 to help dogs find their forever homes. 

Keep reading to find out how DNA testing helps rescue dogs, the shelters that care for them, and potential adopters.

How DNA testing helps dogs get adopted

1. Celebrates how every dog is unique

Many dogs may look similar, but every dog is 100% unique. By revealing a dog’s breed mix, DNA testing helps shelter dogs stand out from the crowd.

As the Peninsula Humane Society & SPCA in California found, knowing a dog’s genetic makeup makes it easier for that dog to be adopted. Through a program called “Who’s Your Daddy?,” they DNA tested dogs who were often overlooked. The staff also came up with unique names for the different breed combinations they found, such as Chorgi (Chihuahua/Corgi) and Terridoodle (Terrier/Miniature Poodle). 

The dogs who had their DNA tested were all placed with families within two weeks—twice as fast as similar-looking dogs who weren’t DNA tested. 

2. Provides accurate breed information

No shelter wants a dog to miss out on finding their forever home, and shelter staff and veterinarians do their best when guessing a dog’s breed based on their appearance.

But visual breed identification is notoriously unreliable. Research has shown that for over 80% of shelter dogs (Voieth et al., 2009), the breed designation they receive from the shelter does not match the breeds in their DNA. More often than not, these visual breed guesses are inaccurate.

Another study (Olsen et al., 2015) found that visual breed guesses can vary from person to person. That means that the same dog might be labeled as multiple different breeds, depending on who looks at them. 

Unfortunately, breed misidentification can hurt a dog’s chances of getting adopted. By providing accurate breed information, a dog DNA test does the opposite. Shelters that use dog DNA testing report that dogs who have been with the shelter for a long time are adopted quickly after DNA results come in.

3. Combats negative breed stereotypes

If a dog looks like certain breeds that are subject to harmful stereotypes or breed-specific legislation, it can make adoption more challenging for that dog. 

As the American Veterinary Medical Association (AVMA) states, “By generalizing the behaviors of dogs that look a certain way, innocent dogs and pet owners suffer.” Unfairly reducing a dog to a single stereotype can have a negative effect for the dog and the people that care for them.

It’s true that DNA results can be surprising, and it’s a good idea to be familiar with the local policies in your area. However, in contrast to breed-based generalizations, DNA testing provides a more accurate understanding of a dog’s genetic background while illustrating the complexity behind what makes every dog unique. Each shelter dog might be a mix of many different breeds that add up to one special dog. 

How dog DNA testing helps shelters

When dogs arrive at shelters, their backgrounds are often a mystery. Having accurate breed information from a dog DNA test helps shelters provide quality care for each individual dog according to their needs. That could mean using the training methods best suited to them or making sure they get the amount of exercise and mental stimulation they need.

It also allows shelters to give prospective adopters more insights into their dog and share information about their needs at the time of adoption.

For animals who have been in the shelter for a long time, DNA can be especially valuable, as it was for Vardis (pictured below). 

A black mixed-breed dog named Vardis wears a seasonal autumn bandana while standing in a pile of leaves.

Vardis enjoying autumn in Chicago. Photo by Aunt Becky’s Pet Photography.

Vardis—lovingly nicknamed “Vardi” by the shelter staff—was a long-term resident at the One Tail at a Time shelter in Chicago, Illinois. His unique appearance prompted his foster mom to test his DNA with Embark, and his breed mix was a surprise! DNA testing was helpful for both Vardis and for One Tail at a Time:

“Vardi’s DNA test was a shock to us all! He is perfect proof that you can’t tell a breed based only on looks. Knowing the DNA of long-term animals can help rescues give prospective owners more insight into the dog, as many times they come in as strays and complete mysteries. Not only can the breed tell you some possible characteristics the dog may have with their personality, but you can also be on the lookout for medical concerns.”

—Kim Thomas, Marketing Manager, One Tail at a Time

Breed results for a dog named Vardis show 50.0% Golden Retriever, 45.5% American Bully, and 4.5% Bulldog.

Vardis’ Embark test results.

After a long search to find his forever home, Vardis was officially adopted on March 31, 2023.

Read the full story to find out how testing with Embark also helped Vardis reunite with his long-lost sister, Brunch.

How dog DNA testing helps adopting families

Families often want to know what to expect when they adopt a dog. This type of prediction is more challenging with mixed-breed dogs. DNA testing can help.

Dog DNA tests not only reveal breed ancestry; they also look at the genetics behind physical traits. By reporting on a dog’s predicted adult weight or how much they are likely to shed, DNA testing can help potential adopters prepare for their new family member.

“Embark to the rescue! Now we know not only his breeds (Pit Bull, Husky, Lab, Golden Retriever), but also his estimated adult size. The information is helping us prepare for his future needs. I’m so thankful for the information provided to us!”

—Dawn M., Embark customer

It’s important to remember that breed doesn’t necessarily dictate appearance—or behavior. As a recent study (Morrill et al., 2022) found, breed wasn’t very predictive of many behaviors for individual dogs, accounting for just 9% of individual variability.

However, there is stronger evidence that behaviors associated with training are more connected to breed. For example, how a dog responds to commands and direction can vary based on their breed ancestry. In this way, genetic breed information can be a useful tool to help dog owners find the best training and enrichment methods for their dog.

While breed ancestry can offer some insights into a dog’s physical and emotional needs, it doesn’t determine everything. As we all know, every dog has their own unique personality—and that’s why we love them!

How DNA testing helps each dog find the right home

Ultimately, DNA testing not only helps dogs get adopted; it also helps ensure that they’re matched with a home that’s the best fit for them in the long run. Knowing a dog down to their DNA means fewer surprises for the adoptive family, and the right home for the dog that’s equipped to meet their needs.

Hear from Embark customers about how DNA testing helped them care for their dog better:

“We have been able to tailor Loki’s training and exercise regimen much better to suit her needs now that we know she is composed of primarily working breeds. Our dog found her passion in scent work and has been much happier since.”
—Darius K., Embark customer

“Incredibly detailed information that we were dying to know because we adopted a rescue. This information really helped us to learn more about our pup and how to better take care of her.”
—Tanya M., Embark customer

Ready to find out what your dog’s DNA says about them? Get started with an Embark Dog DNA Test. 

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Curious about the shelters that received Embark Dog DNA Tests? Read about the shelter dogs who took an Embark test, including:

For more on dog DNA testing, find out the top 10 most common breeds Embark found in mixed-breed dogs. If you’ve recently adopted or are planning to adopt a dog, check out these top tips for training a rescue dog with certified professional dog trainer Peter Herrera, CPDT-KA.

Mimi Padmabandu Contributor

Mimi Padmabandu is a scientific writer and Content Strategy Lead at Embark Veterinary. She has over a decade of experience writing about science and genomics for leading biotechnology companies. She holds a bachelor's degree in Molecular, Cell, and Developmental Biology from UCLA and a master’s degree in Early Modern English Literature from King’s College London.

Read more about Mimi Padmabandu

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