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Evaluating Dogs – Part II: Balance

One of the foundation principles for evaluating dogs rests on an understanding of what “balance” means. Webster’s defines balance as “a state of bodily equilibrium” or “to bring into or keep in equal or satisfying harmony or proportion.” The AKC “Complete Dog Book” defines balance as “a condition wherein all proportions of a dog are in static and dynamic harmony.” We know what balance means, and these definitions confirm our mental picture of balance.

Many years ago, I was an apprentice to a successful Poodle handler, Bobby Peebles. Although I had been showing dogs since I was 7 or 8 years old, I was really just learning about evaluating dogs. In the kennel at the time was an old retired Standard Poodle dog, Ch. Donnchada’s Big Mac. To the untrained eye, there was nothing overtly dynamic about ‘Mac.’ He’d been a Group winner and had sired some nice puppies. A medium-sized, moderate-looking white dog, he seemed perhaps, on first inspection, somewhat ordinary.

One of the pleasures of Mac’s retirement was that every day for several hours he was turned out into a huge fenced yard, perhaps just less than a quarter of an acre, to roam with one or two old girls and do as he pleased. The way he made his way around that big space at a leisurely trot would, inexplicably, get my attention. I’d find myself enjoying just standing at the fence, watching him. And over time, although other dogs in my care were more dramatic and may have been more eye-catching on the move, I came to appreciate the old dog’s easy, effortless way of going and what I finally recognized as his perfect symmetry.

What I learned from watching Mac was that a dog that is in balance is a thing of beauty. He was a dog of no extremes. He was moderately angulated at the shoulder, with moderate bend behind, not the big, sweeping hindquarter we so often see in the breed today. His proportion of bone to size was exquisite; he was neither too refined nor too coarse. His length of neck perfectly balanced with his length of back, and his long, straight muzzle balanced beautifully with his just slightly rounded skull. This dog had it. He had balance.

Balance can mean many things, depending on the breed, but the balance of angles in the front and hindquarter, in every breed, is fundamental to correct structure and movement.

Balance Fore and Aft

What Mac, and Bobby, taught me is that the balance between the dog’s angulation in front and the angulation of his hindquarter is what created that illusion of effortless floating when he moved. A dog with a big sweeping hindquarter might catch the eye and might make a dramatic picture moving in the circle, but unless it has a matching big, over-angulated front assembly, it will not likely create a picture of smooth, graceful and efficient motion. That dog would more likely labor to move around the ring.

So, although the exact degree of angulation may differ from breed to breed, a balance between the angles of the forequarters and hindquarters on any breed is necessary for smooth, efficient motion. Learning what constitutes the correct angulation for an individual breed requires knowing what the breed’s function was, or is, but in every breed we want a balance.

Correct balance of angulation front and rear, which can be observed when a dog is stacked, makes itself even more evident in motion. The Standard Poodle, Ch. Rimskittle Ruffian, was bred by Anne and Jim Clark and handled in the late 1970s by Tim Brazier for owner Margo Durney. Bottom photo by Missy Yuhl.

Dogs designed for this type of work must have movement that is, as the Malamute standard states, “steady, balanced, tireless and totally efficient.” The German Shepherd standard calls for a gait that is “elastic, seemingly without effort, smooth and rhythmic, covering the maximum amount of ground with the minimum number of steps.” The Afghan Hound likewise has a smooth, powerful and elastic gait, whether galloping or at the trot. Movement in the Rottweiler will be “balanced, harmonious, sure, powerful and unhindered, with strong forereach and a powerful rear drive. The motion is effortless, efficient and ground-covering.”The original function of some breeds required them to cover a lot of ground over an extended period of time, such as the German Shepherd, as it acted as a “living fence” while protecting livestock; the Afghan Hound, which accompanied hunters on horseback over vast stretches of terrain; the Rottweiler, as it herded and guarded “meat on the hoof” while traveling with Roman military contingents; and the Alaskan Malamute, which hauled sledges over boundless stretches of the great white North.

