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Evaluating Dogs – Part I: Soundness, Structure and Breed Type

I don’t necessarily consider myself the most knowledgeable dog person in the world regarding every aspect of judging or evaluating dogs, or the best teacher. Numerous books and columns have been written about evaluating dogs, by some of the sport’s most knowledgeable people, including the likes of Anne Rogers Clark, Jane and Bob Forsyth, Pat Craige Trotter, Rachel Page Elliott, Rick Beauchamp, Robert Cole and others. These are among the most valuable learning tools you can find if you want to learn about dogs.

However, I do consider myself an avid student of purebred dogs, and I know others like me who want to continue to learn about evaluating dogs and to review what they’ve already learned. So for the next few months, I’ll be presenting a series of articles about evaluating dogs. They are in no way intended to replace any of the aforementioned sources. They are simply meant as food for thought.

Everyone who is heavily involved in the sport of showing dogs evaluates them at one time or another. Judges, of course, do so on a regular basis, but so do the breeders who select breeding stock and grade litters, owner-handlers who select a dog to show, professional handlers who decide how best to present their clients’ dogs, and even photographers who seek to get the most flattering shot of a winner.

Of course, evaluating dogs is a complicated process that takes a lifetime to master. Perhaps that’s why going back to the fundamentals, whether as a new student of dogs or a veteran who wants a review, is always helpful. Knowing the fundamentals of canine anatomy and movement is step one in becoming adept at evaluating purebred dogs.

Does Breed Type Exist Without Correct Structure?

Can you have a discussion about canine anatomy and movement without any mention of breed type? Some people believe that soundness and proper structure are elements of breed type.

What exactly is “breed type”? It is those elements which distinguish one breed from all others, that, when present, make a dog identifiable as its breed. Elements of breed type include the blunt, upturned muzzle and the large warm brown eyes of the Boxer; the dense, almost corkscrewed coat and piercing expression of the Wire Fox Terrier; the regal bearing, large size and rectangular head of the Great Dane; the egg-shaped head and jaunty movement of the Bull Terrier; the hackney gait and fearless demeanor of the Min Pin; and the graceful, flowing curves and small, fine ears of the Borzoi. These elements of breed type are largely aesthetic, but there are also key elements of type that relate directly to function.

The size and structure of the Shetland Sheepdog resulted from the size and topography of the Shetland Islands, where he was bred to work. Photo © Can Stock Photo Inc./fullempty.

For example, the front assembly that distinguishes the Bulldog from the Fox Terrier and the hindquarter structure in the Chow Chow versus that in the Irish Setter certainly contribute to the correct profile and action for those breeds – thus contributing to what makes them distinct from other breeds and their breed type. If we forget that correct structure and soundness contribute to breed type, in different ways for different breeds, we risk searching for a generic show dog that possesses general good structure and soundness, but perhaps lacks details of type.

So some aspects of structure must be correct for a particular dog of a particular breed to possess breed type. However, let’s make it clear that generalizing to say that any dog that is structurally unsound does not possess breed type is inaccurate. A dog can drip with breed type, but, for instance, be quite unsound on the down and back.

Before we begin with learning or reviewing the fundamentals of structure, let’s discuss how structure became intertwined with breed type.

When dog shows began more than 100 years ago, dogs were bred for a purpose, to perform specific functions. The important elements that separated one breed from another (thus contributing to breed type) were those that helped that breed perform the function for which it was bred. Knowing the purposes for which breeds were developed, and how different characteristics – or elements of type – helped each breed in its work, is the only way students can really learn how to properly evaluate purebred dogs.

For instance, some elements that contribute to breed type in Shetland Sheepdogs are directly related to the work the breed was created for. The Shetland Islands, where the breed was created, is a collection of 16 land masses of varying diminutive sizes, rugged and rocky. Surrounded by vast stretches of ocean, the windswept islands are often subjected to harsh weather and sea storms. The livestock produced on these islands are small – think Shetland pony, the smallest of any pony breed, as well as the small Shetland sheep that produce fine wool. A small breed of dog was all that was needed to work the smaller stock, and the working dogs needed intelligence to work without constant direction. To thrive in less than ideal weather, they needed a harsh outer coat that would repel water, with a soft undercoat that would insulate the dog from cold and harsh winds. In order to thrive as a working dog on the islands, the breed had to be sturdy and agile as well, with balanced construction that would contribute to the stamina and hardiness needed to work the flocks over hilly, sometimes rough terrain. We can see that in the Sheltie of today: the beautiful coloring, long, refined muzzle and small ears that break at the tips may be aesthetic elements of breed type, but the Sheltie’s unique size, coat and construction are characteristics that were necessary for proper function.

