Canine Anatomy 101
Posted on 10/11/2013 in Ringside Conversations.
There should be no doubt in anyone’s mind who reads this column how important I feel education is in the field of purebred dogs. It is impossible to succeed in any and all levels of breeding and showing without taking advantage of what has been researched and revealed over the years.
Yet it is also important to remember that each and every purebred dog is in the end, a dog. The basic rules of anatomy and kinesiology apply to all our breeds. The way bones and muscles interact may well be different in different breeds, but we must not forget all the breeds have the same bones and muscles.
We all learned this in the beginning, but sophisticated methods of seeing what the naked eye cannot see inclines many to forget that while the bones and their relationship may well look different, the total package is governed by the same rules. There is nothing that will remind you of this more quickly than spending some time having a good conversation with an intelligent novice.
I don’t think we intentionally ignore the novice, and I prefer not to think of it as arrogance because I guess I’m as guilty as anyone. I would prefer to believe that it’s the old saw of water seeking its own level; that we are most apt to spend our time with those who have seen as much and know as much (or as little?) as we do, and find that most comfortable. When you stop to think about it, when is the last time you stopped and talked to someone who is a novice to all of this? I mean really talk; ask how they’re doing, how they’re enjoying themselves or if they find anything perplexing.
If you’re anything like me, if it’s happened at all it hasn’t been very often, not nearly as often as it probably should. And quite frankly, I think what we would take away from conversations with beginners would prove as fruitful for ourselves as it would for the person seeking the knowledge.
Such was what I found myself involved in just the other day at a show where I was sitting at ringside watching a breed I am fond of being judged. A good friend was sitting on my right and someone I didn’t know on my left.
After watching a bit I remarked (quietly, I thought) that the dogs in the breed we were watching were certainly uniform, if not in quality, certainly in their faults. There wasn’t a dog in the ring that had a decent front, all poker straight, and this was a working breed, working in the sense it was a breed created to perform a given task.
The person sitting to my left leaned over and said, “I hope you don’t mind me intruding but I’ve just started in this breed and I’ve heard other people make the same remark you just did, about fronts that is, and I don’t think I understand what they’re talking about.”
I assured her I didn’t mind at all and asked her just what it was that she wasn’t clear on. “Well,” she went on, “I hear people say a dog is straight as a stick in front, and that seems to be a criticism. Other times, someone will say the dog has a beautiful straight front. Obviously this is a compliment. And then it seems that a “Terrier front” can be both good and bad. I want to be breeding for the right thing but I am not at all sure what the right thing is anymore.”
The ringsider’s question really made me stop and think. Quite frankly, he hit upon two universal problems we deal with in the dog game today. It is amazing how few people have bothered with that first important step in breeding, judging or just showing dogs. It’s “Purebred Dogs 101 - Basic Canine Anatomy.”
The questions also cast the light on just how ambiguous common dog terminology can be. What seems perfectly clear to some of us may well be an unfathomable mystery to others. Particularly so when everything we talk about has two or three different names and several different meanings (Just begin with “bitch” and go on from there!).
Perhaps our newer dog fanciers’ reading habits have a bit to do with it. My fellow contemporaries and I pretty much all cut our teeth on McDowell Lyon’s The Dog in Action, Burns and Fraser’s Genetics of the Dog and Rachel Page Elliott’s Dogsteps. Today I think we are more apt to find copies of How to Win 100 Bests in Show on the bookshelves of a good many of today’s novices. Perhaps I’m way off base, but I’m inclined to believe that’s starting at the wrong end. Few journeys I know of begin at the destination.
I guess that wouldn’t be here or there except for the fact that there are probably more litters born in the homes of the our new people than there are in homes of people we will politely refer to as “veterans” of the dog game. Our new people shape the dog breeds of tomorrow.
Back to our ringside conversation and the questions on fronts, my friend and I did our best to give the person asking a quick primer on fronts, and I told him not to feel alone in his confusion in this area in that I find fronts to be the least understood and most underestimated portion of a dog’s anatomy here in North America.
The whole thing got me thinking. Judging by the manner in which some breeders have neglected fronts so that they can achieve some other characteristic makes it obvious they have no idea how important front construction is to overall correct conformation and proper movement.
