We’re Embark, the dog DNA company that’s made scientific discoveries about dogs’ blue eyes, canine deafness, and roaning (with so much more to come). AMA!
Hi! We’re Embark Veterinary. Embark is the dog DNA testing company that helps dog owners get hundreds of actionable insights into their dog’s breed, health, and family tree. We recently made the first-ever canine health discovery using commercial testing genetic data.
Proof with bios— https://imgur.com/a/PECd8yv
Before its founding in 2015, Embark founders (and brothers) Adam and Ryan Boyko traveled around the world collecting DNA samples from village dogs to learn the history of dog domestication. Adam's lab at Cornell University also uncovered the genetic basis for many dog diseases and traits. They founded Embark to bring those insights to pet owners and to put their discovery work in overdrive. Embark has since become the most scientifically advanced and highest-rated dog DNA test on the market.
From 12-3 PM, Dr. Aaron Sams, Dr. Jenna Dockweiler, and Caleb Benson of our ancestry and veterinary teams join Ryan Boyko and Dr. Adam Boyko. We’re here to answer your burning questions about dog DNA, health, behavior, ancestry, and more—ask us anything!
UPDATE @ 2:55 EST—We're accepting questions past 3 PM—we'll get your queries answered!
UPDATE @ 4:02 PM EST—This has been incredibly fun for us - we love to share our passion with the wide world of dog lovers! Thank you so much for your questions. We'll loop back to answer as many questions as we can.
UPDATE @ 8:00 PM ET—A few of us are still online! :) If we don't get to your questions tonight, we'll do our best to answer you tomorrow.
If you'd like to stay in touch, please feel free to check out our Instagram or follow us here on Reddit. :)
We love shelter dogs! We occasionally work with shelters on promotions that can include some free kits (eg Clear the Shelters). We also are open to providing shelters discounted kits, especially if they are interested in testing a large number of dogs. We can also work with shelters to provide coupon codes to offer folks who are adopting through you. If you’re a shelter/rescue organization interested in working with Embark on any of the above, please fill out the following form: Shelter & Rescue Partnership Opportunity.
Possible, could Embark offer testers a way to donate to help shelters get their pups tested?
Great idea; thanks for sharing! We'll see what we can do. -Ryan
I’m seeing a rescue in my area do tests for one puppy in litters now sometimes. I think they are doing it for dogs that look like pit bulls the most. My theory is that they want people to see what they’re mixed with so that they’re more open to adopting the dog given the stigma around bully breeds, or so that the adopter can be informed in case they live somewhere with breed restrictions and the dog is actually a bully or mostly bully breed. I think it is very helpful, but I know it must add up.
Very cool - can I ask which shelter that is?
I wonder if this would be detrimental in areas with BSL since the vast majority of shelter dogs have pit ancestry in them.
It can work both ways as some dogs could have somewhat of a "pit look" without much or any "pit" DNA. -Ryan
Does Embark sell or share in any way any customer data to third parties, including the DNA information itself?
Yes we do! We share anonymized genetic information with bona fide researchers to help accelerate discovery, including researchers at Cornell, NIH, and other institutions. We do not share or sell any customer information (emails, addresses, etc) or personally identifiable information (dog name, registration number) although for important studies we may reach out to customers on another researcher’s behalf to see if they would like to be included. Of course you can always opt-out of this type of sharing if you’re not comfortable with it. We give users the chance to opt-out upfront and they can also edit their preference at any later time to opt out (or opt in) as well.
If I paid you $44 billion for Goofy and Pluto's DNA for... research reasons, would you take it? You know how to contact me.
I’m just here to talk about Rampart…
I think it'd be really cool to have a search/browse feature for public profiles that would let you select a group of breeds and maybe either "include only these breeds" or "show me any mixes of these and other additional breeds" and be able to see examples of what different mixes look like. The internet is full of inaccurate labels of "this is what this mix looks like" without any proof that's what they are and often they look completely different from the reality. Having a place people could look with more confidence could help dispel some of the myths of how dog breeds mix together.
Thanks for your feedback—we'll relay this to the product team.
How could I help Embark widen their database? In Spain we have many many popular breeds that are not tested by Embark ☹️ galgo español, podenco canario, bodeguero andaluz, pastor vasco, etc… many of our strays are mixes of these so DNA testing them is almost useless in terms of knowing which breed mix they are.
Thanks for this question and your interest in helping us expand our reference dataset! We'd love to get more samples from these breeds. We rely a lot on owners and breeders submitting samples and registration paperwork and pedigrees from an authoritative breed registration body. We are only able to differentiate a breed when we have a distinct genetic signature for that population, and we will add a breed to our Breed List when we are able to reliably identify that signature in multiple populations of dogs.
You can help us by sharing pedigrees and registration papers, and for the dogs that can be included in our reference panel, we can offer free or discounted kits. You can feel free to share this brief survey with other owners, and we will be in contact if we are able to provide the complementary or discounted kits for your dog(s). --Aaron
What is it that you do differently from other dog DNA test companies aka your competitors?
Great question u/assplower! We started from day 1 by approaching this as long-term, science-first and not short-term profit-first: giving people the best information science can provide today to care for their dog *and* a goal to collect huge amounts of genetic and phenotypic (or outcome) data so that every test got us closer to understanding (and hopefully preventing) conditions like cancer and hip dysplasia. We're now seeing that paying off given the size of our database (for example, early onset deafness). At the start we were testing over 500X as much genetic content as competitors, and paid a lot more in cost of goods than competitors.
Because we are interested in the long-term value, we have always seen what we do as a partnership with dog owners through the life of their dog. This has meant putting in the work to be the most accurate, most comprehensive, provide the best support, maintain/build the best product experience, and keep people coming back for more.
We've also consistently been the most innovative company in the space, eg building the first canine relative finder, and you can be sure we're continuing to work on new innovations while our competitors work on copying us. :)
My colleagues tell me I need to point out here that the tl;dr is our competitors are a bit behind (but to each their own)
Fun fact, my brother/co-founder Adam's dog is named Penny, u/penny_eater. -Ryan
well my brother Ryan's dog is named Adam, so there.
haha just kidding. but this ama has been really informative as a dog owner and also very entertaining, so keep up the good work!
Thank you so much!
