It's What's Up Front That Counts
By Patricia V. Trotter
If we wish to achieve our goal of breeding quality dogs in fewer numbers, we
must set our sights on producing and rewarding dogs with correct front-end assemblies.
In my February column, I discussed front-end assembly and the problems associated
with incorrect, upright shoulders. Because so many world-class dog people are
concerned about the disappearance of correct forequarter structure from the gene
pools of our breeds, the subject merits further discussion.
The unfortunate fact is that straight shoulders, as incorrect as they may be,
appear to facilitate winning in two ways, which makes them very seductive. First,
they provide picture-perfect posture, making the dog seem to always be "on" because
it cannot "let down" and lower its suspension as easily as a well-angled animal
can. Therefore, the dog requires less effort to project the kind of stand-up
show dog persona that may impress judges and ringside observers more than the
correctly angled dog does.
For example, consider the three setter breeds, which were bred to crouch near
the birds while the hunter quietly approached with nets to throw over the dogs
and the birds. These flexible sporting dogs further utilized their correct angles
to lower themselves and crawl out from under the nets in that pre-gun era, leaving
the captured birds for the huntsman. Now flash forward to a lineup of setters
standing tall and proud in the modern show ring. Chances are that only a precious
few have correct shoulder angulation, while there are others that stand out because
they are jacked up on incorrect, upright shoulders that contribute to the façade
of the show dog.
The second way in which straight shoulders facilitate winning is by making it
easier for the dog to move straight and with what many perceive as more trueness
on the coming-and-going movement. Because the range of motion of the straighter-angled
dog is much less than that of the correctly angled one, the reduced distance
of forward extension and follow-through shortens the stride, diminishing the
room for error. The longer stride provided by the correct shoulder has much more
extension and follow-through. Consequently, this greater range of motion allows
more room for deviation from absolutely straight movement.
If the tempting elements described above are indeed seducing breeders and judges
into subconsciously rewarding animals with incorrect fronts, how do we turn this
trend around? By concentrating on breeding correctly structured forequarters
and valuing them more highly. Our expectations for most breeds should be to produce
dogs with correctly sloping shoulders that are accompanied by equal length and
angle of upper arm. The juncture of these two bones should be close to a right
angle. Such a correct forequarter assembly, when complemented by correct hindquarter
assembly, would assure efficient, easy and unlabored side gait, displaying the
picture of type in motion. Being able to see side gait is much more vital to
our assessment of breeding stock than dogs standing on the line or dogs moving
straight down and back. Experts studying the side gait of the dog are able to
judge how the dog would endure in the field at work. Those dogs able to cover
the most ground with the least amount of effort will normally outwork others
on a daily basis, as well as on a long-term basis continuing into old age, simply
because their correctness accommodates exercise.
Because the show ring is not a demanding physical test for an athletic dog, it
is difficult to evaluate athleticism in the show ring. Small rings actually support
the straighter-shouldered dogs by asking little of them and even hindering their
more angulated competition. This is because the animals that are correct never
have an opportunity to exhibit their liberty of motion and their efficient, ground-covering
side gait before they run out of ring space. In such rings the dice are loaded
to favor the straighter-angled dogs that immediately go down and back with restrained
and true footfall, even though they may not have the desired side gait. Dogs
with well-angled fronts and rears need space in which to warm up. It takes them
a few steps to get into the rhythm of body control that presents them doing a
down-and-back at their best, something they are routinely denied by the limits
of time and the confines of space in the show ring environment.
An Unfortunate Phenomenon
An unfortunate yet interesting phenomenon is occurring in many of our breeds
today on a regular basis. Lovely dogs are showing up that have angles of one
kind in the forequarters (usually straight) accompanied by angles of another
kind in the hindquarters (usually well angulated and occasionally extremely angulated).
This, of course, contributes to an exaggerated, sloping topline and takes balance
out of the equation.
Unhappily, if the incorrect straight front assembly is also forward set, and
it usually is, it is able to accommodate the drive provided by the correct rear
end, resulting in a picture of side gait that can fool the evaluators. In other
words, the front does just enough work to stay out of the way without supplying
anything positive to facilitate function. How this type of imbalance contributes
to the fatigue factor of an animal at work is another question. Two laps around
the show ring simply do not tax any animal enough for us to observe the results
of such poorly assembled parts. It is only by observing dogs at work performing
their original job description that you can appreciate the disservice breeders
render their breed when they keep only show ring performance in their mind's
Breeders who strive to produce a correctly constructed animal with the athletic
ability to perform its function will need to study a composite of the bones and
their angles to obtain an uncomplicated skeletal picture. Utilizing this study
process, along with a thorough assessment of gait and physical usefulness, will
lead to better dogs with correct front-end assemblies, dogs that are able to
tolerate exercise and work.
The ideal dog, when standing, will have a well-sloped shoulder with good return
of upper arm that brings the elbow under the top of the shoulder blades and well
under the rib cage. (Even though a straighter-angled dog may have its elbow under
the top of its straight shoulder, the elbow will not come well under the rib
cage but will instead be too far forward.) When moving, the ideal dog will exhibit
cleanness in coming and going, and efficiency when viewed in profile.
If we must sometimes make compromises when we breed, we must value correct and
efficient side gait (which is not to be confused with the fastest gait) more
if we are to turn the trend around. If we demand correct structure and efficient
movement, whatever gaiting trade-offs we must make will not come at the expense
of side gait. We will accept that these dogs require more work to learn body
control and must spend more time "warming up" before they go into the ring. And
we will never forgive straighter-angled dogs for being anything other than true
on the down-and-back. Because of their reduced range of motion, when such animals
move poorly coming and going they have more serious conformational defects than
a simple lack of angulation.
I have not addressed the issue of body proportions in this article, although
I am aware of the quandary that judges of a square breed are presented with when
choosing between a rectangular dog with the most efficient side gait and a correct,
square dog that covers less ground. These are difficult choices that should not
be made without factoring in desired type. Type is always the major consideration.
The suggestions in this article for improving front ends apply to what we might
consider the normal, athletic canine performer, a description that applies to
most breeds. There are, however, many exceptions to this rule because some dogs
are bred to do specific jobs that require a somewhat different conformational
configuration. I plan to deal with some of these breed-specific differences in
Meanwhile, our collective sights must be set on rewarding dogs with correct front-end
assemblies if we wish to achieve our goal of breeding better dogs in fewer numbers.
From the great beyond, such 20th-century experts as the famous Alva Rosenberg
would approve and encourage us to proceed.
Patricia V. Trotter is a longtime breeder of Norwegian Elkhounds and is approved
to judge more than 20 breeds, as well as Junior Showmanship. She is the author
of Born to Win.
AKC GAZETTE articles are selected for their general interest and entertainment values. Authors' views do not necessarily represent the policies of the American Kennel
Club, nor does their publication constitute an endorsement by the AKC.