Fred Lanting, AKC & International All-Breeds, Sieger/Schutzhund Judge
AKC and International Schutzhund judge makes breed type, conformation and athletic ability come alive in canine movement analysis for judges and breeders.
Most dog people, seeing the title of this treatise, will say, “Oh, that doesn’t pertain to me; I already understand dog movement.” If that is your initial reaction, then I ask you to read the following with the idea that you might find something in it that will help you explain it to the next guy at ringside, who obviously doesn’t know, since he disagreed with you over the dog that was just put up in the show ring.
If you admit that there might be something you both could benefit from, either in self-education or as an aid to explaining gait and structure to the less-aware, read on.
First, a word about where I’m coming from. I am a scientist, trained to be analytical, critical, and demanding in the search for truth. That extends to in-depth study of cynology (scientific approach to the study of dogs). I've had pooches since 1937 and experience in veterinary medicine, psychology, performance training (including racing hounds and police K9 work). For years I pro-handled all breeds on weekends in the USA and Canada. I have lectured and judged in over 30 countries. These activities, plus many years as a teacher in high schools and college, impelled me to be sure of my facts before imparting them to others.
The above is the reason my gait and structure symposium is called “The Analytical Approach to Evaluating Dogs.” I strive to teach not only how to evaluate dogs, but also how to explain those choices to the listener. This article is offered to people of varying experience, so you can speed-read through those parts that seem too elementary for you, although I think even the pro will get something out of reviewing them.
I think you will agree that there are three supremely important aspects to consider when making judgments for the show ring or for breeding or training choices: character, structure, and performance (gait is part of the latter two). Other things are of varying import, depending on the breed: color, coat, size, etc.
Let’s assume you have already progressed through those non-gait prerequisites and are ready to delve further into the how and why of movement. I suggest that “required reading” for anyone desiring to be a judge or breeder should include three books: Curtis Brown’s Canine Locomotion; Rachel Paige Elliot’s DogSteps; and Fred Lanting’s The Total German Shepherd Dog. There is also Dogs in Motion, a 2014 book by Fischer & Lilje but its failure is a terribly low number of case histories—not enough to be scientifically valid.
The first concept to fix in your mind is, “What are the purposes, the raisons d'Ítre (the reasons for existence) for this particular breed?” All dogs share certain things, the most important of which is utility—some sort of usefulness to a specific person or to mankind in general.
When judging dogs in the ring or in the whelping box, choose dogs that appear to be best for the future of their breeds. When selecting dogs for their utility, remember first its intended function: Height and leg-length of a badger dog; weight, bulk, and agility of a police dog; feet and pastern quality on a trotter, galloper, or digger; temperament of a guide for the blind; coat type for a sled dog, swimmer, or other jobs—you can probably think of more.
Different breeds have different gait requirements, based on function. The less utilitarian the breed is, the more its hair coat becomes a matter of fancy rather than function—think lap-dogs. The importance of gait is not the same for all breeds, yet national kennel clubs require show judges to act as if it were. Picture in your mind what procedure is universal in the show ring: trot the dog around the ring, and trot it “down and back” (individually and in groups).
As if gait has the same importance in the Pekingese as in the Herding dogs.
However, once the judge has established in his mind which exhibits in the ring otherwise have the best breed “type” according to their Standards and history, he must compare the gait of one versus the next. The experienced judge only needs a few “dog steps” to determine if the specimen is built properly; he can then that evaluation in selecting the best for the breed. Once we get to Group judging, however (assuming all competitors there are correct examples of their breeds), showmanship becomes much more important. It’s like judging a bowl of mixed fruit—they are hopefully all good examples of their ancestry, so now you look for pleasing shape, size, shine, etc. Having been reminded of the varying importance of gait vs other aspects as established by breed function, we then can add that quality to our calculation.
Gait evaluation is routine but having judged all breeds and in many different venues, I can tell you that trotting at a slow, moderate, or “brisk” speed is not always the best way to see the best dogs.
At a Greyhound specialty I judged in England many years ago, I learned that in some venues this breed is judged primarily at a walk! During that experience, it hit me like a load of bricks falling on my head: Greyhounds do not normally trot—in real life (when not curled up on the couch) they mostly either walk leisurely or gallop full-out. So why should we make them move in the show ring like an endurance trotter?