In all of these breeds, as well as others whose work depends on efficient movement over a sustained period of time, balanced angulation fore and aft is essential to their success. A straight front with a properly angulated rear would result in a dog with restricted or choppy front movement whose hindquarter would labor to push the front forward. A properly angulated front with an over-angulated hindquarter would result in an overreaching of the hindquarter, necessitating perhaps either sidewinding, or a “bicycle” motion behind, or any one of several other ways of compensating for the imbalance, all of which would be so inefficient as to tire the dog after just a brief time.

We also see dogs that are over-angulated both front and rear, and in this case, while movement is infinitely more efficient than in a dog whose angles are not in balance, over-angulation still causes the body to work harder to propel the dog forward.

Balance is key to efficient movement. Dogs that work in the field, those that work as cart dogs, ratters, guards and patrols, dogs that trail by sight and scent – all require balance to move with tireless efficiency. While the Fox Terrier does not require the same degree of angulation fore and aft as, say, a Pointer, he must still be balanced in order to move efficiently from one place to the other.

Even the Toy breeds, in their roles as companions, must exhibit balance in their angulation and movement in order to be at their best. I once had two older champion bitches that were just six months apart in age. Those girls loved to go out for walks. One was a bit longer backed than ideal, but had beautiful angles that matched, front and rear. The other was shorter backed, which made for a more “collected” and desirable picture in the ring. She had a very nice front, but not as much bend behind as the ideal. Out on walks, the longer backed bitch with the matching angles, although only a nine pound dog, could effortlessly keep up on a walk even as far as two or three miles without any sign of tiring, while the shorter backed bitch with the mismatched angulation would struggle to keep up after just a few blocks. It didn’t really hamper their lives, of course – we just compensated by walking a little slower and not so far – but it was another lesson, for me, in the efficiency and ease of correct construction.

As Rachel Page Elliott succinctly points out in her classic book on movement, “Dogsteps,” a “lack of structural balance is the reason for much incorrect gaiting.”

It’s probably the first thing you really notice – whether you realize it or not – when you see a class of dogs come in the ring or when watching a litter of puppies moving about. Which one has an effortless way of going?

Breed-Specific Balance

Of course, when considering the meaning of the word “balance,” there are other ways in which a dog of any given breed will exhibit balance or lack thereof. Depending on the make and shape of a breed, the balance of length of back to length of neck, length of leg to length of body, and length of leg to depth of body are defining breed characteristics that heavily influence efficiency and correctness of movement. Balance of foreface to skull is outlined in almost every breed standard. Balance of bone to size is also individual to each breed.

These kinds of details of balance are ultimately related to breed type, and must be learned for each individual breed. The proportion of bone to size on a Gordon Setter, for instance, defines and separates the breed when compared with the bone to size on an Irish or English Setter. A Pomeranian with too much bone for its size will be coarse, while one that is too refined in bone will be considered “weedy.” This is true for all breeds, each having its own correct balance of bone to size.

I suspect that, over time, these details of balance shift in some breeds. In the book “K-9 Structure and Terminology,” by Ed Gilbert and Thelma Brown, the authors contend, “Symmetry is not a measurable quality; it is what appears right to the observer. Correct symmetry is what knowledgeable judges (more than one) declare to be right.” While I don’t believe that this is true for every aspect of balance and symmetry – in many breeds, correct balance of bone to size has probably not changed in a century – it certainly is true for others in that when the most knowledgeable judges of a given era repeatedly give their stamp of approval to dogs with a particular balance of bone to size, head properties, etc., that may indeed influence what is seen as correct for the time.

However, it is the balance of the angulation of front and rear that is the fundamental understanding we want to develop before we go on to learn more about movement. Developing an eye for balanced angulation is essential to properly evaluating dogs. You must be able to identify, both by using your hands on a dog and by observing a dog both standing and in motion, whether the forequarter angulation matches that of the hindquarter, and indeed if it is correct for the breed in question.

The following sources were used for this article: “The Complete Dog Book” by the American Kennel Club (Ballantine Books, 2006); “An Eye For a Dog: Illustrated Guide to Judging Purebred Dogs” by Robert W. Cole (Dogwise Publishing, 2004); “The New Dogsteps” by Rachel Page Elliott (Howell Book House,1983); and “K-9 Structure and Terminology” by Edward M. Gilbert and Thelma Brown (Howell Book House,1995).

