In this post, I’ll give you a comprehensive review of the Embark Dog DNA Breed Test based on my personal experience using the kit to test my rescue dog.
As part of the review I will go through the instructions for the kit as I followed them, so you can see exactly what it involves and how the test works.
Finally, I’ll go over the results of the test and whether I think they are accurate or not.
Before I jump into the test and the results, I want to give you a little background information for context. If that doesn’t interest you, feel free to skip right to the testing using the table of contents below:
- Selecting a Dog DNA Test Brand
- What’s in the Box
- Activating the Test Kit
- Administering the Test
- What Happens at the Embark DNA Lab?
- Possible Reasons for Inaccurate Test Results
- Test Results
- Test Accuracy
- Wolfiness Score
- Canine Relatives
- Adopting a (spoiler alert)
- Final Thoughts
In the summer of 2012, I had the unfortunate but important responsibility of bringing my family dog to the vet for the last time.
After having to put down Murphy, a 16 year old West Highland Terrier who I grew up with, I wasn’t sure that I would ever own another dog again. I’m sure that’s a feeling that I share with many dog owners who have lost their canine loved one.
However, in time I felt the desire to get a new dog. I’m a dog person and enjoy having a dog around.
I wasn’t looking for a specific breed, but I knew that I wanted to adopt a dog from a shelter or rescue rather than buy one from a breeder. I have nothing against responsible breeders, but I just decided to go the rescue route.
I spent a few months looking for a dog that I thought was right, and in January 2014 I adopted Lily.
The story I got from the shelter is that she was abandoned in Virginia and brought up north to the shelter along with her littermates. I was told she was half Labrador Retriever and half Golden Retriever.
She is clearly part Lab, but I’m not sure about the Golden Retriever part. If she was abandoned, I’m not sure how they would know what kind on Lab mix she was other than guessing.
My best guess is that it was simply a marketing tactic. Labradors and Golden Retrievers are two of the most popular breeds, so why not say that she is a Labrador and Golden Retriever mix?
Since the beginning, I’ve had an inkling that she was a Yellow Lab mixed with something other than Golden Retriever.
For the past 8 years my curiosity has only grown. As a full grown dog, Lily now weighs 56 pounds. While 56 pounds is in the range of both female Labrador Retrievers and female Golden Retrievers, it is very much on the small side.
I’ve had many people take a guess as to what breeds other than Labrador Retriever she might be. Some of the guesses I’ve heard include:
- Rhodesian Ridgeback
- Pit Bull
- Purebred Yellow Lab (not mixed with any other breed)
Selecting a Dog DNA Test Brand
I could have satisfied my curiosity a long time ago. Dog DNA tests first hit the market back in 2007 when Mars Petcare launched the first blood sample based test.
Since then many more companies have launched their own tests mostly based on saliva samples. Some of the most popular dog DNA test brands include:
All four test brands promise to provide the same information – the percent of each breed that makes up your dog. Some of the tests also offer DNA health screening.
Wisdom Panel and Embark seem to be the most popular dog DNA test kits, with each having tens of thousands of reviews on Amazon.
After reading through many of the reviews, I found that the reviews for all 4 brands were mixed. While Wisdom Panel and Embark mostly seemed to have positive reviews, there were more than a few reviewers that simply did not believe the results they received.
Of course some of the reviewers were probably just hoping for their dog to be a certain breed and didn’t want to believe the results that came back.
Nonetheless, there were some other reviews that made me question the accuracy of the tests. Such as the reviewer who claimed the DNA results came back as pure bred Chihuahua for a dog that weighs 25 pounds. Chihuahuas typically only get up to 6 pounds.
I have some thoughts as to why some of the tests are coming back with inaccurate results later in the article, but after further research I decided to go with the Embark Dog DNA Test Breed Identification Kit.
I chose this kit for 2 reasons. First, based on Amazon reviews as well as other third party reviews it seems to be the most accurate.
Second, I was only interested in the breed of my dog, so I did not opt for the more expensive kit that includes Health Risk Detection. At this point, Lily is 8 years old and sees the veterinarian at least once a year, so I didn’t think it was worth the extra money to get the health screening.
I later learned that I could upgrade my breed test to also include health risk detection. So, if you are on the fence about getting the health risk detection, know that you can buy the less expensive breed test kit and upgrade later if you decide to.
What’s in the Box
I’m not sure what I was expecting, but when I opened the box I was surprised by how little there was.
There was an envelope that contained a small plastic tube filled with purple liquid and a cotton swab sticking out the top.
Other than the test tube and directions, the only other thing in the box was a bubble mailer with a prepaid postage label to return the tube to the Embark lab.
Activating the Test Kit
Before you begin the test, the first thing you need to do is activate the test kit by going to embarkvet.com/activate and entering the activation code provided.
Once you register your kit, the site will ask you a whole series of questions and give you the option of uploading a picture of your dog. However, the only required information is the name of your dog and their gender.
