For years, I asked my husband almost daily, “Can we get a dog?”
“Not today,” he’d reply, sometimes handing me back the Bay Woof proof with the heart around the cute pup awaiting adoption that I wanted to add to our family. “Ask me again tomorrow.”
And I would, over and over, usually with the same answer. Until. A farrier friend whose dog we adored was looking for a new home for his dog’s sister. Steve, my husband, said OK, if the dog got along with the cats. But then the grown-up MacCallum cattle dog upgraded, landing at a ranch home, and not ours.
Two weeks later, a couple pulled into the parking lot of the Anthony Chabot Equestrian Center in Oakland. They had captured a scared wee female dog who was cowering into a tiny circle in the depth of their back floorboard. They wondered whether some kind-hearted horse-loving person would take her. Horse friends who have rescued everything from guinea pigs to rats stepped forward and gently removed the dog.
Tail tucked so firmly between her legs that she appeared tail-less, the youngster quaked with fright. I immediately petted her, curled up with her on the ground, and was on the phone to my husband a few short minutes later.
While I had lobbied for purebreds, the husband is a mutt guy. I described this one: 30ish pounds, maybe Kelpie and border collie, very cute. He said OK! But he made me promise to make sure she didn’t belong to someone.
We agreed to use social media and good old-fashioned flyers to announce the found dog. At the barn, we couldn’t agree just what she was. She appeared an odd mix: slighting bulging eyes like a Chihuahua; a coat the color of a German shepherd’s; and a mask, like a husky. When she walked, she crouched and slunk the way a coyote moved. Her teats were a little pronounced, making us wonder whether she had delivered puppies recently.
As I tried bonding with the petite lass, another stranger appeared with a second stray dog, a black-and-cream-colored female slightly smaller that the first. The two dogs seemed to know each other, licking each other excitedly in the face. But when a dog owned by a barn boarder got too close, the second dog reacted aggressively and the stranger moved on with the dog.
I stayed focused on the fraidy dog and I asked everyone who would be describing her to avoid any reference to her possible German shepherdness, simply because my husband had bad memories of that breed from his childhood.
On the way home, the pup, riddled by nerves, puked. Once out of the car and at our house, she was unsure how to climb the 40 stairs to our apartment. On a leash, she zigged and zagged as if totally unfamiliar with the concept. She had no appetite. She was petrified.
Rather than canceling our dinner plans, we went out but we put the dog in a large crate, complete with water, food, toys, and a comfy bed. I covered the wire kennel with a blanket, thinking the cave-like effect would be soothing. We cut our dinner short, and about two hours later when we got home, the poor thing had pulled the blanket into the crate, shredded the bedding, and pooped and peed in the corner. She cried when left alone that night, so I slept on the living room floor aside her.
By the morning, July 24, 2018, we had her name: Wiley. We decided on Wiley because of her coyote resemblance, to celebrate her obvious survival wiles, and to recall the most famous coyote of all, Wile E. Coyote of Road Runner fame.
Steve, who was working at home, became Wiley’s primary caregiver. She got potty training down quickly with frequent breaks. She began to eat regularly and eagerly and caught on to the leash. At home, Wiley was tethered on long leads to Steve’s desk leg or the coffee table leg. Wiley gnawed through lots of nylon leashes, until Steve used cable and chain. She learned to de-squeak a plush toy faster than you could say jackrabbit. She ate in her kennel, napped there, and learned to calm herself in it with stuffed Kongs and other toys. The bedding shredding stopped, and she graduated to free ranging, with dog beds in our bedroom and the living room. Her confidence grew and her leash manners improved, along with her understanding of basic commands: sit, down, stay, come, and “no.”
Once Wiley was inoculated, microchipped, spayed, and had recovered from kennel cough, we took her further out into the neighborhood and to explore the Bay Area. And people began to notice her.
“What is she?” people would ask on the trail or at the dog park.