Elements that contributed to a Poodle doing its job as a water retriever were its harsh, dense coat, which would repel water rather than absorbing it (since, if its coat absorbed large quantities of water, the dog would become so heavy it could not swim); its long, fine muzzle, with slight chiseling under the eye, structure that relates to the soft mouth needed to retrieve fowl without damaging it with its teeth; a balanced dog fore and aft that could effectively navigate the water in which he would work without tiring; and a neck of medium length that is “strong and long enough to permit the head to be carried high” so that it could swim while carrying its game back to shore. The small, dark, oval eye, as well as the light, springy action of today’s Poodle may be aesthetically pleasing, but coat texture, head shape and balance made the Poodle an effective hunting partner.

The head shape, foot size and shape, and movement of the Afghan are structural elements that were necessary for the sighthound to hunt in the region where it originated. Photo © Can Stock Photo Inc./raywoo.

Also a hunting companion, the Afghan Hound was bred to accompany huntsmen on horseback, to course game such as deer, antelope and hare, and sometimes to bring down predators such as wild dogs or wolves. The Afghan’s structure perfectly suited its work: its powerful, elastic gait allowed it to keep pace with the horses, while its large feet with well-arched toes and thick, large pads allowed it to run in the hot, sandy deserts of its native country. Its lack of stop gave it an unobstructed range of vision so that it could see its prey across vast distances, while the breed’s independent, aloof nature allowed it to work well without direct supervision from its master.

The long, low-set ears of the Basset and the Bloodhound allow scent to be swept toward the wide-open nostrils as the dogs track, and the masses of loose wrinkles about the head and neck help contain that scent so this canine hunter can find its mark, fox, human or otherwise. The compressible chest of the Parson Russell Terrier keeps it from getting stuck in the event that it follows its prey into a particularly narrow underground burrow. The free, effortless and rhythmic trot of the German Shepherd allows it to function as a “living fence” as it goes about its work of moving and guarding livestock.

So each breed possesses characteristics that were selected for as the breed was developing because they were necessary for it to do its work. As the need to keep dogs to do work diminished with industrialization and modernization, dogs began to be kept as companions and show dogs. Today, although it is no longer necessary to evaluate breeding stock to select dogs that are most fit for their functions, we want to continue to breed for those original characteristics, so that we retain each unique and individual breed. Thus it is crucial when evaluating dogs to know both the original function of the breed as well as the fundamentals of anatomy, structure and movement.

While drawing a hard line between correct structure and movement vs. breed type is difficult, our goal is to learn, or review, the fundamentals of good structure, with some bits about how structure relates to ideal breed type thrown in. We’ll start with a discussion of balance, then progress through toplines, fronts, rears and tailsets. As always, we welcome input and comments from our readers.

Written by

Christi McDonald is a second-generation dog person, raised with a kennel full of Cairn Terriers. After more than a decade as a professional handler’s apprentice and handling professionally on her own, primarily Poodles and Cairns, she landed a fortuitous position in advertising sales with the monthly all-breed magazine ShowSight. This led to an 11-year run at Dogs in Review, where she wore several hats, including advertising sales rep, ad sales manager and, finally, editor for five years. Christi is proud to be part of the editorial team for the cutting-edge Best In Show Daily. She lives in Apex, N.C., with two homebred black Toy Poodles, the last of her Foxfire line, and a Norwich Terrier.
  • Janet Oppedal November 24, 2012 at 2:42 PM

    Christi McDonald
    I want to thank you for sharing your Structure and movement with us.
    And with your permission I would like to postthis on my website as well.
    Just to help the general public understand part of what Breeder look for when they decide to breed.
    Thank you again
    Janet Oppedal

  • Deb Eldredge, D.V.M.
    Deb E July 28, 2013 at 8:46 AM


  • Judy E. Murray July 29, 2013 at 11:58 AM

    Good job. Looking forward to the next article.

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