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 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.
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?
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).