2 May 2023

Making sense of breed DNA tests for small Romanian street dogs

It’s getting on for thirteen years ago that I received the results of Tilly’s breed DNA test from Wisdom Panel. Testing has improved since then in a number of ways with 350+ genetically identifiable breeds compared to 175, additional testing for genetic traits such as coat colour and muzzle length, plus 200+ genetic health conditions. Tilly’s and Cindy’s breed DNA results weren’t too surprising – as Irish rescue dogs they were unlikely to have many breeds in their make-up and certainly no unusual or rare breeds. Tilly was ½ Jack Russell terrier, ¼ smooth collie and ¼ mixed terrier breeds, and Cindy is ¾ Pomeranian + ¼ Yorkshire terrier.

By comparison, Banjo’s and Henna’s breed ancestries comprise short strands of identifiable breed DNA from multiple modern breeds - I say modern, because this is key to understanding why they are the mixes that they are purported to be.

Despite looking very different, Banjo and Henna have ten breeds in common. Both share Pekinese, Shih Tzu and Segugio Italiano, which are considered to be ancient breeds (albeit by modern standards). They also share Chihuahua, Japanese Chin, Pomeranian, Pug, Dachshund, German Shepherd Dog and Estrela Mountain Dog. Each dog also has a rare and ancient hairless breed in their makeup – Banjo has 4% Peruvian Inca Orchid, and Henna, 3% Xoloitzcuintli. Some of these breeds can be grouped together by known historical origin, for example, Pekinese, Shih Tzu, Japanese Chin, Pug, Lhasa Apso (Henna) and Tibetan Spaniel (Banjo) are Chinese. American Eskimo Dog (Banjo) and Pomeranian are descended from the German Spitz. Segugio Italiano and Maltese (Henna) are actually Phoenician in origin.

Judging by social media posts, a lot of owners of small Romanian rescue dogs are of the opinion that breed DNA tests are inaccurate because testing companies don’t have Romanian dog breeds on their databases. This is incorrect because Wisdom Panel now include three of the four dog breeds native to Romania – Romanian Mioritic Shepherd Dog, Bucovina Shepherd Dog and Romanian Raven Shepherd – with only the Carpathian Shepherd Dog yet to be sequenced. In any case, all four are large breeds standing upwards of 28 inches tall and weighing up to 90 kgs. They are often identifiable in large Romanian rescue dogs such as these ones:

Some medium sized Romanian rescue dogs may carry some Romanian shepherd dog DNA, however, like Banjo and Henna, many Romanian rescue dogs look nothing like these huge Romanian shepherd breeds and are small in size – often no more than 12 inches high and 10 kgs in weight. Many are born and survive on the street – they (and their ancestors) have never belonged to anyone or been purposely bred to look or behave in a certain way. Essentially, they are street dogs whose recent ancestors were free-breeding, free-roaming village dogs, and whose ancient ancestors were small Asiatic (Eurasian) wolves most likely domesticated through a process of natural selection and local genetic adaptations. Research suggests that the earliest Neolithic European dogs that lived 7,000 years ago were a mix of two of the five major dog ancestry lineages – the Karelian and Levantine branches.

This European ancestry has since dispersed globally, with small pockets of precolonial ancestry surviving in today’s European Village Dogs and a handful of pure breeds. European Village Dog DNA therefore precedes the 400+ artificially selected European dog breeds that we know today, along with numerous breeds considered to be native to countries beyond Europe, for example, China and Mexico. 