Adam has good taste, my dog is called Penny too
I’ve been thinking of getting a DNA test for her and wasn’t sure who to get it from but this AMA has convinced me to get embark!
You're the first person who's ever said my brother has good taste. I'll be the bigger person and won't hold it against you. :) -Ryan
The fact that you just totally ignored their username😂
We didn't want them to feel like the butt of a joke. 😄 -Ryan
u/assplower over here asking the hard questions. Keep up the good work
They till the fields so we can reap the pun harvest. -Ryan
Do you take doggy DNA donations? My dog has recently been diagnosed with a congenital heart defect (more specifically, the dextroposition of the descending aorta with consequent strangulation of the oesophagus). Sadly his prognosis is dismal but his DNA might be useful to study and potentially stamp out the condition in the future.
So sorry to hear about your dog’s prognosis. Cardiac disease is all-too-common in dogs and hopefully something we’ll be able to do more about in the future. While we do have an ongoing study looking for samples from dogs diagnosed with dilated cardiomyopathy (DCM), we don’t have a study at the moment for your dog’s heart defect. If you are able to order a test for your dog and fill out a survey, its profile would be able to be used in future studies (and you might learn other interesting things about your dog as well), but I know this is often not feasible for owners, especially as vet bills mount at the end of life. Unfortunately we don’t have the personnel or biobank space that would be required to do prospective biobanking, but I can certainly see the value in trying to figure out how to set up something like that in future. Best wishes to you and your dog… I hope you still have some more good days together ahead of you.
I have this same question only my dog has a rare disease and it's thought to be genetic. I sent her DNA sample in this morning before seeing this IAmA. We did a Wisdom panel on her prior and I'm excited to compare the results.
So sorry to hear that. Thank you for contributing to help the future of dogkind! -Ryan
I know what breed of dog I have already. Is there any benefit to an Embark test on a healthy 5 year old dog that the breed is known already?
Agree with wildsouldog! What breed do you have, chrslp? I'd love to get into specifics about benefits for your breed! - Jenna
Great, thanks u/chrslp! I bet your American Bulldog is a beautiful blockhead, and I would not be opposed to photos (just saying!)
The breed-relevant health conditions we test for the American Bulldog include Canine Multifocal Retinopathy, Hyperuricosuria/Hyperuricemia, Ichthyosis, and Neuronal Ceroid Lipofuscinosis 10.
Canine Multifocal Retinopathy can cause vision loss in a subset of dogs. Knowing this risk before vision loss occurs allows owners to train their dogs using verbal commands and scent markers.
Hyperuricosuria/Hyperuricemia can cause bladder stones, and most dogs are diagnosed with this condition only after their stones require surgical removal. In some cases, a urinary obstruction can occur if a stone lodges in the urethra, leading to an emergent and potentially life-threatening situation. Knowing this risk beforehand allows owners to make diet changes to help prevent stones from ever occurring!
Ichthyosis is a skin condition in which large flakes develop (the name comes from the lesions’ appearance of fish scales). This condition can mimic other skin diseases, so this result can help avoid certain diagnostics and treatments that are not expected to be helpful.
Neuronal Ceroid Lipofuscinosis is a lysosomal storage disease that is slowly progressive and can lead to blindness, behavior changes, and seizures over. Knowing this risk before symptoms develop can allow owners to modify their dog’s environment to keep them safe.
In addition to these conditions, we test for over 210 other health conditions which are less common (but still possible!) in the American Bulldog. Additionally, if you have questions about your dog’s health results, we have a team of veterinarians and veterinary technicians available to help! -Jenna
How do you feel about Wisdom Panel claiming they're the most accurate DNA test just because they try to match every single % to a breed regardless of how rare or unlikely that % is?
Imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, and that’s doubly true in marketing. Accuracy depends on a lot more than just supplying a long list of possible breeds… false positives can be a real problem when you try to get into very small ancestry fractions. We’ve done extensive testing and are very pleased with both our accuracy for identifying true positives and true negatives at least three generations back, and we are confident that our advanced algorithms and 230,000+ marker platform give us a pretty big edge in terms of accuracy. Not only that, we recently did some head-to-head blind testing of our platform versus competitor platforms on mixed-breed dogs with known ancestry (deliberate multi-way crosses/backcrosses) as a sense check and we were clearly on top for the dogs we tested.
I’m also interested in this question, as I’m currently trying to decide on Embark vs Wisdom Panel for my dog (thought to be a Mountain Cur or another closely related mix.)
I did Wisdom Panel because it was slightly cheaper and I didn’t really care about the results, just curious. I got a bunch of breeds for my dog which we’ve had endless fun discussing, but for sure some of them are BS (I’m looking at you, 2% Fijian Street Dog for a mutt from the middle of the US).
My friend's dog got 1% Fijian street dog too. We're in the UK.
Those wacky street dogs! Constantly getting on ships.
https://media.giphy.com/media/KZPQbQkqpMZtoId6J8/giphy.gif (archival footage)
How accurate are the COI (Coefficient of Inbreeding) estimates for purebred dogs that Embark tests? I am a reputable dog breeder (who shows, health tests, temperament tests, and is responsible for her puppies for their lifetimes) of a rare breed (Field Spaniels), and I factor COI into my breeding decisions to promote genetic diversity. Using guidance from the EU and Nordic kennel clubs, I attempt to aim for 7% COI or below by 10 generation pedigree. Many of my dogs are below 4% by pedigree. However, pedigree COI and Embark/DNA COI levels vary considerably. One of my dogs with 3.8% COI by 10 generation pedigree has around 35% COI by Embark testing. I understand that the pedigree estimate is definitely too low, because it doesn't account for the small number of breed founders. That's why I also sought out the DNA testing. However, is it possible the true range of COI could be somewhere between 4% and 35%? Could Embark's COI estimate be skewed by the fact that there's only a very small sample of Field Spaniels tested on Embark? Alternatively, should I presume the Embark COI is very accurate, in which case more measures might need to be taken to reduce the high COI? Considerations like this will need to be taken into account as younger breeders try to modernize breeding and better ensure dogs' welfare. Thank you!
Very insightful question! You are absolutely right that pedigree and genetic COI estimates can be quite different, for a number of reasons. Even the most complete pedigrees may not include relationships among founders and may include parentage errors.
