Written and Illustrated by Linda Shaw MBA
It is no secret that conformation shows can produce aberrations of structure in purebred dogs. There are any number of breeds, including the German shepherd dog, that have evolved structural problems purely because of what has been deemed fashionable in the show ring. Conformation judges with little or no experience in actually working with dogs can derive their knowledge of anatomical structure and movement from other similarly limited judges, and continue to pass on beliefs based more on tradition than fact. There are many fallacies about structure that range from minor errors to the near delusional, but which are rewarded in the show ring, and even required for a dog to reach the top tier for its breed. Unfortunately the German shepherd dog is no exception. In America, judges have for the last several decades rewarded the overlong dog with loose shoulders, extreme rear angulation and locked hocks, that cannot show a coherent gallop and is incapable of jumping. In Germany the roach back is at best ignored and at worst sought after for its imaginary strength, despite the distortion it shows in gaiting, and the alteration in the function of the shoulder and croup which it produces.
People who actually train and work with their dogs tend to be better at identifying physical issues which will compromise their dogs’ ability to work. In the attempt to organize some system that can prevent conformation fads from taking hold, it is sometimes suggested that the best and most objective means of assessing structure is to measure it, in the belief that the numbers won’t lie. In my opinion, measuring can be a useful tool, but it is only that, and if the person using it is ignorant of good structure, a measuring stick isn’t going to help, and can even make things worse.
In the 1970s in Ontario, Canada, Casey (Catherine) Gardiner, a successful breeder of Kerry Blue Terriers, founded and managed the School of Canine Science, which was entirely based on her methodology for measuring dogs. She designed and manufactured a complete set of rulers and protractors, ran clinics and seminars on measuring techniques, and created a large database of measurements of each of thousands of dogs, categorized by breed. She published the large folio, Dogs, An Atlas of Kinetic Anatomy, which I still have, as well as other volumes on dogs. A veterinary college aided in the creation of her charts, and her system was taught at several colleges in Canada and the United States. She weighed, measured and X–rayed dogs, and recorded their footprints while gaiting in ink and on kinetic force plates. Breeders still advertise that they attended her courses. As a retired registered nurse and breeder of champion Kerries, Casey was obviously not without knowledge of anatomy. She hired me to produce illustrations for her books, and I soon realized that all of this was not enough to dispel the myths of long dead breeders that she continued to perpetuate. We had many lively debates over how those illustrations should look.
The School of Canine Science is long gone, as is Casey. But the culmination of her work remains in a single stick figure that supposedly describes the skeletal structure of the ideal dog. I still see it used in breeder advertising, usually wedged onto a photograph of a featured show dog. This stick figure was derived from averaging all the dimensions of the dogs she measured, to create what she called breed “norms”. The norms of different breeds varied only to a very slight degree. Her model was pretty much applied to all breeds.
The trouble with this model is that it retains the errors of the past, when dogs were held to the standards of horses and mistaken assumptions of canine structure became entrenched. I’m sure a psychologist could explain why, but when someone believes a thing to be true, they can be more likely to see what they believe, rather than what is actually there. The common knowledge amongst breeders is that, like a good horse, a good shoulder on a dog has a layback of 45 degrees, with a 90 degree angle with the upper arm, and Casey was no exception. So it’s no surprise that Casey’s measuring confirmed her belief – a good shoulder and upper arm is a right angle. Her model also displays the fallacy of a “balancing” 90 degree stifle, and the old horseman’s desire for a vertical metatarsus or hock. While her model appears superficially to fit the outline of a very nice Labrador, a pretty basic type of dog, if we are to be really accurate, what we actually get from this template is something that is very wrong. Obviously, this creature does not and could not exist in real life. How then did someone so obviously qualified, who took so much care in measuring and calculating her “norms”, come up with something so inaccurate?
In my opinion, After observing this ambitious project for several years, it failed because of it did not study dogs as they actually are, in nature as well as the show and working rings. If you don’t understand how nature made the wild dog and why, you have no foundation on which to build a workable purebred. As well, you have to have a very good working knowledge of the anatomical structure and movement of living dogs, not simply knowledge of the anatomy of a cadaver on a dissection slab. Bones are not linear structures, but curve in three dimensions, and finding the precise pivot point of a joint from external palpation virtually impossible, so external measures, unless placed with extraordinary precision and consistency, will produce unreliable results. Without a fundamental knowledge of living structures, measuring will give you lots of numbers of parts and pieces, but not the comprehension of the larger picture of a living, moving animal. If you have this knowledge, measuring will not be necessary, except to record for posterity some specific characteristics like height and weight. I think measuring can be useful, but only in the hands of a very experienced and knowledgeable person.
This article has been republished with the consent of the United Schutzhund Clubs of America who originally published this article in its bi-monthly magazine. For more information on Schutzhund or membership with the United Schutzhund Clubs of America please visit their website www.GermanShepherdDog.com.