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During an interview with Priyanka Chopra Jonas on Super Soul Conversations, Oprah remarked that having a dog changes the “feel” of a house. Seven months ago, I might not have understood that. But now, my home is ruled by a 17-pound, auburn-colored burst of energy we call Kori, and I know exactly what she means.
Kori is definitely a dog, or so the New Jersey-based rescue agency claimed when my family adopted her back in November. Sometimes, though, I’m not entirely convinced she’s a canine. She has ears shaped like Baby Yoda’s, the mournful eyes of a cursed prince trapped in an animal’s body, and a nub where there should be a tail. If you told me she was an alien or an elf, I’d believe you.
And so, I turned to Embark—a dog DNA test that Oprah named one of her Favorite Things in 2018—to classify this creature that had conquered my bean bag and transformed my life. The company scans for over 350 breeds and claims its results are 95% to 99% accurate.
The process itself reminded me of the first time I put in contact lenses. You want me to do what? Put my finger in my eye? That’s how I felt while reading the clearly worded instructions that came in the blue Embark box, which told us to swab the area under Kori's lip for at least 30 seconds. I love my dog, but no, my finger won’t be going near her teeth. Naturally, I put my sister, who is much tougher than I am, in charge of the task.
After hitting the saliva quotient, we had to twist the cotton swab into a fluid sample for transport, send it back in a pre-packaged envelope, and wait.
While waiting, I drew upon my childhood obsession (a.k.a this dog breed encyclopedia) to come up with my best guesses as to Kori’s genetic makeup. I decided she had the ears of a Basenji, a regal African breed; the peppy outlook of a Rat Terrier; and the dignified stature of a Doberman Pinscher. The adoption paperwork also contained a clue: It classified Kori as a “feist” dog, or a category of small hunting dogs bred in the South. Even our vet weighed in (her money was on Basenji). Unable to live with the mystery, I obsessively combed through subreddits like DoggyDNA and ID My Dog, in which other users guess breeds based solely on photographs.
But the Embark test had surprises I never could’ve predicted.
In the spring, six weeks after sending in the sample, I received an email from Embark saying the test results were in. On the landing page, a video popped up playing cheery music.
Turns out Kori is predominantly a...Mountain Cur, a combination of words I had never encountered before that moment. Mountain Curs, I learned, were originally bred in the mountains of Kentucky, Virginia, and Tennessee, and were considered a necessity for settlers in the region for their protection skills. The American Kennel Club describes Mountain Curs as being "courageous hunters" and "extremely intelligent." They’re also expert squirrel hunters, but I didn’t need a test to tell me that—I’d seen Kori in action.
Once ubiquitous among the region's frontiersmen and homesteaders, these devoted working dogs are now considered a rare breed. Today, they're predominantly found in the South—which explains why I’d never met one in New Jersey.
Significantly smaller than the average Mountain Cur, Kori’s stature is explained by her also being 19.8% Rat Terrier, 10.8% Beagle, 9.2% Boston Terrier, and 11.2% Supermutt, composed of Toy Fox Terrier, American Eskimo Dog, and American Water Spaniel.
I now had an explanation for Kori’s ears and hound-like relentlessness. But how much did these results matter?
According to vets, these DNA tests are especially important when it comes to rescue dogs, whose pasts are often unknown. “The tests are very beneficial. It gives us a wealth of knowledge about breeds and genetic predispositions,” Dr. Terrence Ferguson, star of the Nat Geo show Critter Fixers: Country Vets, tells Oprah Daily. Prior to the home kits, DNA testing was prohibitively expensive. (Embark costs $129.) Now, many pet owners come in to veterinary visits prepared with information—though Dr. Ferguson cautions that the test results should be deciphered alongside a professional.
When it comes to training, New Jersey-based dog trainer Lisa Hess says breed test results can make a significant difference in her approach. “Even though there are certain traits that all dogs have, there are certain traits that are inherent to that breed,” she says. For example, hounds with a strong prey drive require activities that involve chasing. Often, Hess will adjust training strategies after the DNA test. “Every dog is an individual. As a trainer, you need to figure out how that dog learns,” she says. DNA is a bit of that puzzle.
Ultimately, vets and dog trainers say that the benefits of testing are largely emotional—and I was emotional after opening up the test. Often, while looking into Kori’s penetrating eyes, I wondered about the years before she came into our lives. Why does she bark relentlessly at the sight of a broom? Where did she get the scar under her eye? And, most pressingly, who could have let this creature out of their sight?
Prior to the Embark test, I came up with an elaborate Dickensian backstory to answer these questions. In my head, she was the runt of the litter and abandoned to fend for herself. She befriended a pack of dogs. They strutted around the countryside of North Carolina to the West Side Story soundtrack.
The results of the Embark test gave me a kind of closure. Writer Kelly Conaboy, the author of the moving and hilarious memoir The Particularities of Peter (a must-read for dog owners and dog lovers alike), had a similar reaction to getting her dog, Peter’s, results.
“With a rescue, everything about what makes up their body is a mystery. It’s nice to imagine the results as a little history of Peter coming to be and who his parents might’ve been. Any solid knowledge helps when you’re so in love with these little creatures who are mysteries,” she says.
Ultimately, knowledge of Kori's breed hasn’t changed my relationship with her. She’s still the curious dog I fell in love with at the adoption fair, always searching for cheese, socks, or affection. But now, looking at the family tree on Embark’s website, which goes back generations, I can slot my family at the very end—and that makes all the difference.
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