We’ve seen that our genetic COI measurements are consistent within litters across breeds that we’ve tested and that our genetic COI measurements in offspring are consistent with the expected genetic COI that we measure from the two parents of dogs.
The COI of 38% that you referenced is very consistent with the distribution of genetic COI that we’ve observed across Field Spaniels, which ranges from about 28% to 51%.
So, to answer your question -- in theory, genetic COI results could in theory be skewed by a breed or population being underrepresented in some of our reference datasets. However, given that Spaniels are well represented in our reference datasets, we don’t expect this to apply to Field Spaniels, and the range of COI we’ve observed in Field Spaniels is consistent with other breeds, so I think it’s safe to assume that these results accurately represent the genetic COI in your breed. Hope this helps! --Aaron
Will the website ever be updated to show more relative matches or more in the "dogs like mine" sections? I get emails about matches I can't see because my dog has so many relatives. I'd love to see them all.
We agree the UI for relatives could be better (maybe adding filters or sorting in the future), but any genetic relative/dog like mine in an email should show up. It may just be way down in the list which is why you may be missing them!
My dog, Porter, is a mutt with a funny ridge down his back. I got him your test, 100% sure that there would be some result that explained his ridge, but there were no breeds with ridges listed in his results. How is it possible for a dog to have such a distinctive feature like that without having a ridged breed somewhere in his genetics?
If Porter has the canonical ridgeback (caused by a mutation on chromosome 18) I would say most likely came from a Rhodesian Ridgeback or a related breed like Thai Ridgeback. This mutation is dominant, meaning Porter would only need one copy of the gene to show the phenotype. With dominant traits like ridgeback (or hairlessness or merle) we do very occasionally come across dogs with the trait without having a ridged (or hairless or merle) breed in their listed breed mix. When we dig in deeper, we find that invariably these dogs have very small, trace levels of ancestry from a ridged (or hairless or merle) breed, at a level below the typical detection threshold for our algorithm (usually 1% ancestry or less) and this ancestry just happens to be found right at the place in the genome where the phenotype occurs. You can imagine in many cases a breeder was deliberately backcrossing to maintain the dominant gene while removing the rest of the genetic background from that breed (e.g. a bulldog breeder trying to backcross merle into their line). But of course this can also occur in randomly bred dogs on occasion. If you DM me, I’d be happy to take a look to see if there is evidence of this or if it’s instead a case of the dogs fur just happening to have a scruffy look that superficially resembles the ridge found in ridged breeds.
What happens if I send you a swab of my cat's DNA? What about my human DNA?
Great question! Basically, if you swabbed either a cat or yourself your sample would fail our genotyping analysis. Our genotyping chip is designed to read genetic variants that are unique to the dog genome. We might get a good readout on some of of the segments that are similar between dogs and cats (or humans), but so many variants would fail analysis that we would fail the sample. After it fails analysis, we’d ask you to try swabbing your dog again, just remember to use it on a dog the second time! --Aaron
Do you know if there is any one doing cats? I would do it in a heartbeat
Basepaws does, though they use a bit different technology.
If you do it right, you can go viral online (eg https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=B5iE61LYArY and https://www.tiktok.com/@embarkvet/video/7045026742242659630?is_copy_url=1&is_from_webapp=v1&lang=en ). -Ryan
Hey!! The canine family finder feature enabled my blue heeler to donate blood to her half sister and save her life from a rare condition. Now we go donate regularly!!!
Thank you for that one. What other services and products are around the corner?
What a wonderful story; we’re so happy her sister could get the treatment she needed! This year has been a busy year for us, launching a testing kit geared for veterinary clinics and beginning a launch of our new canine age test. Our scientists are working on lots of interesting projects at the moment, but it’s a little early to say what else is going to be coming around the corner next. Rest assured our focus is to help add the most healthy life-years for all our canine companions and we're making ever-faster progress! Also, if you'd be willing to talk to us more about your story, we'd love to hear it. If you're up for it, DM us. The entire Embark team lives for these heartwarming stories!
Who came up with your logo? It's amazing.
We worked with the folks at Meta Design to come up with that; they were terrific to work with!
And who came up with the name "Embark"? That's a cute pun too.
I can claim this one! -Ryan
I spend a lot of time going through the karyograms for the results of dogs over at r/DoggyDNA to help explain to people which breeds contributed to the different traits that their dog inherited and how they interact with each other to produce a final appearance. It seems to have a big impact on people understanding why their dog looks a certain way instead of being a 50/50 split between each parent. Is this something that would be feasibly able to be offered as a built-in feature? It seems like it would really help improve customer satisfaction.
Great observation! People do tend to think that a dog is going to be the average of its parents but in fact it all depends on the way the genes segregate in a particular dog. Siblings often look quite different because one inherited a trait from one of the breeds in its mix and the other didn’t just because of the randomness of DNA transmission and segregation. The vast majority of the time when someone tests two littermates with us “because we know they must have different dads because they look so different” it actually turns out they are full siblings. I can definitely see how augmenting the karyograms to make some of this information discoverable to help people better navigate their dog’s results, if it could be done in a way that wasn’t overwhelming. Thanks so much for taking the time to help owners understand their results!
Where do you see the trends in veterinary DNA testing projected out 5 years? 10? Will we eventually have designer dogs, custom-tailored via genetic selection?
Do you think that discussions and study of veterinary epigenetics and genetic load carry risks of promoting eugenic-type thinking in regards not only of animals, but humans? If so, how can we continue to address or mitigate these kinds of takeaways?
Great question! Let me address your question in three parts:
Where do I see veterinary DNA testing in 5-10 years? We're starting to partner with veterinarians, many of whom already see how knowing a dog's genetics is invaluable to clinical care (see https://tinyurl.com/2p9brwr5 for how our first partner clinic is bringing genetics into their clinic). As DNA tests become more and more valuable with more discoveries being made, I see that DNA testing will be part of the regular routine for new puppies and will drive a closer vet-pet parent bond as it informs preventative care.
Will we have custom-tailored designer dogs? We already have designer dogs, just ones that carry disease risks they won't have to in the future. In an ideal future, no unwanted dogs need to be born and most dogs will be intentionally bred. Our work with breeders is aimed at helping them breed healthier dogs by selecting the parents that make the best match. I think it's an unmitigated positive thing to help with that.
