My neighbors just adopted a new dog from one of our local "no-kill" shelters. His name is Ranger, and he’s about four months old. The first question they asked me after I caught sight of them walking down the sidewalk with him was, "What kind of dog do you think he is?" He didn’t arrive at the shelter with much of a history, and the personnel there were a little vague when asked the same question. I don’t blame them!

Ranger consists of about 12 pounds of black and brown hair, short legs, long body, and a whole lot of energy. I started out my speculations about his parentage by saying, "Terrier cross, definitely some sort of terrier cross."

Pretty safe bet considering the American Kennel Club (AKC) recognizes 29 breeds and the United Kennel Club (UKC) 44 breeds of terriers (there is some overlap). My neighbors wanted me to be more specific, however, so after hemming and hawing and watching him dominate my boxer and another neighbor’s pit bull/border collie cross, I stuck out my neck and said, "I don’t know, how about a Jack Russell/Miniature Pinscher cross?"

But really that was just a guess. I don’t have the foggiest idea what breeds have combined to make Ranger, and I’m no worse than most when it comes to determining a mixed-breed dog’s heritage. Research has shown that animal professionals of all types (veterinarians, shelter workers, animal control officers, breeders, groomers, etc.) are terrible at breed identification. For example, one study concluded that fully "87.5% of the dogs identified by an adoption agency as having specific breeds in their ancestry did not have all of those breeds detected by DNA analysis."

My neighbors only wanted to identify Ranger’s breed(s) for interest’s sake. He is now a member of their family no matter his parentage. In some cases, however, determining a dog’s breed is quite literally a life and death judgment. God forbid that in Denver a dog be designated as "an American Pit Bull Terrier, American Staffordshire Terrier, Staffordshire Bull Terrier, or any dog displaying the majority of physical traits of … the above breeds…" (as the statute banning them and calling for their euthanasia in that city reads).

Think you’re better at breed identification than I am? Take a look at the Maddie’s® Shelter Medicine Program website (a part of University of Florida’s College of Veterinary Medicine). There you can compare your guesses regarding the breed make-up of 119 dogs with the combined speculations of over 5,000 dog experts and an evaluation of the dogs’ DNA. It’s a lot of fun. I found dogs 20, 48, 57, and 93 to be especially baffling. And I think I might want a Cocker Spaniel/Boston Terrier/Miniature Pinscher cross — check out dog 38, isn’t he adorable? Come to think of it, he looks a bit like Ranger … maybe it’s the Min-Pin in him.

Dr. Jennifer Coates

Image: Dog 38 from Maddie’s Shelter Medicine Program at UF College of Veterinary Medicine