Oh, Lilly. I’d like to scratch your mutt ears and pet your mixed-breed head, because although you’re a mongrel, it’s easy to guess the biggest portion of your heritage. Golden retriever? Of course.
But Lucy — well, you’re a dog with a spotty inheritance. What exactly? I certainly can’t guess. Maybe someone else can. Good luck.
Both dogs were part of the MuttMix Project Survey, a scientific quiz conducted by Darwin’s Dogs, a program run out of the Broad Institute in Cambridge, Mass., and the International Association of Animal Behavior Consultants.
The researchers set up an online survey with pictures and video of 31 mutts, and participants were asked to guess the top three purebred strains comprising each one. The scientists waited two months to release the results.
Recently every participant got an email telling them how poorly they did. Pretty much everyone did poorly.
I was a participant, and I went into the project brimming with excitement. I finished burdened with a bit more humility than seemed entirely necessary.
I knew I wasn’t going to have a stellar record, and I was right. My score was well below average.
I wasn’t completely off the mark. Even I could tell that Lilly has a lot of golden retriever in her. So could a whopping 96 percent of the respondents on more than 10,000 completed surveys. But she also had some chowchow, which I did not guess.
Lucy, on the other hand, was close to impossible to parse genetically. For my three allotted guesses, I picked Siberian husky, German shepherd and “Huh?” This dog, said Kathleen Morrill, a graduate student who did the analysis, is “seriously mixed up.” Genetically, that is.
I’d like to emphasize that this was a really hard survey, like a test in high school French for which you have to know the subjunctive. I happen to know that you can wander around France and make yourself understood and catch at least a quarter of what people are saying with absolutely no use of the subjunctive.
And that was pretty much the average accuracy of people participating in the survey: 25 percent. Self-identified dog professionals did a bit better, barely. Their accuracy was 28 percent.
The survey is part of the Broad Institute’s studies of the genetics of dogs and the attitudes of people toward them. Researchers hope the results will help them better understand how “people evaluate and perceive mixed-breed dogs.”
So far, the results show that we certainly don’t perceive their heritage very well.
Their makeup offers a reminder that the breeds prevalent in today’s mutts may reflect the former popularity of certain purebreds. Chowchow, for instance, was the most common dominant breed. Calvin Coolidge had a chowchow. And it may be that there are chowchow genes in other breeds.
But you don’t see chowchows in the same number that you see Labrador retrievers.
Other breeds common in mutts were German shepherds, labs and golden retrievers, as well as American Staffordshire terriers, which are essentially pit bulls.
(The findings are now being reanalyzed, because in the first pass pit bull guesses were judged wrong. In reality, if the subject mutt had any American Staffordshire terrier in its background, then pit bull should have been judged a correct answer.)
Among the best guessers in the survey was an amateur who got all three breeds right for four dogs. Nobody had more triples.
But it was a professional who achieved the greatest accuracy: 41.9 percent. Not guessing a third breed, which I and other survey responders often did, was an indication that we could not bear just throwing in Labrador retriever again and again out of desperation.
My accuracy was 18.3 percent. I got at least one breed right for 13 dogs, and two breeds for two dogs. My greatest success was Sophie. I guessed two of her three breeds. Poodle and Havanese.
And my worst? Well, I was skunked time after time, but one in particular stings. Bella, Bella, Bella — you’re a chowchow? And only 6 percent Border collie? How could you do that to me?
The survey, by the way, is back online. Same site, new name: Pup Quiz. Now that the first round of scientific results have been gathered, the researchers are not holding off on releasing results.
Participants can achieve immediate humiliation or, for the rare few who know what they are looking at, gratification.