But what about the more icky forms of eugenics? To put it out there, there already are companies offering to clone your dog, and I don't doubt there will be some egg/sperm/embryo selection in rare cases. In a few cases, this actually might make sense (eg since the HUU risk gene is in every Dalmatian, the only way to get rid of it would be gene editing or backcrossing) but I share your feeling that this shouldn't become common. On the bright side, I don't think it will become common at all due to both the costs and the fact most people don't like the idea (and the USDA regulates that such that you can't breed a dog that was a subject of gene editing). Similarly, I don't see this happening in humans.
We've intentionally bred dogs to certain traits for millenia and that's never become common in humans (despite terrible but uncommon practices from time to time) because we recognize humans and dogs are different. In one sense, I think it's immoral not to use the tools we have to help breed healthier dogs since we are already responsible for their breeding, but it's incredibly immoral to prevent people their own choice in their own reproduction. To the extent the concern is "if we learn how to do it in dogs, we'll then know how to do it in humans", the truth is that the techniques are already known and the actual genetic learning is generally different in humans and dogs.
What are some of the biggest scientific questions you hope to answer in your work?
Wow, it’s tough to single out just one thing. I’d love to really know why little dogs live longer than big dogs (and how we can get all dogs, especially big dogs, to live longer, healthier lives). I’d love to know what makes dogs tick---what are the genes that make some dogs point, some dogs retrieve, some dogs pull sleds, some dogs herd and what makes dogs so different from wolves in terms of their development and temperament. I’m also really curious about how we can develop scientifically informed breed management that allows each breed to thrive with its own unique set of characteristics while also minimizing inbreeding depression and loss of genetic diversity.
This is not an exhaustive list, of course. There’s lots of ongoing and really interesting work going on around canine cancer, cardiac disease, obesity, deafness, and nipple count!
omg, my dog has 7 nipples (rather than 6 or 8) and i’ve always thought it so funny! is there some genetic component to that? I have had her tested with Embark actually! :)
That's great! Don't forget to take the Doggy Parts survey so we can add her to the study! -- Adam
I'd assume its the same as why small people live longer than bigger people. Less energy expenditure.
Yeah I think cellular metabolism is a key aspect of it, but it's interested that across species the relationship between body size and longevity goes in the other direction.
Hello Embark Vet! I’m a Ph.D. candidate studying quantitative genetics in livestock production. My goal is to work with canine genetics and contribute to the incredible research that is improving the health and lifespan of dogs.
Are there any upcoming conferences or symposiums to learn more about the current research at Embark Vet?
Does Embark Vet hire personnel that have experience with species other than dogs? If so, what makes an applicant from other industries competitive?
Thanks for your interest in canine genetics! Embark hosts a Canine Health Summit annually which brings together many of the leading scientists, veterinarians and breeders in the field. This year’s conference is two days (Apr 27-28) and starts tomorrow. You can learn more about it and register (free and taking place virtually) here: https://www.labroots.com/virtual-event/embark-canine-health-summit
Our scientists also regularly present their work at leading international conferences like PAG, ISAG and ICCFGG, and they also have broad interests. My PhD work was in Heliconius butterflies (I became enamored with the genetics of dogs as a postdoc) and other scientists working on our team have been accomplished researchers in the areas of human genetics, pigs, salamanders, birds, and even Neanderthals. DNA is DNA—we’re more interested in your scientific curiosity and the specific skills you’ve developed that can be applied to our research mission.
Hi Embark! Found your AMA via r/doggydna where you referred OP to here. Could you tell us more about the dog age test? Thanks!
Our dog age test is based in epigenetics. Specifically, epigenetics makes it so different parts of a dog’s genome (or a human’s, cat’s, horse’s, tree shrew’s, etc) are expressed at different levels in different tissues and at different times of an individual’s life. A modification to DNA called methylation changes over time and that causes gene expression to change too! To learn more about methylation you can start here https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=L7MBa9P8-6s&t=29s. Tl;dr: methylation doesn’t change the actual genetic code, but it changes how that code is expressed and it changes over an individual’s lifetime. Some of those changes are very stereotypically based on age while others are more responsive to a dog’s environment.
To measure methylation, we add a special processing step to the DNA extraction. While that makes it so we can't use the same DNA in our Breed & Health kit and Age kit (we’d need two swabs to do both), it does let us learn how your dog's unique life has impacted their genome. Then we designed an algorithm that focuses on the methylation patterns that are very strongly correlated with actual age and, over the course of two pilot experiments with >1,000 dogs of known age, we were able to get that algorithm to be 98% predictive of a dog’s age with a range of +/- 5 months from true age. Seeing the results so tighty clustered on true age (the Pearson correlation coefficient was 0.995) was one of those “science is so beautiful and amazing” moments!
We’re now in the process of commercially releasing this test to help owners who don’t know their dog’s true age (which can impact their care plan, diet, etc). We’re releasing the test to small groups of our user base as we scale up the laboratory’s throughput. If you’re interested and don’t want to wait any longer than necessary, you can join our waitlist here https://shop.embarkvet.com/products/dog-age-test.
As another rescue owner (embark results here) I'm very excited about a dog age test! Unfortunately I don't see a way to join a wait-list on that page, just a "Sold out" button. How can I throw money at you more effectively?
Below the sold out button there's a space to enter your email address and click "Notify me when available"
As a rescue owner, this is very exciting! Will re-swabbing be necessary for an age test or would purchasing it as an add-on test be a possibility down the line?
Unfortunately reswabbing is necessary because we need to do a bisulfite conversion in the DNA extraction to do the age test.
Second this. I have a mixbreed dog we rescued and I would love to know approximately how old he his. I am begging you to let me know who to throw money at.
Won't reanswer (see above), but so you get a notification, the answer to your question is you can join our waitlist here https://shop.embarkvet.com/products/dog-age-test.
Have you found a breed that in the most in-bred? I know pugs are a mess, genetically. And Bulldogs.
In our dataset, the Norwegian Lundehund tops the list of breeds with the highest genetic coefficients of inbreeding. Previous research has highlighted the high degree of inbreeding in this breed, and suggests that most living Lundehunds descend from two past individuals! --Aaron
Hello! My dog (husky) has super bright blue eyes. I'd love to know is it true theyre more sensitive to light? He does squint a lot in the sun, wpuld you reccomend i try and get him fitted for tinted goggles?
