Canine Structure and Breed Popularity
Fred Lanting, All-Breed & Sieger Judge, SAAB
(How Form is Adversely Modified for the Show Ring) GSD and Golden Retriever photos show how canine body type has evolved through show ring and breeding selection, by All-Breed, Seiger and AKC judge.
Whether judging or looking at pictures of various dog breeds over a few decades and you will see that canine body type evolves through selection. Even in one person’s years in the dog game, breeds have changed.
Appearance often is determined by what a dog “does for a living.” Consider the big differences between dogs bred for hunting vs. for show competitions in such breeds as hounds and birddogs. Probably very few who are reading this have engaged in hunting for sport and would not know how great the gap might be.
When I first started competing in shows, nearly every Rottweiler had a sway back and was as high in the pelvis as a Fila or Chessie. Golden Retrievers did not have Dachshund height-to-length proportions as nearly all of them seem to have today. The show ring German Shepherd Dog topline did not look like the rear end was standing in a deep hole. Pekingese and Bulldogs could actually walk normally. Extremes were fairly rare.
Most Golden Retrievers now are in the correct 8-to-10 range of height-to-length [Figures 1 and 2 above] , some lower and a few barely taller, while GSDs [see Figures
4 and 5 below] are still mostly between 85 and 90 percent tall as long (torso height-to-length proportions) and are generally still acceptable to all.
These might seem like small differences on paper but they are very obvious in the flesh. The accompanying GSD photos may be misleading because most AKC examples are relatively upright in front assembly and exaggerated in topline slope, which makes for significant ratio differences if the wicket is moved even a tiny bit forward or back.
When I visited the national police dog school and breeding facility of the UK years ago, I did not recognize the little Springer Spaniels bred there, although the German Shepherd Dogs were normal.
NOTE: All their dogs were selected for utility (usefulness for their jobs), not for the fickle fancy.
Height-to-Length Proportion In The Canine
In the dog-show world, possibly the biggest change in appearance is the combination of three or four deviations from “the Standard” for the German Shepherd Dog (Deutsche Schäferhund). While the wording differs a little from German to English (British KC and AKC versions), the most significant changes are in proportions and angles.
3 a-d: Four top dogs from the early days of the breed. Note the level backs, moderate rear angulation at the stifle, and ratio of chest depth to total withers height (behind elbow).
GSD chest depth (from top of withers or shoulder blade to sternum) should be 45 to 50% of the total height at withers [Figure
3 Above]. Pictures of AKC GSD “beauty contest” winners illustrate the fact that it’s just about backwards compared to the Standard: about 45% of the dogs’ heights are below the torso instead of the correct reverse. By the way, the SV (world parent club for the breed) measures height where you can feel the spine again… that is a tiny bit behind where the AKC judge measures - at the scapula’s highest point. Modern GSDs, especially the AKC variety, have considerably more chest depth than either their own Standard calls for, or examples elsewhere in the world.
Go over all of these show pictures with your ruler and see the proportions and height-to-length.
Probably the most obvious departure of AKC GSDs from both the Standard and from canine normalcy in general is the topline. The “true back” (between withers and pelvic bone) is supposed to be level or nearly so. Look at show photos and you would conclude that breeders (and judges?) have no idea what is meant by that word. A ski slope (typical in AKC rings) is not level. Nor is the European GSD’s broken-back or two-angle back that developed in the late 1960s and was exaggerated through the two or three decades following. Croups no longer bear any resemblance to the ideal 30 to 35-degree slope from horizontal, though much of the reason for steepness is the abnormality in the midpiece. The “show pose” accentuates these abnormalities.
Some other breeds also suffer from the fad of non-functional topline steepness (look at half the Boxers, and many Setters and Dalmatians today). Even in such breeds or individuals, we also see the other great departure from both functionality and the original blueprint as is seen in the hocks’ increased distance behind the torso —it is most obvious in the AKC GSD, but also seen now in other Herding, Sporting, Hound, and Working Group breeds. In most breeds, the GSD included(!), the normal dog of previous decades had the vertical metatarsus-hock(s) and rear foot (feet) only two or three inches behind a line dropped from the end of the pelvic girdle. (Some Standards called for even less.) Today, increasing numbers of many breeds stand much too far behind their torsos, yet are rewarded as often or even more so than the normal, non-exaggerated specimen.
This tendency toward the extreme often is associated with sloppy hock action seen “going away” but that is not always a cause-and-effect relationship. Nor is the other big abnormality that makes spectators at all-breed shows shake their heads and walk away from the Shepherd ring: the frequent picture of the GSD with knee joint lower than top of hock joint, or about on the same level. Look at other show-dog breeds and working-line dogs, and you see why their fanciers do not understand what Shepherd breeders (and judges?) are up to. Lower-leg slope in most breeds is close to 45 degrees, with such breeds as Chows and Shar-Pei much more toward vertical.
Trends and Responsibilities
The drift away from normalcy has also made the world’s most populous (and once, most popular) breed, the GSD, fall a half-dozen places in the USA, and suffer a little elsewhere. On the other hand, some breeds have actually climbed the popularity ladder with partial credit to their “abnormalities”. Think excessive, less-functional coats on “foo-foo” dogs and non-sport Sporting breeds. Dog shows started as venues for males, ales and tales, with hunters bragging, trading, and match-making after the hunt. Form followed function. Now, form follows whoever gets the first-place ribbons.
Fig. 4 (left) A top winner (2019). Note non-Standard features: pasterns greater than 25 degrees; mid-back not level; crouched look with rear hock too far back and higher than the stifle/patella; and chest depth far more than the Standard’s 45-50% of height. * 8.5 or 9:10 proportion hard to estimate because of steepness in the area where the wicket or ruler would be placed. Fig
5 (right): Another top AKC winner. Pasterns nearly 45 degrees rather than 25; stifle (patella) level or lower than hock; *chest depth to withers-height also wrong (non-Standard); 20-degree mid-back slope.
What’s a judge to do? In the face of breeders and judges not knowing or not caring that their dogs have several flagrant violations of the Standard, we are often faced with the discomfort of handing out ribbons to “the best of the worst” and hoping that the Group judge has enough knowledge to leave the typical GSD or other non-Standard exhibit at the rear of the line-up.
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