I am neither an engineer nor an anatomist. Most of what I know about anatomy I learned from laymen and in laymen’s terms. I consider myself quite fortunate to have received my education in dogs from what was probably the last wave of the great dog men and women of the old school. Things were much simpler then. We had fewer technicians, but there were more people who just simply knew dogs. A dog was either a good one or it was not, and their judgment had little to do with much else.
Then, as now, there were certain basics that had to be understood before one could ever hope to breed or recognize a well-made animal. This knowledge is also important so that we can all have a common point of reference from which to proceed.
Every breed of dog, whether it is a Bulldog, Fox Terrier or Great Dane, has two bones in its forehand assembly, the size, shape and angulation of which determine not only how the dog looks but also how it moves. These two bones are the shoulder blade (scapula) and the upper arm (humerus).
Let’s take a look at the shoulder first. Most (but not all) breeds are in need of what we refer to as either “well laid back” or “well angulated” shoulders. The degree to which the shoulders are angulated depends upon the breed’s purpose and function, but even at that, the variance is not great.
A well laid back shoulder that is attached to an upper arm of similar length permits a breed to move with easy, ground-covering reach. It is usually matched by a fairly well angulated rear quarter. This is typically found in our Gun Dogs. I’ve always thought the Gun Dog breeds were an ideal place to begin studying dogs in that the other breeds or groups seem simply more than or less than these dogs who work in the field.
At any rate, dogs that aren’t required to traverse the woodlands all day long, or whose duty revolves around hauling, really don’t need as much angulation. Only where a breed is required to have short, stilted movement would upright shoulders be desirable. A perfect example of this restricted gait can be seen in the properly moving Chow Chow.
One can only assume that if a breed standard calls for movement as far removed from the norm as the Chow Chow’s, it is a critical point and should receive great consideration from the breeder, exhibitor and judge. As important as short, stilted movement is to a breed like the Chow Chow, so should we demand most other breeds to get about easily and naturally with a minimum of effort and little strain. For the purpose of this article, we will confine ourselves primarily to the breeds in which ease of movement is both a natural entitlement and a requirement of the respective breed standard.
Degree of Shoulder Angulation
So then, how does the layman go about determining the degree of shoulder angulation? It can easily be determined by putting the thumb and index fingers of the right hand at the uppermost points of the shoulder blades and the same fingers of the left hand at the point of shoulder (where the shoulder blade joins the upper arm). The imaginary line that runs down the center of the blade between these two points, and how it deviates from the vertical, determines the degree of angulation. If you extend that line to the ground in front of the dog, it will, in most cases, mark the extent of the forward reach of that dog. We will look at how this forward reach can be restricted as we go along in forthcoming issues.
Anatomical perfection for a ground-covering dog would have the shoulder blade slope back from the vertical at a forty-five degree angle to allow maximum reach. Please note that I say “anatomical perfection” would have this be so. Nature, however, is not so compliant, and if you speak to most judges and experienced breeders, they will tell you one seldom, if ever, encounters true forty-five degree shoulder layback.
Please, because this degree of angulation is so seldom achieved, don’t misconstrue the fact to mean we should scrap the whole idea. Failing to reach the North Pole on our early explorers’ first try didn’t eliminate the North Pole!
Perhaps all this yapping about how seldom you find the ideal shoulder angulation is responsible for so many exhibitors treating it with utter disregard. Something has set us off in the wrong direction and we have need to get back on track.
The result of being negligent in our demands for ideal shoulder angulation is not confined to movement alone. Upright shoulders make the neck shorter than it should be, and the back longer, thus destroying the dog’s correct balance. These badly articulated shoulders are often connected to short upper arms, which are also poorly angulated thus moving the entire front end assembly too far forward on the ribcage. This results in a lack of forechest and a nearly straight line from throat to feet.
This construction is frequently accompanied by a hollowed out cavity in the chest area between the legs. Construction of this nature indicates lack of endurance due to restricted heart and lung room.
The correct front for most of the long-legged Terriers, much to the surprise of many Terrier breeders themselves, also requires a long, sloping shoulder blade. A straight front line is actually created by a short, nearly upright humerus (upper arm), not by upright shoulders! Next month’s issue will picture breeds with these variations and how movement is affected.