Photosensitivity in blue-eyed dogs has not been specifically studied, though sensitivity to light can be an indication of certain eye diseases. If your pup seems to squint in bright light, I recommend consulting your veterinarian to rule out any eye problems. If he does just happen to be particularly sensitive to light, he will look super stylish in some Doggles or RexSpecs! - Jenna
How accurate are the size predictions supposed to be? My dog was tested as a puppy and the breed percentages all make sense regarding his parents but dang, y'all got the adult size wrong! It said hed be 88lbs and hes 111lbs and growing, haha. Is that something that's more environmental than genetic?
It explains 80-85% of the variance in adult body size across the dogs we’ve looked at, so it’s generally pretty accurate but occasionally a dog is significantly above or below the prediction as is the case with your dog. This could be due to environmental reasons or it could be that your dog has size-modifying genetic variants that aren’t part of the 20-30 known size loci we’re using to predict adult weight. Anecdotally the model seems to underpredict size in a few livestock guarding breeds so we know as we grow the database there are going to be new discoveries and improvement to the predictions we’re able to make. Once your dog is full-grown, fill out the survey to let us know how big he got so he can help us discover any new size variants he might be carrying!
Can Embark detect the likelihood for hip dysplasia?
Hip dysplasia is a very complex trait that likely has many genetic and environmental factors. Because the gene(s) involved in the development of hip dysplasia have not yet been fully elucidated, we rely on phenotypic testing (like OFA x-rays) to determine which dogs are affected and to make breeding decisions. This is an area of active research for us, but currently we do not offer a DNA-based test for hip dysplasia. For more information on phenotypic screening, please visit this post. - Jenna
Do dogs actually instinctively guard their houses and their people? I have heard different things and I have one dog who seems to, one dog that seems not to, and I don't recall training either one for that job!
Great question! This depends on the breed (or breed mix), some have instincts that are more suited for guarding. The Working breeds for example, Bullmastiffs, Mastiffs. Breeders have selected those traits to select for those guarding instincts.
Do you go back to previous samples and refine the breed mix based on your latest data?
Also—I love the family notifications. My dog and his littermate were picked up as strays by the city a month apart. Your app got us in touch with the other owner, and now we get the dogs together for frequent play dates. Nice to be able to share stories and advice with someone dealing with the same kind of crazy!
I’m so glad you were able to reconnect with your dog’s relatives! We wouldn’t say no to seeing the reunion videos :)
As for updating your dog’s results, sometimes! Our scientists are sometimes alerted to rare cases where dogs’ genetic data fit better with newer models, and we update those so you have the most up-to-date information available without needing to reswab your dog! Because genetic ancestry testing is done with a series of statistical models, your ancestry results may change very slightly when we make improvements to the reference databases and algorithms. While we would love to keep everyone’s results current as we grow, we do not currently have the resources to get there just yet. But stay tuned, it’s a work in progress!
Could you please share what you know about canine deafness? My dog is going deaf, and I would love it if you’d share what you know. Thanks for doing this!!
Deafness can be a very minor nuisance for a dog (particularly if it’s unilateral) or it can be debilitating (imagine a fully deaf cattle dog that is no longer able to work in the field because it can’t hear the commands). While white spotting is not itself causative for deafness (lots of white spotted dogs hear just fine), we do know dogs with white heads have an increased predisposition (including double merles, but not just double merles). So there is a pigmentation component to some deafness, but not all (for instance early adult onset deafness in Rhodesian Ridgebacks).
Unlike blindness where numerous specific loci are known in dogs, each causing a specific type of blindness in one or a handful of breeds, and these blindness mutations can be efficiently tested for with comprehensive DNA testing (like Embark), currently only the mutation for Ridgeback deafness can be tested for directly (as well as the pigmentation genes, but again, other genetic modifiers are usually needed to determine risk of deafness). Certainly many breeds are affected by types of deafness caused by genetics, so hopefully these mutations can be discovered and added to testing panels so breeders can avoid risky matings and eliminate the risk of deafness in their litters.
We're currently seeing an insurgence of backyard color breeding introducing genes for traits into dogs where they didn't previously exist. The biggest example of this is Frenchies and Pit Bulls (and pretty much every breed at this point) now coming in merle (despite the associated health risks, because these people just want profit). If that merle gene originated from an outside gene, why is it that after a certain number of generations they will show up as 100% purebred again? If they have that merle gene, why doesn't it always register as originating from a different breed?
Similar to the ridgeback gene or hairlessness gene (dominant genes with obvious phenotypes), the merle gene is an incompletely dominant gene with an obvious phenotype. If someone wants to breed merle into a population, they can do so and then do a set of backcrosses over generations such that <1% of the genome comes from the original merle breed and >99% comes from the breed they bred it into. There are limitations to the resolution possible in DNA tests and at that point it's impossible to pickup the other breed signal and so the dog comes back as 100% the non-merle breed despite being merle. Note that NO DNA test can ever possibly replace breed books in terms of "purebredness" for exactly this reason. A dog that shows only one breed genetically can have a tiny bit of another breed, and if that is a dominant trait with obvious phenotypic appearance, you get a dog that the DNA says is 100% one breed but does not physically appear so. As an aside, after ~9 generations, it's more likely than not that literally 0% of a descendant's DNA came from you (because of the way inheritance works). So if the definition of purebred is "all ancestors since the date of the founding of the breed came from purebred dogs of that breed" then it's literally impossible for a DNA test to prove that (though it can disprove that).
Have you found any genetic link to aggression?
We haven’t yet, although we are still collecting data from owners and believe some genetic links will be found. Aggression is a complex phenotype with many different forms (dog aggression, stranger aggression, even owner-directed aggression) and it tends to vary not just from breed to breed, but also within a breed, and early environment seems to play at least as large of a role (if not larger) making it particularly difficult to study genetically.
I missed the AMA, but my rescues are 4 and 5; I finally decided to get their DNA tested, and opted for the Embark breed and health kit. I was certain that I didn’t have enough DNA for Jack because he barely allowed the swab in his mouth, but since there was a big slobber on the swab, I decided to roll the dice and was mentally preparing myself to pay for another kit if there wasn’t enough DNA. I mailed both kits the same day and got Sadie’s results a few days before Jack’s (her rescue listed her as a black lab/Weimaraner mix and she has no Weimaraner!), but Jack’s was worth the wait because two of his sisters also used Embark! One of them reached out to us and we messaged the other, who volunteered their dog’s three biggest fears, which also happen to be Jack’s biggest fears.