Another complaint from owners of small Romanian rescue dogs is that breed DNA tests are pointless because of the frequent recurrence of Chihuahua, which crops up in every result ranging from 12-24%. Peruvian Inca Orchid and Segugio Italiano are also commonly recurring breeds. However, given that modern lineages of European street dogs share an ancient ancestry, this is unsurprising. In terms of maternal ancestry, there are four universal subclades: A1, B1, C1 & C2. A1 is the most common maternal lineage among Western dogs and remained in European Village Dogs for many millennia. B1 is the second most common maternal lineage in dog breeds of European origin and among European Village Dogs that carry the ‘old world’ DNA of European originated Chihuahua, Peruvian Inca Orchid, Shih Tzu, Pekinese and Poodle to name but a few. B1 is not common in non-European village dog populations or purebred dogs that originate outside of Europe, for example, South American Chihuahuas and Peruvian Inca Orchids are haplogroup C1. So of course today's Romanian street dogs will carry distinct Chihuahua DNA, because this 'old world' DNA is detectable due to the existence of modern pure breed DNA to test it against. It’s not a single randy Chihuahua merrily sewing his oats in as many bitches as possible. It's the original strand of 'old world' European Village Dog DNA from which pre-colonial, European Chihuahuas descended. 

The dog breed DNA testing company, Embark, actually has European Village Dog (and also Eastern European Village Dog) on its breed reference panel, and for dogs that Embark identifies as such it goes on to identify the strands of DNA that the dog’s ancestors may have contributed to, for example, Pekinese, Danish-Swedish Farm Dog and German Shepherd Dog. Therefore, although Wisdom Panel's breed reference list does not include village dogs of European origin, going by the ‘breeds’ in both Banjo’s and Henna’s test results, it is more than reasonable to conclude that they are in fact European (or Eastern European) Village Dogs because they have the characteristic short strands of DNA that match particular, modern purebred dogs associated with European Village Dog DNA. 

Some owners of small Romanian street dogs of a similar look to Banjo insist that they are Kokonis. However, Kokoni is a Greek (allegedly, ancient Greek) dog breed of unknown heritage that has only recently been established as a standardised breed by the Greek Kennel Club. It is popular in Greece and to some extent, Cyprus, but not other countries.
Kokoni means 'small dog' in Greek.

Embark and Wisdom Panel do not have Kokoni on their breed lists because (as far as I'm aware after an exhaustive search of breed DNA testing companies) it doesn't exist as a unique breed DNA signature. If anything, small Romanian street dogs are 'Caine mic', which means small dog in Romanian. They may look similar to Kokoni because, being European, they may share a similar ancient genetic ancestry (identifiable today as Chihuahua, Pekinese, Shih Tzu, etc., DNA), but as village dogs from different regions of Europe, each will have different, unique regional and local genetic adaptations. If you look closely and critically, you will see differences. For one, Kokoni breed standard calls for straight front legs – not the breed-defining chondrodysplasia (the stumpy ‘Queen Anne’ legs) typical of many small Romanian street dogs. The Kokoni muzzle is longer and the chest wider than many similar-looking Romanian street dogs. The Kokoni tail is longer with a short-haired section at the base, is more richly plumed and is carried in a semi-circle over the back, not the shorter, more tightly curled and characteristically twisted tail of many ‘Caine mics’. 
In the absence of DNA breed evidence for Kokoni, it denies small fluffy Romanian street dogs their own unique heritage to label them as such based purely on perceived looks, as the similarities in Banjo's and Henna's test results and the differences in their outward appearances help to illustrate ...


American Kennel Club Dog Breeds https://www.akc.org/dog-breeds/

Bergstrom et al (2020) Origins and Genetic Legacy of Prehistoric Dogs. Science, 370 (6516): 557-564. https://www.crick.ac.uk/research/research-reports/prehistoric-dog-dna-sheds-light-on-11000-years-of-canine-evolution

Embark Vet European Village Dog https://embarkvet.com/resources/dog-breeds/european-village-dog/

Greek Kennel Club http://www.koe.gr/index.php/el/greekbreeds/kokoni

Shannon et al (2015) Genetic structure in village dogs reveals a Central Asian domestication origin. https://www.pnas.org/doi/10.1073/pnas.1516215112

Talenti et al (2018) Studies of modern Italian dog populations reveal multiple patterns for domestic breed evolution. Ecology and Evolution, 8 (5): 2911-2925. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC5838073/

Wisdom Panel Dog Breeds https://www.wisdompanel.com/en-gb/dog-breeds

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