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.
  • Anders Rosell July 9, 2012 at 8:59 AM

    Well put Christi! So sad to see so much incorrectness being rewarded, but as a breeder you just have to grin and bear it…..the younger generation of dog people are here to WIN and couldn’t care less of balance, let alone try to breed for it!
    So pleased to see one of my biggest mentors in the photos, the one and only Tim Brazier!

    • tylerjoe
      Julie L Mueller July 9, 2012 at 3:29 PM

      Sad but true, you are so correct. Type and balance! Today’s dog show world is so changed from when I started 45 years ago. You started at the bottom and worked your way up, squeezing every drop of knowledge from every handler, assistant, and breeder you could possibly squeeze. You studied judges and their judging to learn! Not how to win under them, but about the breeds they were judging.
      You read every standard of every breed, so when you watched that breed you could understand what you were looking at and why. Learned the backgroud of breeds, where they came from, what they were bred to do and built on that knowledge. I would like to mention another expert on structure and movement, Dr. Harold Spira from Australia, a great read and source of knowledge as well as the other “legends” you have used as sources. Well done again, Christi! Bobby is so proud :)

      • Christi McDonald
        Christi July 10, 2012 at 7:38 AM

        To both Anders and Julie,

        Thanks for writing… it means a lot to hear from two people who have “been around” and been so successful. I think the best we can do is keep pointing new exhibitors and breeders “back to basics.” Julie, thanks for mentioning Dr. Spira’s books, as they are another great resource.

  • Deb Eldredge, D.V.M.
    Deb E July 9, 2012 at 9:53 AM

    Balance is SO important & often overlooked for mere “flash”. I have noticed some dogs are balanced all the way through growing up – never look awkward. Do you feel those dogs are the better balanced dogs or can a dog who goes thrgough a real gangly stage end up nicely balanced?

  • Barbara Young Tompkinson July 9, 2012 at 10:22 AM

    I loved reading your article…..so much common sense with regard to structure and movement. Why don’t more breeders pay attention to these “facts”…

  • Lynda Gall, Lynann English Cocker Spaniels July 9, 2012 at 11:19 AM

    Loved your article on Balance Christi, so much so that I posted it to my FB Wall for all to read. I did give you and Best in Show Daily the credits for this wonderful teaching tool. I hope that this article gets passed around to as many breeds as possible. Thank you

  • Joyce Carelli, photos by John Carelli
    Joyce C July 9, 2012 at 12:21 PM

    Thank your for describing one essential (if mostly currently missing) part of the breed standard of Poodles (and many other breeds). Let’s concentrate on obtaining “balance” for a while and please, judges, STOP REWARDING dogs that are flashy but are not balanced in their movement. It just isn’t right and is helping with the downfall of correct structure in our breed and all others where fronts and rears should be matched in angulation!

  • Danne July 9, 2012 at 12:53 PM

    One of the very first pure breed dogs sold me was done so as a “pet”. This dog of ordinary unspectacular appearance went on in the ring to win AOMs at National Specialities because of his balance. I was a novice dog owner at the time and was continually confused by ringside comments when this dog moved out…people would literally have their gaze drawn to this dogs movement. It took me many years of watching and learning what balance was. All I knew at the time was I had a pet companion that could effortlessly run behind a quad in broken terrain in 2nd and 3rd gear the day long without appearing tired or winded. To this day the image of this dog “floating” across any type of terrain remains fixed in my minds eye. Your descriptions above are well expressed, something I still have a hard time imparting to people but, unerringly, I know it when I see it. Nicely written. I wish all canine enthusiasts have an opportunity to someday own a truly balanced dog, they are breathtaking to behold and watch. Good article, thx!

  • Ivana Thomas July 9, 2012 at 6:03 PM

    Thanks Christi for a great article. It is truly a beautiful sight to watch a standard poodle move effortlessly across a ring!