I wanted to thank you for the product because seeing two of Jack’s sisters and also seeing extended family members really made me emotional, and learning a potential health risk for each of them is valuable information to share with their vet. I’m glad their DNA can contribute to your database, and I’ll definitely use Embark for any dogs we rescue in the future.
Based on my concern about whether Jack would have enough DNA to be tested since I didn’t actually manage to swab his cheeks, how often is it that you receive a sample without enough DNA to test, and do you offer some kind of discount if a customer requires a second kit to re-test?
We give free reswabs when a sample fails for any reason. This happens <2% of the time.
Is Embark ever planning to include merle testing for SINE insertion length?
We are exploring other ways to provide the results in the future! Due to the nature of microarray-based technology, we currently query the invariable end (the end that doesn't change). More on merle here.
How do discoveries typically work for you? What’s the process?
There’s no single, linear path towards discoveries. (Or, another way to put it, if we knew what we were doing, they wouldn’t call it ‘research’.)
That said, there is a research process. At a minimum, we need owners telling us about their dogs through the research surveys on their dog’s profiles. This is “community science” and our scientists need to collaborate with engaged owners for this to happen! From this data, we can make genetic associations by combining the data from the owners with the genetic data from their dogs.
When interesting associations pop out, our scientists go into overdrive trying to validate the signal (sometimes this involves recruiting dogs with key diagnoses, other times it involves sending out more research surveys) and “fine-map” it. This fine mapping is done to identify the specific mutation(s) most likely causing the trait or condition. Sometimes the validation is easy, sometimes it’s hard; sometimes the fine-mapping is easy and sometimes is hard (often it involves genome sequence of key dogs, sometimes requiring cutting edge sequencing techniques to fully identify structural variants or characterize complex genomic regions). I’ve been impressed at how responsive owners are when we tell them we need more DNA from their dog so we can complete a study!
We’re really excited about how this process played out for several of the key discoveries we’ve been able to make, including identifying the duplication underlying blue eyes in Siberian Huskies, the genetic basis of roaning, the loci underlying pheomelanin intensity (I-locus) and, most recently, the deletion underlying early adult onset deafness in Rhodesian Ridgeback. It’s an ongoing process and as the database grows and more owners answer research surveys, we expect many, many more discoveries in the future. Happy to go into more the technical details of that is of interest!
How on earth is my small, black and white, super mutt majority, mixed baby part chow chow? I believe you, and it's definitely my favorite part to tell people, but look at her!
Jokes aside, I really love your product and intend to get one for my other dog in the future!
Chows were a fad breed back in the 80s, when it was also less common to alter pet dogs.
This! Some of those Chows bred with other dogs, and their ancestors still retain small amounts of Chow.
It seems like the highly inbred nature of domesticated dogs would lead to huge issues with linkage disequilibrium on your markers (though I have never tried to do any sort of GWAS analysis on inbred populations). How are you disentangling markers resulting from extreme bottlenecks from markers that are truly predictive of phenotypic variation?
Linkage diequilibrium (LD) does tend to be long within most dog breeds, but it breaks down pretty rapidly in mixed breed dogs (and even moreso in village dogs) which kind of gives us the best of both worlds---the relatively simple within-breed genetics to help find the initial association, and then the much more complex cross-breed genetics to help rapidly narrow down the association interval and hopefully pinpoint a causal mutation.
That makes sense to me, all of the natural crosses could come in very handy given the limited pool they can originate from. Are you guys actually going for causal mutations? That seems extraordinarily difficult. Are you making inferences from polymorphisms within genic regions near a marker or do you just have such extreme resolution that you can spot conserved features in a very small window? Do you tend to find that phenotypic differences in dogs are due to changes in protein-coding regions, cis-regulatory regions, or even something like noncoding RNA?
We do try to identify likely causal mutations whenever possible (e.g. blue eyes, roaning and early-adult onset deafness) although this isn't always feasible (e.g. some of the variants underlying coat intensity). Deafness was due to a coding mutation but most of the others were regulatory variants where the causal mechanism is still poorly understood. Would love it if someone led a doggy ENCODE project!
Hello! We adopted a dog over a year ago that was listed as a German Shepard mix. I prefer muts so I didn't care but we strongly believe he's has at least partially Carolina Dog/American Dingo. My understanding is the Embark test only looks for one specific lineage of dingo. Is there any possibility of expanding the genetic database to be able to accurately indentify our unusual doggo friend?
You are correct that we do test for Dingo ancestry here at Embark, but the population that we are referring to when we return a Dingo result is the wild dog endemic to Australia. American Dingo is something of a misnomer for the Carolina Dog, as these dogs are not closely related to their distant Australian cousins. Lucky for you, we do currently test for Carolina Dogs as a distinct genetic population, but because they are an extremely diverse group, it is rare to see their ancestry show up in mixed-breed dogs. As we continue to grow our reference database of Carolina Dogs, we hope to be able to detect it in mixes more readily, but in the meantime if it is not reported in your dog’s result then it is unlikely to share recent ancestry with that population. -- Aaron
Is this your dream job, and, how awesome is it to do genetics science with dogs?
Is there any downside to being you, doing this thing you are doing? Because, I'm jealous!
For the record, my dream job is doing genetic science with dogs and surfing reddit. So I guess today was sort of a pinnacle for that.
My dream job is playing with dogs, being a public face, and being my older brother's boss. So I'm really living the dream. -Ryan
My dream job as a kid was paleontologist, so not too far off! I get to look at dogs all day, so you should be jealous. That being said, being the envy of everyone else is a bit of a downside. -Caleb
Kudos on one of the more clever company names I've seen.
What was the inspiration behind coming up with "Embark?" You are leaving on a journey of discovery with your dog?
You’re right that Embark works on a couple levels, emphasizing our desire to be a companion through your dog’s life and to partner with our users in the community science model of discovery. And, of course, there’s the bark pun, and this company lives and breathes on puns.