You can frequently see so much more at a walk than at a brisk trot. Judging the Fila Brasileiro (C„o de Fila) in South America and a few other breeds elsewhere taught me that some have an important gait other than the trot—such breeds are required to be seen at a pace (at least in the individual examination), yet many supposedly knowledgeable judges do not ask for this gait. When was the last time you saw a judge tell each Old English Sheepdog exhibitor to make the dog amble or pace? Never?
Now comes the problem encountered by those exhibitors (and, unfortunately, some judges) who are not fully expert in showing. The exhibitor hoping for the blue ribbon needs to make sure the dog trots properly for its breed. Too many think that the faster they move, the better. Fashionable, but not true.
Also, so many exhibitors and (unfortunately) judges cannot see or do not understand what happens to foot placement during the movement evaluation. In part this is a result of breed standards being poorly written and therefore poorly understood. Many people decry what they call “overreaching” by which they mean the dog places its rear feet further ahead of where the front feet have been. Since the eye does not process as fast as the feet land, this is hard to see. Curtis Brown and others who used slow-motion or stop-action photography have proven that this is a function of speed relative to the dog’s size (especially, leg length and angulation).
You can duplicate Brown’s and Elliot’s discoveries without all the expensive photographic equipment they used. Trot your dog on an ocean beach’s firm wet sand and then go back and study the footprints. You can also trot your wet-footed dog onto smooth pavement and getting a close look at the prints before the prints evaporate. Another way is to have motion-pictures taken by a passenger in a car that is paralleling the trotting dog, at various speeds. That is technically difficult unless he can hold the camera low enough. Typically, at an extremely slow walk, a dog will place its rear foot in the print left by the front foot on the same side.
Why? Nature has dictated this so that wild canids and other animals can travel with the least effort, since making two separate depressions on each side (left and right) in snow or sand is less energy-efficient than one by each front foot, into which the rear pad is placed. The tiniest bit faster, and you will see the rear foot land ahead of where the front foot had been. Most endurance or soft-surface distance trotting will show such tracks.
At a faster trot, the lines you film or draw with your imagination from shoulder joint through upper and lower arms to pads will converge toward a center line until the rear feet not only land where the front feet left prints, but those footprints will also overlap to some degree, left on top of right, or right on top of left. Some trotting prints will almost appear to be a single line. This tendency to converge toward a single center-line continues to be exhibited and accentuated, and as the trot increases in speed, you quickly see (when you play back your movie at slow or stop-action speed) that the rear foot no longer lands in the same spot that the front pad leaves. Rather, it lands in a spot ahead of that print just vacated.
This is when the term “overreaching” is commonly employed. It is not a fault, as some of your colleagues have written! It is a perfectly natural result of physics and physiology.
If you do not want your terrier to overreach, simply slow it down a little when you move it. If you want your herding dog to cover much ground quickly and efficiently, you will deliberately trot it fast enough to place each rear foot ahead of the places the front feet just vacated. The sheepdog (GSD or whatever) patrolling a stationary or slowly-ambling flock will probably use the most efficient pattern (rear feet in the front footprints) most of the time, while the flashy look desired in the show ring will require the over-reaching gait you are familiar with.
Let’s go back to the viewpoint of the judge sending the exhibitor and his dog “down and back.” If the trot is fast enough, each rear foot will land in front of the spot the corresponding front is vacating. In almost every instance, the rear foot would bump into the front one if the dog did not compensate by advancing that rear leg slightly to the right or left, thus bringing it “inside or outside” of the one it is (even for an instant) momentarily passing. This is perfectly natural for all trotting dogs, well-built or not. If your judge interprets your Standard as disallowing this perfectly natural and normal gait, you might have to humor his ignorance by slowing your dog on the down-and-back, to prevent it.
If a dog places both its rear feet to the left or right of the center line of travel, it is not a structural problem, only a bad habit developed because it was not corrected. This action, called “crabbing,” can easily be corrected, yet so many exhibitors are not taught that! Perhaps this is because it’s more easily seen by an observer than by the person handling, whose main view is from top-down. In almost 100% of the cases, the dog’s rear feet will be landing to the left of the centerline of travel.
Simply practice the down-and-back with your dog close on your right side instead; you can even do this in the show ring if you are exhibiting Poochie before you’ve trained him. If your feet bump into his haunches a couple times, he’ll quickly learn to “straighten up and fly right” as the WW2-era song put it. With practice, learning to gait a dog properly for the show ring is so simple, some would say a child can do it. These Tibetan Mastiff puppies think so!
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