Do you know why your dog moves the way they do? A lot of how our dogs move and function is dependant on their conformation and structure. While we may think otherwise, no dog is perfect! As our dog's training partners, we want to know their strengths and weakness so that we can condition, train, and compete with them appropriately. Awareness of structural issues means that we can both condition effectively, improve performance, and work towards reducing the risk of injury
In this week's blog, I'll help you evaluate your dog's structure to identify their areas of strength and weakness which can help direct your future home conditioning program. Knowing the areas of your dog's structure that can benefit from targeted conditioning workouts will also help you in understanding what aspects of your sport could increase their chance of injury. For example, a dog with a straight front may be at an increase risk of a shoulder injury due to their reduced ability for shock absorption - making sports like agility and flyball a higher risk activity.
Why is Conformation Important?
When discussing conformation of our dogs we are generally referring to the structure and overall appearance of the dog. As a species, canines have evolved to encompass a wide variety of shapes, sizes, and colour with specific traits to make them adaptable to climates and work. Regardless of what each dog looks like, a good conformation should mean you have a healthy dog able to walk, breath, hear, and see without discomfort. When we talk about angulation we're simply referring to how the bones meet each other and the size of the angles at certain joints. When we consider the mechanics of dogs movement, the way in which the bones articulate will dictate how much reach, balance, and stability our dogs will have when they move.
Front End Conformation
The front limbs bear a lot of our dog’s body weight when standing – around 60-65%! The front limbs don’t just carry the body weight. They are also responsible for absorbing shock when decelerating before coming to a stop or when coming down a hill and landing after a jump. Consider the sport of agility and the amount of stress we put onto this area of the body with slalom weaving, 2 on 2 off contacts, turning out of tunnels and repetitive jumping. In sports, our dog's engage their front ends a lot!! Unlike humans, our dogs do not have a collar bone which helps to provide support for the shoulder girdle. In dogs, their shoulder assembly is only attached by muscles, tendons and ligaments making it more susceptible to overload with repetitive activities. It’s critical to keep these muscles strong to minimize excessive load through the joints (shoulder, elbow, carpus) and to provide much needed support to neighbouring tissues. A strong front end is vital to our sport dogs and by increasing their front end strength, you can assist in improving their sport performance and reduce their risk of injury!
Remember, that dogs have evolved over hundreds of years to perform specific tasks and roles and as such their structure has been developed to perform certain activities. A greyhound bred to run is likely to have a straighter front and well angulated hind legs over some other breeds. Their build and structure allow them to have a larger strider with more speed, but in turn, they have a harder time with sharp turns. When examining the structure of our dogs it's important to be aware of some key landmarks.
Evaluating Front Assembly
The key to evaluating the structure of your dog is to first get a great photo of your dog in stacked position. This will drastically help your line drawing for evaluation!! You want your dog standing with their front/hind feet even (not staggered), front feet underneath shoulders and their hocks perpendicular to the ground. A poorly positioned leg can distort your perception and throw off your drawn lines. Make sure to take multiple photos so you can choose the best shot for the exercise. It may also be worthwhile to enlist the help of a friend or family member when taking the photo to increase your odds of a successful photoshoot! Make sure when taking the photo that your dog is standing on a flat surface, with good lighting, and that the photo is taken straight from the side as deviation will distort the angles. Once you have a photo that is suitable for the structure evaluation make sure to label your landmarks as this will help you when drawing your lines.
There are several different ways to evaluate the front end assembly of your dog.
The first method is to measure the shoulder angle. Draw a vertical line through the point of the shoulder and then add another line from the point of shoulder to highest point on the scapula – usually off the spine. Then measure the angle it has created! Ideally, we want something within the 30 degree range. The more open the shoulder joint is the straighter the front. This can be caused by either an upright scapular (shoulder blade) or by a shorter humerus (upper arm) or a combination of the two.
The second method is to measure the humerus (upper arm) length. The humerus is a correct length if the distance from the top of the shoulder blade (1) to the point of the shoulder (2) is equal to the distance from the point of the shoulder to the point of the elbow (3). The humerus should be long enough to place the lower leg well back from the shoulder joint, producing greater angulation at the elbow and shoulder. When you contrast the two photos below, you can see the Pharaoh hound (right) has a shorter humerus length (point B to C) than the border collie (left).
Draw a perpendicular line to the ground up through the centre of radius and ulna. If the top of your line intersects with the dog’s topline at the area of the shoulder, as in the dog on the left, then the dog has the correct length of humerus. If however, the line meets the neck or intersects even farther up the neck near the ears, as the dog on the right, the dog has a shorter humerus. The further forward the line is the shorter the humerus
Signs of a straight shoulder
Advantages of a good shoulder lay back
The disadvantage of a straight shoulder
Dogs with a straight shoulder will have
Hind End Conformation
The hind end of your dog is the propulsion mechanism of their bodies. When jumping, your dog uses their rear to push off and any weakness in this part of the body can greatly affect their sport performance. For the hind limbs, difference in conformation will affect rear angulation angles. To evaluate the hind end you're going to first landmark A) the lower end of the of pelvis (called the ischial tuberosity) and B) the hock that has been placed perpendicular to the ground. You will then draw two seperate lines. One from Point A all the way down to the ground in a straight line and then a line from Point B all the way up. You should then have two lines running parallel to each other. The distance between the A and B will dictate how much angulation your dog has. The greater the distance between the two lines the more angulation in the hind end. The closer the two lines are the less angulation.
When comparing the two dogs below, you can see they have very different hind angulation, both which are excellent for their breed standard. Different breeds will have different structural standards, and that's okay! Even though the Border Collie has less angulation than the Doberman, it is still correct angulation for his breed.
It's important when doing this exercise that we recognized that breed standards will play a huge part in determining our dog's structure!
A greater angulation can also be associated with a longer tibia length which can lead to a straighter stifle (knee). This can hinder jumping ability and predispose the dog to possible ligament tears (e.g. cranial crucial ligament). For some breeds, major changes to the rear angulation have occurred to achieve a sweeping rear. While visually, this look may be pleasing to the eye, the functionally of the dog may be in question. Excessive rear angulation can lead to a high incidence of hip dysplasia and lumbosacral disease.
Advantages of increased angulation in the rear
Disadvantages of increased angulation in the rear
To sum up...
Just because your dog has different angles from the ideal sport structure that does NOT mean your dog is poorly structured. Great sporting dogs come in all shapes and sizes! Remember that many dogs hail from breeds that have been developed for very specific jobs. Ideally, we want balance between the front and hind end as this results in better coordinated movement, better sport performance, and a decreased chance of injury. If our dogs are not balanced it’s not the end of the world! While structure is predominately genetic, we can still do things to help and alter their structure! When muscles are weak, bones will stack on top of one another giving an appearance of a straighter font/hind end. Think of our older dogs who begin to lose muscle in their hind ends – we begin to notice that they lose their angles! As their training partners if we can increase their muscle mass and strengthen areas of weakness, we may begin to notice increased angulation! It’s important to know your dog’s body as well as their strengths and weaknesses so that we can train and compete appropriately to avoid injury and increase longevity in our sports. After all, our goal should be to enjoy the things our dog loves to do with us for as long as possible. Give line drawing a try on pictures of your dogs and let me know how it goes!
Davies, Lowri. "Care of the Canine Athlete: A Complete Guide to Sport Dog Fitness." First Stone Publishing (2018)
King, Helen Grinnell. "What's you Angle? Understanding Angulation and Structure for the Performance Dog." CreateSpace (2012)