I chose only to provide the required information and did not upload a picture of Lily. Some people seem to think that Embark will somehow use the information you provide (especially the picture) to determine the breed of your dog.
While I don’t necessarily believe that, I did find it interesting that one of the questions was “What is the your dog’s breed type?” Isn’t that what you are supposed to be testing for, Embark?
I think that most of the optional questions are probably more for marketing purposes, but I decided to give only the required information to make sure that the results are purely from the DNA sample provided.
Administering the Test
Before administering the test, you should make sure it’s been at least 30 minutes before your dog has last ate. The instructions don’t mention anything about drinking water, but I would make sure that your dog hasn’t drank any water either in the last half hour just to be safe.
I took a saliva sample from Lily when we got up in the morning before feeding her breakfast. This way I know that she hasn’t been eating or drinking anything beforehand.
The instructions say to swab your dog’s lower cheek pouches for 30 to 60 seconds to fully soak the sponge.
I was a little worried that Lily wouldn’t sit still long enough for me to get a good sample, but it turns out it wasn’t a problem. She was definitely confused and maybe a little annoyed, but she sat there like a good girl.
I swabbed the lower cheek pouch on each side of her mouth for a total of 50 seconds. I made sure to start the stopwatch on my phone to time it accurately, instead of just guessing.
After swabbing Lily’s cheeks, I inserted the swab into the test tube with the purple liquid and shook it 10 times as instructed.
The next step is to “reward your dog for a job well done.” Which meant that Lily got to have a few treats before breakfast.
The final step is to place the tube in the plastic bag provided and put that into the bubble mailer. I put the mailer into the mailbox and off it went to the Embark lab for testing.
What Happens at the Embark DNA Lab?
With Lily’s DNA on its way to the Embark lab in Boston, I began to wonder exactly how the DNA test works.
Luckily, the information wasn’t hard to find. Embark is pretty upfront with how they run their tests. I’m not going to pretend to be a scientist, but I’ll do my best to explain it.
First, they take the saliva sample and separate out the DNA from the other parts of the cells.
Next, they take a look at the nucleotides in the DNA and how they are arranged. You may remember from biology class that nucleotides are what make up DNA. The 4 base nucleotides in DNA are adenine, thymine, cytosine and guanine – commonly referred to as A, T, C, and G.
The scientists use a microarray to analyze the DNA sample and take a look at over 200,000 genetic markers. A genetic marker is a specific arrangement of nucleotides at a known location on a DNA chromosome.
They then compare these genetic markers to see how they match up with the genetic markers of purebred dogs in their database. By looking at how the A, T, C, and G are arranged in a genetic marker, they are able to identify breed origin.
The process from when they receive the sample at the laboratory to when you receive your results takes 2 to 4 weeks.
I think I got that all right, but here’s a video of Embark’s Chief Science Officer explaining it more fully.
Possible Reasons for Inaccurate Test Results
After reading through reviews, performing the test myself, and learning more about how the DNA is processed in the lab, I’ve come up with a few theories for inaccurate test results.
While I do believe the vast majority of the DNA test results are accurate, here are some possible reasons for inaccurate test results.
The first reason that the DNA test might come back with inaccurate results is due to a bad sample. This could happen for several reasons:
- The owner didn’t swab their dog’s cheeks properly. I set up my stopwatch to make sure I swabbed for the recommended 30 to 60 seconds. I’m sure there are others who just underestimate the time or have a dog who won’t sit still.
- The owner didn’t wait at least 30 minutes since their dog ate to perform the cheek swab. Even if the dog didn’t eat food, they could have been chewing on a bone without the owner knowing.
- The DNA sample was exposed to temperatures below freezing or above 90 degrees.
The third possibility is probably the biggest culprit. On their website, Embark recommends waiting “until it gets above freezing or below 90F” before mailing the sample back.
However, this recommendation is nowhere to be found on the kit itself. Unless you go hunting for the information, there’s no way you would know.
If you live in the northern U.S. and drop your dog’s DNA sample in the mailbox during winter, it will probably be exposed to below freezing temperatures.
And if you’re in the south in the summer and you drop it in the mailbox, it will probably be exposed to temperatures over 90 degrees.
If you are mailing the sample from outside the U.S., it could take weeks to get to the lab which could also compromise the sample.
DNA testing has been around for a few decades, but it is still not perfect even for human DNA.
Yaniv Erlich, chief science officer at MyHeritage – a genealogy site for humans – explained to Vox, “We’re talking about 99.9 percent accuracy for these arrays. But even with that high level of accuracy, when you process 1 million places in the genome, you might get 1,000 errors.”
With all the high tech that goes into DNA testing, someone still has to enter the results at some point.
This probably accounts for a low percentage of errors. But if Embark is processing millions of tests each year, it’s probable that simple typos or other clerical errors might occur.
Like I said, I believe that the vast majority of test results are accurate. But to expect 100% accuracy from every test result is probably not reasonable.
Lily’s Test Results
On April 5th I received an email from Embark letting me know that they received the sample and the test results would be ready in 2 to 4 weeks. They also added a disclaimer that COVID-related staffing shortages could make the wait time longer.