  • Sally July 9, 2012 at 10:07 PM

    So nice to see a picture of a Poodle with a correct front and not one with the elbows under the top of its head. Bring back those working shoulders please

    • Christi McDonald
      Christi July 10, 2012 at 7:56 AM

      Hi Sally,

      I must confess: one of the things that inspired me to write about balance was watching the videotape from Standard Poodle judging at Poodle Club of America in April. It isn’t just true in Poodles, of course — there are many breeds today in which fronts are set too far forward — but it seems that the predominant front in Standards today is, just as you’ve said, set under the head, instead of being properly set back almost under the withers. Breeders must focus on breeding for correct fronts, which will take time and patience, as conventional wisdom says that a poor front is among the most difficult faults to correct. But judges also must focus on rewarding correct front assemblies, and when they judge an entry where the incorrect front predominates, judges have to point this out to exhibitors. We can’t go on pretending that what we’re seeing in the ring in so many of our breeds is correct.

  • Lynn Pray July 10, 2012 at 5:25 AM

    Excellent article! Hope many current and new Judges read it!

  • Kim Beverly, Pirate Labradors July 10, 2012 at 6:07 AM

    Amen, amen!

  • Jackie July 10, 2012 at 6:11 AM

    Great article! I wonder how many judges have read it or will???
    I breed wire fox terriers. So many non-terrier judges think the only important thing about a wire is length of head, or I should say scull being much shorter and the muzzle being very long. Movement doesn’t seem to mean anything to this type judge. I wonder if they ever review our standard???

    • Christi McDonald
      Christi July 10, 2012 at 7:46 AM


      There’s nothing quite like a beautiful head in a Wire Fox Terrier, and of course we want judges to recognize a correct head when they find one. A Fox Terrier without that long, narrow head and those small, dark, piercing eyes wouldn’t be a Fox Terrier! But they have to be able to function too, and without correct balance, even the most exquisite Wire standing loses its appeal when it walks. We have to breed for, and judge and reward, ALL aspects of each breed… not just one or two. Thanks for writing.

  • Linda R July 10, 2012 at 8:31 AM

    As a novice, I really appreciate the care you took explaining this, Christi. I’ve been involved in dog sports for some time, but just now have begun my study and exhibiting in the conformation ring. Many thanks!

  • aerden english setters
    Laurie Engel July 11, 2012 at 10:01 AM

    Excellent article. In my breed English Setters it’s crucial that a dog has to be in balance to hunt all day long and not get tired. I wish more people would pay attention to balance when it comes to breeding and judging dogs.

  • Chris Levy
    Chris Levy July 11, 2012 at 10:12 AM

    Christie, I am concerned about the drawing of the dog’s skeletal structure in your article. The dog has an upper arm angle that does not match the shoulder blade angle – and therefore the dog is UNbalanced. I hate to see you perpetuate what is a problem in most breeds today – straight upper arms. Would love to discuss structure with you sometime, especially in terriers – a much misunderstood group of breeds as far as structure goes.

    • Christi McDonald
      Christi July 19, 2012 at 7:54 AM

      Chris, thanks for your comments. The problems with the original illustration were a result of my lack of artistic ability, and we’ve now replaced my original drawing with a much improved version created by our Editor in Chief, Dan Sayers, who is an accomplished artist. Thanks again for your input.

  • Rick Weyrich July 11, 2012 at 12:27 PM

    I remember Mac very well when I was living in Houston. I loved to watch Bobby and Craig show him–such a smooth moving poodle! Thanks for the article.

  • Ismail July 30, 2012 at 4:28 AM

    )I agree with everything you have said here, there’s just one further point I’d like to add there’s no such thing as a PITBULL! Pit actually denotes a fighting dog, as they’re made to face each other in pits whilst the sub-humans bet on their lives. There are many BULL breed, Staffordshire Bull Terriers, Bulldogs, Bull Mastiff etc but PITbull is actually a mis-nomer. Just thought I’d share that, because every time a dog is called a pitbull, we’re supporting the idea that these dogs were bred to fight.As the owner of the world’s silliest German Shepherd I am 100% against BSL. It needs to stop now.August 21, 2010 12:26 pm

  • Robin August 11, 2013 at 9:42 AM

    Great article Christi. So sad today to see so many forward set fronts with short upper arms and so many straight fronts. It seems like mentioned earlier the spirit is gone and it is lets hurry up and get this dog finished. I have always thought it sad to see so many young dogs finish before 9 months of age to fall apart as adults. I love the ones that take a while to “cook” to become a nice example of the breed at 2 or 3 years of age. I miss a lot of the old timers. They did it right.

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