10,000 People Guess Top 3 Breeds of 31 Mutts — The Results Were Comical

mutt breeds

Story at-a-glance -

  • A recently completed experiment demonstrates just how bad people are at guessing the breeds that make up mixed breed dogs
  • The experiment involved an online survey that over 10,000 people completed; the goal was to look at pictures and videos of 31 mutts and guess the top three breeds in each dog
  • The survey was part of the Darwin’s Dog citizen science project, which is conducting ancestry research on thousands of dogs using the DNA from saliva samples submitted by dog parents

By Dr. Karen Shaw Becker

If you're like a lot of dog parents, when you meet a new dog who isn't an easily identified purebred, it's not long before you're trying to figure out what mix of breeds make up his cute little (or big) furry frame. I think it's just our nature to be curious about the looks, lineage and lifestyle of the dogs we encounter as we go about our daily lives.

Citizen Scientists Try to Guess the Breeds of 31 Mutts

The really interesting and often comical aspect of trying to guess what breeds make up the mutts we meet is that we're so often wrong! And a recent scientific quiz conducted by Darwin's Dogs and the International Association of Animal Behavior Consultants (IAABC), called the Mutt Mix Project Survey, demonstrated just how far off most of us are.

Darwin's Dogs is in the process of conducting ancestry research on thousands of dogs, analyzing DNA saliva samples to determine their genetic history. The Mutt Mix Project Survey, a citizen science survey, collected data that helped researchers understand more about:

" … [H]ow people perceive breeds and mixes, how different breed mixes affect the appearance of a dog, how well people can guess their canine friends' ancestries from looks alone, and how that might affect our lives with dogs."1

Researchers created an online survey using pictures and video of 31 mixed breed dogs. The survey resulted in an astounding 34,969 accounts created and 10,204 actual surveys completed for a total of 432,743 questions answered for all 31 dogs. Survey participants were asked to guess the top three breeds in each dog based just on pictures and video footage. After all participants completed the survey, the researchers emailed each one and let them know just how off-base they were!

Survey Says: It's Incredibly Difficult to Determine a Mutt's Breed Mix Just by Looking

A little over 4,800 of the survey participants had at least some experience as "dog professionals." Overall accuracy of all participants averaged 25 percent correct, with dog professionals only slightly better than that number at 28 percent correct. A few survey highlights:

  • The breeds guessed most frequently by survey participants were Labrador Retriever, German Shepherd Dog, Golden Retriever, Beagle and Border Collie, respectively. Least frequently guessed were French Bulldog, Bulldog, West Highland Terrier, Pekingese and Yorkshire Terrier
  • Of the breeds detected in the DNA of the 31 mutts, the most common included Chow Chow, German Shepherd Dog, Staffordshire Bull Terrier, Golden Retriever and Labrador Retriever
  • The four dogs with the most diverse lineages had an incredible 19+ different breeds in their background

Although the Mutt Mix Project is over, you can still test your breed identifying skills with the new Mutt Mix Pup Quiz.

How Do a Dog's Genetics and Environment Influence Her Behavior?

According to Elinor Karlsson, Ph.D., an assistant professor at the University of Massachusetts Medical School and founder and chief scientist of Darwin's Dogs (recently renamed Darwin's Ark because the project is expanding to include other animals), a dog's personality is shaped by both his life experiences, and also thousands of years of evolution.

"Have you ever known a dog who would retrieve the same ball over and over again, for hours on end?" asks Karlsson, writing for The Conversation.2 "Or just wouldn't stay out of the water? Or wasn't interested in balls, or water, or but just wanted to follow her nose?"

Karlsson believes these canine traits are the result of hundreds of generations of artificial selection by humans:

"By favoring useful behaviors when breeding dogs," she says, "we made the genetic changes responsible more common in their gene pool."

Karlsson has worked in dog genetics since 2003, and was one of the authors of the original dog genome paper published in 2005.3 She plans to combine the genetic data from many dogs and look for changes in DNA that relate to particular behaviors.

"It won't be easy to match up DNA with an obsession with tennis balls, for instance," says Karlsson. "Behavior is a complex trait that relies on many genes."

Complex traits can be the result of tens or even hundreds of different genetic changes, and in addition, a dog's environment plays a major role and adds to the complexity.

Help Wanted: Calling All Citizen Scientists and Their Canine Companions!

To be successful, Darwin's Dogs needs lots of canine companions participating in the research project. Karlsson and her team hope to enroll 5,000 dogs initially. The more dogs they can involve, the more complex biological puzzles they can work to solve. According to Karlsson:

"This is a huge effort, but could offer huge rewards. By figuring out how a genetic change leads to a change in behavior, we can decipher neural pathways involved in psychiatric and neurological diseases shared between people and dogs. We already know these include not just anxiety, but also PTSD, OCD, autism spectrum disorders, phobias, narcolepsia, epilepsy, dementia and Alzheimer's disease."4

Karlsson and her colleagues are investigating both canine behaviors and diseases. Their theory is that by locating the genetic changes that led to complex behaviors (e.g., retrieving) and perhaps even personality characteristics, such as playfulness, they can learn more about how brains work.

To understand how specific genes control the behavior and health of dogs, much more information is needed. That's why Karlsson and her colleagues have initiated a citizen science research project now called Darwin's Ark (which includes the ongoing Darwin's Dogs project). The Darwin's Dogs project is unique in that it doesn't focus on specific breeds or rely on DNA collected by scientists.

Instead, Karlsson and her team ask volunteer dog guardians to record their own observations of their pet's "… likes, dislikes, quirks, behavior and adorableness." Pet parents can also opt to collect doggy DNA at home using mouth swabs provided by Darwin's Dogs.

Karlsson and her team collaborated with the International Association of Animal Behavior Consultants (IAABC) to create several short surveys to gather pet owner information about their dog's diet, behavior, personality and more. The project is open to all dogs — purebreds and mixed breeds.

The research team will use new DNA sequencing technology and powerful new analysis tools to collect genetic information from each dog for which they receive a saliva sample. They're currently testing over 4 million genetic markers per sample — this depth of information isn't not available anywhere else.

"By including all dogs, we hope to be able to do much larger studies, and home in quickly on the important genes and genetic variants," Karlsson explains.

Interested in Becoming a Citizen Scientist for Darwin's Ark?

From their website:

"Darwin's Ark lets ordinary citizens become scientific partners. Our projects, such as Darwin's Dogs, combine genetics and behavior to advance the understanding of complex diseases.

We're a non-profit that subscribes to the open science model. This means we do not own and will never sell your pet's data. You contribute to an open source database and we share all the new discoveries we find freely with you and researchers around the world. Together we can advance health care for pets and their humans."

Current projects include Darwin's Dogs (you can sign up here), and Project Acari, which is tracking ticks and tick-borne disease. You can participate by sending them ticks you find in your neighborhood; learn more here. In addition, the organization hopes to launch a Darwin's Cats citizen science project soon; you can sign up for the newsletter here to stay up-to-date on the launch. If you have questions or are interested in more information, you can visit the Darwin's Ark FAQ page.