We started our process by asking friends and family for name suggestions. It turns out our family and friends are pretty awful at coming up with names (see their suggestions below), so we kept thinking about it and came up with EmBark. After some heated debate, we changed that to Embark (actually Embark Veterinary, since we knew how important it would be to work closely with veterinarians in order to provide the most benefit to dogs).
39andK9 (note this is actually a 23andMe trademark)
Best Friend Genomic
-Ryan and Adam
How far along is Embark with adding Akbash to the breeds tested? We've tested with another company, but I'm interested in trying Embark, too. Our dog is a known Akbash mix.
Hi! We've only tested a handful of Akbash at Embark, so we have a ways to go before adding the breed to our reference dataset. That being said, if you test your dog with our Breed + Health test it would be tested for all of the health conditions that we currently report. Plus, any registration information you have could help us add to our breed reference dataset! --Caleb
Thanks for the update. We don't have any registration information unfortunately. I'm also interested in things like maternal haplotype, wolfiness, and some of the other details only available from Embark. But I realize those may not be available if a main breed in her history isn't in the reference dataset yet.
Actually, many features of our Breed + Health test could still be informative! Features like mitochondrial haplotype, wolfiness, and COI are not dependent on our breed reference panel. -Caleb
Is there a genetic component to Lupoid onychodystrophy? I have an Australian Cattle Dog and have seen no other people who had their cattle dog lose all their nails like mine.
First off, I’m sorry to hear your pup is afflicted with this condition! I hope you have found a management protocol to keep him/her comfortable; I know it can be frustrating. Lupoid onychodystrophy is thought to be an immune-mediated condition (meaning the immune system goes a bit haywire and attacks the body’s own cells). Because it has breed predilections (it is most commonly seen in Gordon Setters and German Shepherds), there is likely a genetic predisposition as well. We do not yet know which genetic variant(s) leads to susceptibility to lupoid onychodystrophy, though we would love to find out! If your pup has been tested through Embark, I would recommend filling out his/her Annual Health Survey to let us know he/she has been diagnosed with this condition. This information will help our science team make discoveries that could hopefully someday elucidate the genetics behind lupoid onychodystrophy. - Jenna
Will you be conducting more research into the Village Dog mixes or other landraces to hopefully get further genetic details? Is there more in this area that EmbarkDNA is hoping/planning to do in the future?
Learning about landraces and “pre-breed” dogs has been fascinating and I don’t think this area gets nearly enough attention or understanding.
Yes, absolutely! Ryan and I started the Village Dog project 15 years ago because so little was known about their history and genetics. It was thrilling to travel to so many different places and finally gain an understanding about the genetic structure of the majority of the world’s dogs. Starting Embark has also been thrilling as people mailed us dog DNA samples from all sorts of far-flung places of the globe.
Turns out you can collect a lot more dog DNA by having folks sending it to you in the mail than you can by traveling around the world yourself! This has enabled us to identify new populations and get a deeper understanding of the similarities and differences of various dog populations around the globe.
Have the police ever approached you to find, like… dog serial killers?
We’ve had some interest from folks wanting to identify serial poopers (no, sorry, we don’t accept fecal samples for testing), but no calls from CSI yet.
What does it mean when trait/disease markers have different locations depending on which CanFam you reference?
For example: the study you cite for your coat length test says they found FGF5 at Chr32: 7,473,337 and that matches up with the location for CanFam1 and 2. But if you search genome.ucsc.edu for FGF5...
under CanFam3 it's listed as being located at Chr32: 4,509,065-4,528,915
under CanFam4 it's Chr32: 35,474,935-35,494,799
under CanFam5 it's Chr32: 4,572,084-4,591,201
under CanFam6 it's Chr32: 37,352,539-37,372,398
Fun science question! Reference genomes are really just that, references! They can include some errors, gaps, misalignments, etc. Many of the dog reference genomes are based on data from different dogs (and different breeds) so there are some differences across these references that comes from data quality, but also genuine differences in the genomes of the reference dogs used.
So the differences you're observing here are due to the differences across these reference genomes. The really BIG difference between CanFam 1,2,3,5 and CanFam 4,6 is due to the orientation of chromosome 32 being reversed in these two sets of references! -- Aaron
There are many dogs tested with Embark which seem to have different hair-length phenotypes than what their traits imply, like dogs that test as short-coated but have ear fridge/feathers or dogs that test as long-coated but only have a slight amount of fluff compared to dogs with loooong hair. I assume this means there are some undiscovered modifiers at play here. Are there any plans to try to locate these using the data you've been able to gather on so many dogs?
A similar problem pops up with dogs like Border Collies with Irish Spotting that test as SS with "no white". And it would be super cool if the debate over Irish Spotting being an allele variant on that locus vs a separate locus could be solved.
Great question! We are definitely interested in discovering some of these modifiers. There are a few different possible approaches. One is to continue along the path we’re doing with owner-reported survey information to drive these discoveries. This is great for some obvious phenotypes (like blue eyes) but probably not the best for more subtle ones. Another approach is to do breed-specific surveys and rely on relatively background uniformity of the breed and the keen eye of breeders to accurately report these more subtle modifier effects. Finally, there’s also been great advances in machine learning where potentially one could use pattern recognition on the uploaded dog photos to identify associations with the genomic data.
S-locus (MITF) is a complicated locus within a very complicated genomic region. With the new dog reference genomes based on long-read data, I’m hoping we’ll get a clearer picture of what exactly is going on here. I think we’re just scratching the surface at the moment.
What has been the most exciting discovery that Embark has contributed to?
Published? Either early adult onset deafness or the inbreeding results. Both important for health in different ways. -Ryan
Would your test help determine a dogs age? We adopted our dog and there were 3 different certificates with three different years. And the years were not close really 2005, 2007 and 2012.
The age test we developed is usually accurate to within 5 months, so it should be able to narrow down your dog’s birth year pretty well. We have an early access test now and plan to scale it up for more users later this year. If you’re interested and don’t want to wait any longer than necessary, you can join our waitlist here:
Here’s a screenshot of what that page looks like—just enter your email in the field. https://imgur.com/a/VmfQW7E
We are in the process of rolling out a new age test based on epigenetic markers! You can find out more and sign up for the wait list here https://shop.embarkvet.com/products/dog-age-test. Note to sign up for the wait list you enter your email address below where it says sold out and then click "Notify me when available."
