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.