Saturday, April 3, 2010

Suzanne Clothier Seminar: Structure and Function

In the morning of the second day, we spent some time discussing structure and function. She defines structure as how the dog is physically put together, while function refers to how it works together. Good structure doesn’t necessarily mean that the dog will physically function well, just as a dog’s ability to run and jump and such doesn’t mean it is well-structured.

Suzanne starts evaluating a dog’s structure and function by looking at how the dog stands naturally. She wants to see a balanced looking dog. Although she didn’t define what this means, she did say that it’s fairly obvious when you’re looking at an unbalanced dog. It’s true, too. We looked at several dogs throughout the weekend, and it was pretty easy to see where certain dogs just looked off.

She also looked at the topline and the bottomline. The topline should be fairly flat and level. Any concavity to the back probably indicates a structural issue that will affect function. The bottomline, or the belly, also ought to be quite taut, especially in a performance dog. This bottomline tells you about the dog’s core muscle strength, which in turn tells you something about how the back and hips will work.

Suzanne also looks at a sitting dog. A dog who is sitting with a “tight tuck,” that is, with the hip, knee and toe lined up, has better structure than one whose toe comes farther forward. I was sad to hear this; Maisy often has her feet well under her in a loose sit. She also looks to see how long it takes the dog to shift positions. The sooner they shift, the more uncomfortable they are. She also said that if a dog never offers a sit, that is a sign that the dog has physical discomfort as well.

Next, Suzanne has the dog walk (walking is easier to evaluate than trotting) away from her and back towards her, as well as perpendicularly. She’s looking for fluid, flowing movements, and is checking to see that all joints bend. If a knee joint doesn’t bend, this will change the rotation of the hip, and eventually affect the back. She’ll also look at the range of motion a dog has. In the front legs, a normal ROM shows forward extension perpendicular to the ground.

She also sometimes checks the hocks to see if they hyper-extend. To test this, she puts gets the dog to put her back foot underneath him, and to have her put weight on it. Then, she’ll lightly push on the back of the hock (towards the front). Ideally, the hock shouldn’t move much- it should “lock” into place. This locking hock, in addition to strong core muscles, gives dogs the power they need to jump. Interestingly, in order to jump, a dog needs to be able to bring their center of gravity up to half the height of the jump before they ever leave the ground. (I did try this test out with Maisy later; she failed.)

I asked specifically about short-legged, long-backed dogs, seeing as how I have a particular interest in such dogs. Suzanne first made the point that there are no “long-backed” dogs. If their legs were of a normal length, their backs would appear proportionate. Not only that, but back issues on the short-leggers tend to be a result not of the length of the back, but rather of the structure of the leg. To make the legs short, the bones need to change. If you ever look at the front of a short-legged dog, you’ll notice that the bones curve in an hourglass shape, and that the feet or toes turn out. This specifically affects the “landing gear” of a dog who is jumping. They need to get their feet underneath them perfectly. I found this bit absolutely fascinating. Although Maisy is always quite willing to jump up on to surface, like the bed, she is occasionally resistant to jumping down off a surface. That resistance makes so much more sense now.

This doesn’t mean that all short-leggers should be prohibited from jumping, but it does mean you should be very cautious, as they are more likely to develop shoulder problems in the future. When I asked if I could mitigate the effects of being short in the leg through passive stretching, Suzanne told me that I needed to ask myself if I ought to be having Maisy jump at all. She later amended this to say that a single jump, such as in obedience, is probably not a big deal, but that I should think long and hard about activities like flyball or agility.

Suzanne also stated that the longer legged dogs aren’t immune to problems. As legs get longer, the muscles do, as well. There is the same amount of muscle mass, but since the muscle is stretched, which practically means that there isn’t as much support for the joints and ligaments.

Although you can do a lot to help support your performance dog, Suzanne did say that there is a limit to what conditioning can do. You can never turn a basketball player into a gymnast, after all. Her basic rule of thumb is that if you can see or feel a bone, there are fewer muscles available to help support that joint.