Once, a woman driving down the busy Oakland street of Broadway saw Wiley on a walk on the lawn of Oakland Technical High School. She stopped in the middle of the street, rolled down her window, and inquired about Wiley’s breed. Another time, a man on a bike passed by, circled the block, and came back to ask about Wiley’s lineage. Still another time, a woman who encountered Wiley on a dog walk insisted that Wiley had to be an Alaskan Klee Kai like her daughter had. At Point Isabel, we gravitated toward dogs that looked like Wiley to try to decipher her breed from talking to such dogs’ owners. We considered Shiba Inu, smooth-coat collie, spitz, and, of course, coyote.
Within a few months, not knowing her breed mix really nagged us. We — especially me, whose previous dogs were definitely a golden retriever and a smooth-coat collie — wanted to be able to answer the inquiries with authority. So I decided to turn to dog DNA analysis.
Three companies — Embark, Orivet, and Wisdom Panel — sent kits to me as editor of Bay Woof for comparison purposes. There are many more DNA testing services available; these were ones whose representatives were willing to provide Bay Woof with their services for promotional purposes.
All three are similar in that the human collects a simple DNA sample with a brush or swab from their dog’s mouth, returns the sample in prepaid packaging, and creates an online account that activates the service. The results come in a couple of week, usually by email notification, and can give you a good idea about breed genetics and health issues to watch for.
I liked all three for different reasons, Embark seems the slickest and has the fanciest interactive website, Orivet seems the most technical with oodles of helpful suppositions provided, and Wisdom Panel seems to fall somewhere between the two with a healthy mix of both. Surprising to me was how similar the results were, which convinced us that all three are reputable.
Embark is affiliated with the Cornell University of Veterinary Medicine and its massive research capabilities and considers breed IDs and ancestry, addresses risks for 160-plus diseases, and claims to test 20 percent more of your dog’s genes than other dog DNA tests. Embark offers feedback on nutrition, exercise, and allergies; gives participants the option of participating in clinical studies and dental studies; and presents surveys on behavior and other issues. It also flags or clears your dog on conditions and diseases, allowing you to download an extensive complete report — or send it to your own veterinarian. It has a unique “DNA Relative Finder” page of other Embark dogs.
Orivet has a profile of your pet that lists parent one and parent two, which is different from the other two companies’ approaches and quiet interesting. It also offers questionnaires that get at lifestyle and health issues, and customers can print out a semi-official looking breed makeup genetic analysis certificate that reveals your dog’s specifics. Orivet uses an algorithm to assess health risks, provides advice on feeding and care based on a survey, and it can suggest beneficial screenings or routine health care updates as well as help pet owners remember important dates.
Wisdom Panel employs bold graphics and eye-catching photography to share breed characteristics and includes a likely family tree of parents, grandparents, and great grandparents — a fascinating exercies. It tests dogs for more than 150 disease-causing mutations by intuitive categories (blood, heart, immune system, for instance) and discusses health traits in simple and easy-to-understand terms. Pet owners can print out a certificate that is a “statement of authenticity” of your dog’s genetic background. Of the three, Orivet seemed the most straightforward but perhaps lacked the glitz or glam of the others.
So what is Wiley? Embark found that she is 53.0 percent Siberian husky, 17.6 Alaskan Malamute, 13.8 percent American Staffordshire terrier, 11.1 percent miniature Pinscher, and 4.5 percent German shepherd. Orivet reported that she is 37.5 percent Siberian husky, 25 percent Alaskan malamute, 12.5 percent miniature Pinscher, 12.5 percent American Staffordshire terrier, and 12.5 percent mixed breed. Wisdom Panel said she is 37.5 percent Siberian husky, 25 percent Alaskan Malamute, 12.5 percent American Staffordshire terrier, 12.5 percent miniature Pinscher, and 12.5 percent breed groups (hound, terrier, and wild canids, such as wolf or coyote). That last factoid — coyote — is the one that my husband latched on to.