I received a few more email updates along the way, but the one I was waiting for arrived in my inbox on April 20. Lily’s test results were ready just 11 business days after they received the sample.
Before I reveal the results, take one more look at Lily. What breed or breeds do you think she is?
Am I a terrier owner once again? Let’s find out from this neat little video that Embark sent me of Lily’s test results.
It turns out that, in fact, I have owned another terrier for the past 8 years.
Lily’s parents were a purebred Labrador Retriever and a mostly American Pit Bull Terrier. One of her great grandparents on the Pit Bull side was a Siberian Husky.
Before I received my results back, I said that I believed the vast majority of test results are accurate. Now that I have Lily’s results, I believe it even more strongly.
I went over why I think that a small minority of results may be inaccurate, but Lily’s results make complete sense. I knew she was a high percentage of Yellow Lab, but not purebred. I really didn’t know what other breeds made up the rest of her.
Pit Bull was one of the breeds that I often heard from people when they would guess. Of course guesses from random people aren’t scientific proof, but it is a small part of the reason why I think the results are accurate.
Another reason to think the results are accurate is Lily’s size. Here are the weight ranges for the female sex of each breed:
- Labrador Retriever: 55 – 71 lbs
- American Pit Bull Terrier: 30 – 50 lbs
- Siberian Husky: 35 – 51 lbs
Lily’s weight of 56 pounds is right in line with the size you would expect from a mix of Labrador Retrievers, American Pit Bull Terriers, and Siberian Huskies.
In addition, Lily has webbed feet. Labrador Retrievers have webbed feet that help them swim and Siberian Huskies have webbed feet that act like snowshoes to help them walk on ice and snow. Being 62% Retriever/Husky, I would expect her to have webbed feet.
Finally, she just looks like she could be a Labrador Retriever, Pit Bull, Siberian Husky mix. Remember, other than the DNA, the only information I provided to Embark was Lily’s gender.
They had no idea what she looked like. For the breeds to be so plausible based on the way she looks gives me a lot of confidence that the test results are accurate.
In addition to her breed mix, Embark also gave Lily a “Wolfiness score” of 0.3%.
According to Embark, “Wolfiness Score is based on the number of ancient genetic variants your dog has in our unique Wolfiness marker panel… They are bits of a wild past that survive in your dog!”
I’m not sure exactly what that means other than she’s not a wolf, but it’s interesting. Most dogs score under 1% and it is rare for a dog to have a score of over 5%.
Intriguingly, the dog most like Lily in the Embark database – whose breed mix is 96% the same – has a Wolfiness Score of 8.6%.
Using their database of DNA results, Embark is able to determine which other dogs they have tested are related to Lily.
Lily has 30 dog relatives that are in Embark’s database and are considered Close Family – as related as human half-siblings, aunts/uncles, and grandparents.
Unfortunately, they didn’t find any dog that shared more than 22% of Lily’s DNA. So, no parents or siblings – that would have been cool.
I can check back at a later date to see if any closer relatives get added to the database, but at this point I think it is unlikely that her parents or siblings will be added.
Adopting a Pit Bull
After spending 8 years wondering exactly what breed Lily was, I finally have my answer. I don’t know why I waited so long to get her DNA tested.
The fact that she is a Labrador Retriever and Pit Bull, or Labrabull, and not a Labrador Retriever and Golden Retriever as she was listed by the shelter raises an uncomfortable question.
Would I still have adopted Lily if I knew she was part Pit Bull? If I’m being honest, the sad truth is that I probably would not have adopted her. And that would have been a huge mistake because Lily is an amazing dog.
The way Pit Bulls are often portrayed give them a bad reputation. And whether we want to admit it or not, most people tend to shy away from them as a result.
This is probably the biggest reason that there are more Pit Bulls in animal shelters than any other dog breed. Whether consciously or subconsciously, people are afraid to adopt Pit Bulls and Pit Bull mixes.
Lily is a great family dog and I’ve never worried about her being around my daughter. They’ve even slept in the same room together since she was a toddler.
I hope that if you are thinking about adopting a dog, you will consider rescuing a Pit Bull from a shelter.
In the end, I’m glad I got the Embark Dog DNA Breed Test for two reasons.
First, it was just fun. I found myself so excited to get the test results back that as soon as they came into my inbox, I texted a screenshot of the results to a dozen friends and family members.
Second, it made me think about the fact I probably would have passed on adopting Lily if she was accurately labeled as a Pit Bull mix.
I didn’t specifically rule out Pit Bulls when I was looking to adopt a dog. In fact, I always said that I didn’t believe in the Pit Bull stereotypes.
But when I had the choice between dozens of Pit Bull mixes or a Goldador, I chose the Labrador / Golden Retriever mix (or so I thought).
Lily is one of the friendliest dogs you could ever meet. I hope that in some small way she can be an example that pushes back against the negative stereotypes of Pit Bulls.