The fascinating part of all of this was that Suzanne reviewed several dogs who were having performance issues- refusing to lie down on the table, getting tired quickly, etc. Each one had a physical issue contributing to their performance problem. As a result, she told us to remember that if we have a willing, compliant dog who knows what the job is and fails anyway, it is highly unlikely they are “blowing us off” or “being dominant.” Instead, it is likely there is a structural or functional problem at work. We should always trust that our dog is giving us her best effort.

I really enjoyed this section of the weekend as I knew pretty much nothing about dog conformation. I can name some of the parts, but have no idea how they ought to look, nor the implications of how they’re put together. Obviously, Suzanne had to gloss over a lot of it, but I still really enjoyed the little taste of it that I got. I will definitely be reading more on structure and function soon.


Laura, Lance, and Vito said...

This is a topic that I know nothing about but am really interested in! I wish someone could point it all out to me as I need to really see it on dogs to get it.

Now was Susan's comment on not jumping Maisy a reference to all short legged breeds or Maisy's individual structure?

Crystal said...

Both. Maisy has already had some issues- reluctance to jump, intermittent lameness, etc., so I already know she probably won't hold up to high intensity and long term jumping, which is why Suzanne said I ought to think about it a bit more carefully. However, because corgis have short legs, the front feet tend to turn out slightly, which means they really need to do everything perfectly in order to avoid injury. Basically, if we choose to compete with the short-leggers, we need to make sure we're teaching excellent jumping skills.

I asked her which smaller dogs would be able to hold up to a performance career. She said Border Terrier and Lowchen. If I want to go the corgi route, she said the Pems are a bit better structured than Cardis (to which I moaned, "but they don't have a tail." She replied, "well, I can't change that"). I asked about Duck Tollers, cuz I love Vito and I love the look, but she said they have a tendency to be shy, which can be tricky with trial sites and such. Any thoughts about that? She said the same thing about the Pyr Shep, though she seemed to prefer Tollers over them. She said Papillons are hit and miss, some are good some are not, but its much more variable than in other breeds.

Good thing I'm not looking for another dog any time soon...

Laura, Lance, and Vito said...

huh. I don't know much about structure so can't really argue against that, but there are many highly successful corgis of both types in agility and I'm assuming the norm is injury free. But either way, I agree that teaching proper jumping is important.

Tollers do tend to be more way reserved then goldens or labs, but they in no way should be shy. Basically they just aren't outgoing with strangers and are usually indifferent, not shy. So I have no idea where she got that impression of the breed, absolutely none of the tollers I met were that way and the breed standard speaks out against them being shy. Even Vito with his "stranger danger" is more of a reaction to the environment then being shy.

Pyr sheps on the other hand are shy and need tons of socialization. They can make awesome agility dogs (as obviously Silvia's La attests to) but you really have to be careful to
socialize them heavily as a puppy.

There are just so many great breeds out there though!

Crystal said...

Well, bear in mind that she discussed the short-leggers for about 5 minutes total, so I'm sure there's a lot to be learned about how various dogs are put together. I bet if either of us understood enough about structure, we could learn why some dogs are so highly successful and others aren't... my definition of successful being "with few injuries." What would be really interesting is to see a list of breeds and the incidence of career injuries. Too bad there aren't statistics for that.

On top of that, I have no idea what Suzanne's threshold for injuries is, either. Mine is quite low (although I bet most people's is), but hers could be lower. There is also something to be said for teaching the obstacles well and for conditioning the dog to his peak capability in order to reduce the likelihood of injuries.

So far as breed comments- those were really 5 seconds on each breed, and I suspect quite general impressions. And really, how many Tollers are around? I've met, well, Vito... so any impressions I have of the breed are based on him. And he seems quite manageable. :)

Which all means that when it comes down to it, I'm glad I have Maisy.

Anonymous said...

Fascinating, thank you!

After reading this and some other things by Clothier, I had a lightbulb moment. Layla has something going on with her back that no vet has been able to figure out yet. I contacted Suzanne about doing a phone/video consult to look at Layla's structure and function, and she said yes!
*happy dance* Hopefully this can shed some light on the issue we've been dealing with.

As far as short-legged dogs go, have you read SOS Dogs or seen the BBC documentary on purebred dogs? Both are worth looking into.