By early spring, Embark notified me that Wiley shared DNA with another dog in its database, Kaylee, and described the relationship as “immediate family” as in full siblings or parents and children. I was able to see photos of Kaylee and initiated contact through Embark with her owners, Ryan and Kristen Vallieu of Los Altos Hills.
The couple, bonafide dog whisperers and savvy dog trainers, adopted their dog, also female, in Oakland from Oakland Animal Services in August 2018, about the same time Wiley had turned up on Skyline Boulevard. Embark said they shared 52 percent DNA. We guessed they were mother and daughter, but once we talked via text message and on the phone, we determined the dogs were about the same age and so concluded they are sisters.
By all accounts, the dogs seemed total opposites. Whereas Wiley is shy, cautious, and unsure of herself, Kaylee is bold, confident, and fully in charge of every situation. Wiley would rather bolt for home from the car; Kaylee would be more apt to go walk-about if a front door or gate were left open. We think Wiley kept the den warm while Kaylee scrounged food for them. Both are athletic, smart, loving, and beautiful dogs.
By Mother’s Day weekend, we had a play date arranged at Seal Point Harbor Dog Park in San Mateo, and the girls immediately took to each other. Since then, we’ve had several get-togethers for our girls, including fun puppy beach outings, and we’ve become friends who feel fortunate to have connected our dogs and ourselves.
Not long after our first meet-up, Embark asked us to share our reunion experiences on its website blog, which we happily did, enthusing over how our dogs looked alike, got along so well, and were like yin to the other’s yang. My friend who initially got Wiley out of that backseat recognized Kaylee as the second stray dog from that late July day when we adopted Wiley.
Once the story of our girls’ reunion was out there, a reporter for The Wall Street Journal who was working on a piece about people using DNA services for their dogs heard about our tale and wanted to interview us. The reporter, Ellen Byron, said she had encountered others who had found dog relatives through DNA, but at the time of her research, none had reunited their dogs because of long distances between families or other circumstances. We were thrilled to participate. We even got a request from a local TV station for interviews, but held off, agreeing not to scoop The Journal.
On July 8, 2019, Kaylee and Wiley were in the storied nationwide newspaper in an article that began on Page A1 (“Family Reunions Go To The Dogs / DNA tests help find Fido’s long-lost relatives”) and jumped to Page A10. The continuation of the article surrounded a famed (and coveted) stipple portraits of the two sisters. I bought out DeLauer’s newsstand of its copies — all four — and sent one to the Vallieus. Both are adept at photography and video, so they have shared many photos since, and Ryan Vallieu’s video of the beach-romping girls appeared on The Journal’s website where images of other dogs who shared DNA were posted. I have photos of Kaylee in her Halloween costume, balancing on a fire hydrant, and doing other amazing and silly tricks.
Steve and I share an office again in the Jack London Square warehouse district, so Wiley — who also just happened to appear on the cover of our sister publication, the East Bay Express, on July 31 for “Best of the East Bay: Splurges and Steals” (Wiley got “Best Canine Bling, Cheapest Way to Spay”) — has become an office dog and is snoozing on a comfy bed behind me.
Meanwhile, Kaylee has earned her Novice, Expert,and Advanced Trick Dog certificates from Do More With Your Dog, a lifestyle training program founded by Kyra Sundance that teaches people how to incorporate dogs into more areas of their lives. Kristen Vallieu’s parents in Maryland have a framed picture of Wiley and Kaylee in their house. “She’s their grandpuppy,” Kristen Vallieu said. And that is the tale of the sisters.
Ed Note: This article has been modified online to include additional information about Kaylee’s amazing accomplishments..
Top: Sisters Kaylee, left, and Wiley, right, at Seal Point Harbor Dog Park in San Mateo at their first meetup. They were reunited through DNA.
Below: Photo of sisters Wiley, left, and Kaylee by Kristen Vallieu. The sisters, here on a July 4 outing, have become fast friends.
Screen shots of Wiley’s DNA results.
Main article photo by: Kristen Vallieu