Saturday, April 12, 2014

Structure and Conformation for Rank Beginners

I've long been told that Brisbane is very "straight in the rear". One of my vet also commented that he is very "straight in the front". Actually, she said "Well isn't he built like a brick shithouse! I've never seen a dog this straight in the front before, don't ever play flyball with him or I'll have to fire you as a client." I've had a few people online attempt to explain these terms to me with moderate success. Essentially angles are good, and the fact that Brisbane is so straight he's shaped like a coffee table means he is extremely prone to injury.

Originally someone told me to check rear angulation by standing the dog with their rear pasterns (the lower part of the back leg from the hock or heel to the foot) vertical, and see how far out behind them their legs should be. When I stand Brisbane like this, his feet are right under his hips instead of nicely kicked out behind him. This means he is straight in the rear, giving him poor shock absorption and minimal power.

Last week I decided to read a little bit more about dog structure and conformation, so I googled 'dog structure' and ended up here. The problem I tend to have with reading articles like this one is that the authors tend to go on about things like "loin" while assuming I know exactly what that means. I can find endless diagrams with arrows labeling a section of the dog's back, but I still wasn't totally clear on where the loin begins or ends, and so I was unable to nod sagely and say "Yes, that poodle does indeed have a generous loin."

Further googling led me to Diane Jessup's pitbull page, which has a fabulous walk-through to help the average person evaluate the structure of a dog. When she names a part of the dog's body, she also defines those terms in a way that makes them easy to locate on my own dog. Diane Jessup writes for pitbull owners, but her explanations for how various shapes and parts function can be translated for use with any breed or dog.

Poor Brisbane is a conformation trainwreck!
Brisbane may not be a purebred dog, but the lines suggested on Working Pitbull fit show champions of many breeds because they outline the structure of a functional dog. Briz is an amazingly nonfunctional dog.

That top vertical line is called the topline. In a sound dog the back should be basically level, usually with the highest point at the shoulders. Brisbane's rump is higher than his shoulders (withers), but it's not because his back legs are too long, nor is it due to the shape of his spine.

In a sound dog, the hind feet would be far enough back that the vertical line dropped behind the dog's butt would fall just in front of the toes. Brisbane's feet are way in front of this line, up under his hips instead of out behind him. This is because he is straight in the rear, his hindquarters naturally lack strength. Old dogs with sore hips also stand this way to compensate, but this has been Brisbane's natural stance since early puppyhood. Standing with his feet up under his body is what makes Brisbane's rump stick up so high.

If I had known anything about this stuff nine years ago, I might have picked a different puppy since I was looking for an athlete. I'm still glad I got Briz though, he has taught me far more than I would have learned with a structurally sound dog with an easy temperament!

Four-week-old Brisbane with serious faults evident.
The lower horizontal line is called the prosternum line, it starts at the point in the middle of the chest and goes straight back. My brain keeps autocorrecting this to "Plimsoll line". The prosternum line helps to evaluate the shoulder angles of the dog, and is easier and more obvious than feeling for the arm and shoulder bones and guessing from there. If the line roughly divides the dog's body in half, the arm and shoulder bones are proportional. Adult Brisbane's prosternum line falls very low on his body, which means he has a very, very short upper arm bone (humerus). A sound dog's entire head and neck should also be entirely above his topline, but Brisbane's is much lower because his short arm bone translates into a short neck.

The two small vertical lines on adult Brisbane show his loin, the area between his ribcage and pelvis. Brisbane has a very long loin, so does Ru. Both of them consequently have very long backs that make measuring and fitting them for clothes annoying. This is also the region of Brisbane's back where he has spinal disc damage, long loins can make a dog's back unstable. Ru's long loins are tight and springy, he's basically a slinky with feet.

Brisbane's structural faults are extensive, and they make him prone to injury. He can't run or jump effortlessly like a sound dog. Many cattledogs can clear a 6' fence without too much effort, Brisbane is never going to make it over the 4' fence surrounding my yard. By the time he was four years old Brisbane consistently came up lame after chasing a tennis ball on grass, so now his Chuckit games are limited exclusively to the beach. He is often sore after a good run, and games like Frisbee and flyball are completely out of the question. We are about to begin agility training again, but my focus is going to be on calm and quiet rather than speed. Brisbane will probably never do full-height agility obstacles, but we'll do whatever is necessary to modify the game to fit his needs.

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