How learning my rescue dog’s breed DNA helped me help him

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Jackie Purples. His sports bra is actually this no-pull dog harness.

My old rescue dog Sassafras died three years ago. She was a bosthuahua, known for her mild-manneredness and therapy dog inclinations. (One early nickname for her was “the sponge,” because she was so lovingly and sweet with folks who were crying.)

My 11-year-old son and I decided last year that we were ready to get a new dog, but then the pandemic hit and everyone had the same idea, and so we waited. In March, after several months of poking around, we finally found a new rescue to adopt.

We knew what we were told: he was a 2-year-old yorkie mix named Jack. He was being fostered in Seattle, after being surrendered to a rescue group in San Bernadino, CA. When we’d met him, he was nervous and shy, as you’d expect if you were an 8-pound dog going through the rescue process. He was also quiet and cuddly.

He seemed like a perfect fit for us — small enough for our small home, and playful with my son. He was a bit quiet and anxious, but most rescues are.

“I’m used to anxious terrier mixes,” I told the rescue group. “My old dog a nervous, shivering wreck when I first got her. I’m used to teaching nervous dogs how to have a little confidence!”

I thought I was prepared.

My son Tavi fell in love with Jack immediately. I was less convinced… because I was the one who had to do all the training!

We got Jack home and it became clear that I was not prepared.

Whereas my old anxious terrier mix had been a trembling, cowering, fearful beta dog, Jack was a courageous, aggressive, barking 8-pound guard dog. Walks through our dense urban neighborhood were mostly about him pulling so hard on the leash that he was walking on two legs, aggressively barking at everyone — adults, children, dogs, tiny old people, bicyclists, joggers. EVERYONE.

We started calling him Jackie Purples, the “purples” in part short for “perpetrator” because this guy was smart and deeply mischievous.

His energy was also through the roof. It was zoomies from the time he woke up, until the time he finally conked out. He was all over the place and I was super confused. Whereas my old dog wasn’t destructive at all, Jack chewed on everything.

Om nom nom delicious stick.

Training was rough… his attention span was short, and his threshold for freakouts was very low. Out on walks, he went apoplectic when I talked to anyone. In our home, he barked at every sound — and we live in a condo in the middle of a dense urban neighborhood, so there are a lot of sounds.

I met with a trainer and learned how to do “mark and move” and “find it” on our walks. When he barked at something, I’d toss treats in the opposite direction, and keep him moving. When Jack barked at home, I’d redirect him into training or playing.

Since I work from home, and Jack barked a lot at home, this quickly became pretty consuming. It felt like I was training him all day every day.

Some days, it felt like I had to dom my dog. Whereas my old rescue dog had been a nervous and timid beta dog, Jack seemed to think he was in charge of the house. He was demanding and bossy, and smart enough that I could see him trying to train ME instead of the other way around.

When I focused on training sessions, he would calm down and shape up (and he was really good at learning commands!), but some days it felt like all I did was train him all day long. I was exhausted.

I had some dark moments of wondering wtf I had gotten myself into.

The first big reveal was when I took him to our local vet for his first check-in.

“How old is he?” the vet asked me.

“The rescue group said he was two,” I said. “But I think he’s probably younger.”

“Yeah, this guy feels like he’s about 7-months,” the vet said, watching Jack chew his leash.

The rescue group had provided Jack’s neutering and vaccination records, but I hadn’t looked at them closely. Sitting there in with my vet, I pulled up the records on my phone and actually looked at the fine print.

“Holy shit,” I said, looking up at the vet. “This paperwork says he was born in September.”

So, yes: Jack wasn’t even 7 months. That explained A LOT. The energy, the attention span, the chewing, the mischief, the housebreaking issues, the attitude.

I didn’t know I was adopting a puppy, but I had adopted a puppy.

This realization helped me tremendously with my compassion. He couldn’t help it: he was a puppy!

If he was only 7-months-old, that also meant that he’d spent his first puppy socialization window in quarantine, during the pandemic winter. No wonder he was so freaked out by everyone and everything!

I also gained more compassion for my anxiety. Puppies are harrrrrrd, folks. That’s why I’d aimed for a 2-year-old dog. But here we are: I have a stealth puppy.