Thank you! This will make my wife very happy. She asks me at least once a week how old I think Charlie is. He is very spry but will also fall asleep while sitting up.
That's how my wife describes me as well, so I feel like Charlie's soul brother. -Ryan
Are you related to Embark Trucks, the self-driving truck company?
We are not, though we announced our seed round funding the same day they did... 😅
How much genetic material or sources of DNA are used as reference for any mutations you may find?
I'm not sure exactly what your question is driving at, but our breed reference panel is consistently being updated and growing; the version that's coming out soon will have around 25,000 dogs in it. These dogs come from a variety of sources from my travel around the globe collecting village dog DNA to breeders with established pedigrees. For health mutation testing, we get reference samples from other researchers and breed clubs primarily.
Hi there! We are the owners of a 14 month old rescue. We'd love to get him DNA tested, partly out of curiousity, but also to know about any potential breed-related health concerns. We actually did pay for a "DNA test" through one of your cheaper competitors (our mistake), which turned out to be a complete scam that identified our medium-large black, double-coated dog as an Akita/Shar-Pei mix.
After that experience, we've been hesitant to spend more on this, for fear of getting scammed again, so my question is, really, how does your testing work? Is it actually based on genetic markers, rather than what felt like guesswork? What are you comparing it against?
Sorry to hear about your experience. Our test is not guesswork, although as with anything in science it's not "this is the God-given truth" but "this is the best we can say based on all our knowledge." We compare your dog's genetics to ~25,000 known dogs at each location in their genome and add up the "chunks" of ancestry to a whole. In general, we are very highly accurate.
I did embark on my dog late 2019 to hopefully find a cause for her seizures because vets can't tell me anything. Found out instead she carries both copies of a varient y'all test for for Degenerative Myelopathy. I mentioned it to the vet and he brushed it off because she wasn't showing signs there in the office and he assumed when I said she sometimes drags her back feet it wasn't because of that but because we went for 8-10 mile walks. Within two years she was in a wheelchair. And he's like "welp 🤷🏻♂️"
So my question is IS IT POSSIBLE to identify seizure disorders via DNA testing?
First off, I’m sorry to hear your pup developed symptoms of degenerative myelopathy. I know this condition can be very difficult to manage, and know that all of us at Embark are thinking of you!
To answer your question, seizures are actually a symptom of disease rather than a disease process themselves. There are intracranial (coming from within the brain) and extracranial (coming from somewhere outside the brain) causes for seizures. Intracranial causes include things like idiopathic epilepsy, inflammatory brain diseases, or brain tumors (among others). Extracranial causes include things like hypoglycemia (low blood sugar), overheating, or ingested toxins (as well as many more). Embark is able to test for seizure disorders with a known causative genetic variant. These include diseases such as Alaskan Husky Encephalopathy, Spinocerebellar Ataxia with Myokymia and/or Seizures, and Juvenile Myoclonic Epilepsy. For a complete list of all our tests, please visit this page. We hope to make more discoveries and elucidate the genetics behind more seizure disorders in the future! - Jenna
Does Embark test for genetic likelihood of Intrahepatic Portosystemic Liver Shunts? We did the breed test on our lab mix and loved it! Unfortunately he has this liver shunt, (treated now!) and I was curious is maybe we could’ve caught this before his symptoms started getting noticeable!
Thanks, and love y’all’s service!
I’m sorry to hear about your dog’s diagnosis, u/TheUSARMY45. At this time, we are not offering a test for portosystemic shunts. The inheritance of this condition is poorly-understood at this time, and there may be multiple causative variants which we have not yet elucidated.
Because your pup has been tested through Embark, I encourage you to fill out the Annual Health Survey located in the Research section of your dog’s profile. Veterinary reports can also be uploaded to the Documents section on the dog’s homepage. This information will greatly aid us as we continue our research.
I hope your pup is doing well following his diagnosis! - Jenna
What are your opinions on raising a dog as a college student that may not have the free time to care for the dog properly? What breeds would you recommend college students?
If a potential dog owner does not currently have time to properly care for a dog, they should hold off on welcoming a pup into their home until they are more equipped to do so. That said, everyone is an individual and some college students make excellent dog owners (but please do not sneak a dog into the dorm!)! General characteristics I would recommend when selecting a breed or a dog from a shelter include low exercise requirements (in case the pup doesn’t get a walk on long study days), generally quiet (so apartment neighbors are not disturbed), small size (at it is generally easier to rent with a smaller dog), and low-maintenance coat. With any new pet, purchasing pet insurance is a great idea before any problems pop up so no unexpected expenses occur! - Jenna
I adopted a dog 4 years ago who is deaf and was told that it was a genetic thing because he is also all white. How are the whiteness and deafness related to each other based on the DNA?
Pigment-associated deafness in dogs is related to coat color patterns, typically either merle or piebald color patterns. Dogs with this type of hearing loss are born normal but usually have already become deaf while the ear canals are still closed early in life. This is due to degeneration of part of the blood supply to the inner portion of the ear (the stria vascularis of the cochlea). The nerve cells which normally conduct auditory responses are not able to survive without blood flow, so permanent deafness results. We don’t know for sure why the degeneration of these blood vessels occurs, but it is likely due to the absence of pigment-producing cells (melanocytes) in the inner ear. We don’t yet know all the functions of melanocytes, but we do know they are critical for normal function of the inner ear. Deaf dogs can certainly lead fulfilling lives, and your pup is lucky to have found such a great home with you! - Jenna
What is your personal favorite breed of dog?
Can you please tell me more about your research behind the new Dog Age Test? Can I read more about your specific research study somewhere?
Research on epigenetics and aging has been ongoing for decades, and researchers have been able to use DNA methylation for estimating age in the past 10 years. There are published papers showing this works in dogs, humans, and all sorts of mammals. We developed our own methylation-based algorithm using dogs who have already been Embarked, including that from customers and our very own pets! We’ve tested over 1000 dogs from a wide range of ages, breeds, and sizes, so we’re confident that we’re able to tell you your dog’s age with 98% accuracy. --Adam
Would you ever consider offering occasional free or heavily discounted services to dog rescues? Occasionally we have dogs come into our care that would benefit greatly in having background information on their breed to help us place them in the right home. I’m guessing there are many other rescues who could benefit from this type of thing as well.
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