Remember that with any short-legged dog, you are dealing with an intentional mutation. Short-legged dogs are achondroplastic dwarfs. There are many health implications when dealing with achondroplasia in any species, including intervertebral disk disease (IVDD), Osteochondritis Dissecans (OCD), hip dysplasia, vertebral malformations, disk herniation, spina bifida, and reproductive problems. An achondroplastic dog has abnormal cartilage growth resulting in shortened torso with shortened limbs. The breed standard requires this mutation and many people really like this "look", but it is a genetic mutation nonetheless. People with achondroplasia frequently complain about lower back pain and may also have problems with weakness or tingling in the limbs. Just a note that I don't have anything against Corgis or other breeds with intentional mutations (for example, Bassets have a different type of dwarfism known as chondrodysplasia) - I understand that people are drawn to a certain "look" and it's best that that "look" is bred with some understanding of structure, health, and temperament (which is what breed clubs are for). But I think it's important especially in a performance dog to take a hard look at the dog's structure and what you're asking the dog to do. Achondroplastic people generally have a harder time performing strenuous physical activity, although they are encouraged to remain active as it can help lessen the chance of later spinal/back issues. It's wonderful that all of the agility venues allow lower jump heights for genetic dwarf breeds, but the fact that they do so should tell us something. A willing dog will push through physical shortcomings to work for you, but only you can determine whether asking your dog to do so is right.

I think it's a good idea when interested in a purebred dog to look at the human equivalent to the genetic mutations that form that breed. Is the mutation painful? Does it shorten life expectancy? What other problems could it cause? Look up achondroplastic dwarfism in people, and pay attention to how people who suffer from this condition describe daily life. What issues do you think would cross species?

It's also a good idea to research similar breeds and see if they have similar problems. Brachycephalic breeds (Pugs, Bulldogs, etc) are known to have breathing problems and are less heat tolerant. Doliocephalic breeds (Borzoi, Collies) are more prone to nosebleeds and destructive rhinitis. If I'm looking for a future sports prospect, I'm going to look for a dog with normal skull structure rather than an excessively shortened or elongated nose, because that will give me the best chances of ending up with a dog who does not have breathing problems. I may think Pekes and Borzoi are nice dogs, but their abnormal skulls could cause problems. If I just wanted a pet dog, it wouldn't matter so much, but since I want to compete in dog sports I want to set my future dog up for success by ensuring that he's physically capable of doing what I ask!

Okay, I didn't mean to write a book. Sorry! Stepping off the soapbox and slinking away... ;)

Crystal said...

I loved your book, Sara! You're welcome to write one any time. :)

That's really cool that you're going to do a video consult with Suzanne. I hope you figure something out! I thake Maisy to chiropractic and accupressure/massage once a month to keep her from limping. Even *I* can identify some of her structural issues. So much for being an agility competitor...

I'd never thought of looking at how various mutations in people affect them, but that's a REALLY good idea. I really have no idea what my next dog will be. Or when. I generally just want Maisy, but healthy and non-reactive. Corgi seems to come closest to her looks and personality, although I think I would also enjoy a terrier quite a bit.

I can't wait to hear how your consult goes! When is it?

M.T. said...

This was a very fascinating read, as is with the comments as well! Thank you so much Crystal for continuing to post on this!!!

elegy said...

Remember, too, that if you're concerned about her physically, in APDT and St. Hubert's you can request a lower jump height.

Luce's bad knees have definitely been a hindrance, though I see it more in reluctance to sit and trouble with moving (sphynx) downs than in jumping. She "forgot" how to sit in the ring at our last trial, and I'm sure it was her knees-- she'd run pretty hard before we went and I didn't think to give her pain meds, since she hasn't needed them in so long.

I was a little surprised though when she refused the 18" jump when I moved her to full height to practice the dumbbell retrieve (a la AKC Open). She's never hesitated to jump with the dumbbell at lower heights. It made me sad because I felt like that's it for my CDX dreams... I can't ask her to do something that causes her pain :(

Crystal said...

Yeah, I love those venues for that. Maisy's APDT jump height is already pretty low- 4 inches- but it's nice to know we can go lower if needed.