That knowledge helped me find more compassion and patience for both Jack and myself.

Hi, so it turns out I’m a puppy.

The second reveal was when I did a breed DNA test for my rescue dog.

After a month of constant training with “mark & move” and “find it” on our walks, Jack was doing much better with his leash manners.

But he was still protective of me on our walks, and even more protective of our home.

All I knew about Jack’s background was that he was some sort of Yorkshire Terrier mix, and he certainly had that terrier tenacity. Out on my walks, I’d met a couple Yorkie owners who, as Jack barked at them ferociously, had told me yep: that’s how Yorkies can be! When I’d posted a picture of him in the Yorkie subreddit, asking folks what they thought he might be mixed with, one person said “Mixed? He just looks like a pure Yorkie to me!”

In trying to better understand Jack better, I decided to do one of those dog breed DNA tests from Embark. Maybe if I better understood his breed mix, I could better approach his training.

The whole process was really fun. I got the kit in the mail within a couple days of ordering it, and swabbed the inside of Jackie Purples’ cheeks.

I sent it back to Embark‘s lab in the postage-paid envelope, and within a week the hilarious subject lines started showing up: Jackie Purples saliva test has been received.

It takes 2-4 weeks to get your results back, but Embark keeps you updated as your dog’s saliva goes through the process.

After three weeks, I got the test. Jackie Purple’s dog breed DNA results were done…

And it turns out that Jack is only 10% Yorkie!

This dog, who looks so much like a Yorkshire terrier that one yorkie owner didn’t even think he was mixed, is barely Yorkie.

Want to guess the other 90%?

This is where Embark is really fun. They automatically make you a little game to play: Jackie Purples Breed Mix game.

If you want to guess, click now before you scroll any farther!

His full breed mix profile indicates that his parents were a chipin on one side (a Chihuahua/Miniature Pinscher mix), and then a scruffy terrier / pomeranian / poodle mutt.

Understanding Jack’s rescue dog breed DNA immediately helped me understand him — Mini Pinschers are known for being fearless, protective, and very high energy. They’re tough little dogs with a lot of attitude, and were bred to be tiny guard dogs.

Aha. So that explains the fiercely protective vibes. That explains guarding the house from cars out back, birds on the roof, and my neighbors walking by. Now that I understand his Mini Pinscher-ness, I can work with those qualities and train them toward more productive behaviors.

And knowing he’s one-fourth chihuahua? Well, I have a soft spot for the high strung lovable messes that chichis can be. My old dog was half chihuahua. I can work with that. It’s super different from the terrier tenacity. It’s more about neurosis than tenacity.

Embark helped me get to know my rescue in a whole different way. Knowing his breed mix helps me have compassion for his quirks. A fourth of him truly believes he’s in charge. (I read one description of Min-pins that said “If given the chance, this breed will rule you and your household. If you’re considering owning one, you must be willing and able to be a strong yet kind pack leader.”)

His min-pin DNA explains why it feels like I have to dom my dog. I get it now.

If you’ve got a new rescue who you’re struggling to understand, I’d super recommend Embark.

And they’re having a sale this week!

DNA DAY Sale | $30 OFF Breed Identification Kit. Valid April 22 – May 4, 2021.

Comments on How learning my rescue dog’s breed DNA helped me help him

  1. OMG! Yes, min pins are suuuuper protective! My family had one when I was younger and my goodness, was he ever yappy and protective of all of us, especially my mom! Honestly, we weren’t the best fit for him and never fully knew how to train him. I wish I had known then what I know now. Train your dogs and everyone will be happier? Who knew? So glad you found out more about Jack and now know how to better meet his needs! Best of luck to all three of you!

    • Thank you!

      And yeah, the dog domming is exhausting… but less exhausting than dealing with an 8-pound dog who thinks he’s the boss. I keep reminding myself that it’s a short-term investment (soooo much training this year) for a long-term payoff (I could have this dog until I’m 60 years old!). I see it as training him now, so that I can enjoy him later! (But the truth is, I’m already starting to enjoy him.)

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