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Conformation of the Working Dog

Written & Illustrated by Linda J. Shaw

German Shepherd Dog structure is working dog structure.  The dog must be able to physically as well as mentally perform the tasks required of the breed.  As a herding dog, it should be capable of a long striding, working trot that can go all day.  As a police dog, it must be able to perform a fast gallop, and scale jumps and walls up to eight feet in height.  As a guide dog, it must be able to withstand endless hours of standing and walking on cold, hard concrete and asphalt.  It is a dog of medium size, weight and strength, and shouldn’t be judged against the speed and agility of the Malinois, or the strength of the Rottweiler, which tend to occupy the more extreme ends of the speed/power continuum.  However, the shepherd is typically more powerful than the Mal and more agile than the Rotty.  

Conformation shows, at their best, are classrooms where judges well experienced in the physical demands of a working animal can assess breeding stock for its anatomical fitness.  At their worst, they become arenas for selection on the basis of fashion and genetic uniformity, by judges with questionable priorities.  There is nothing wrong with a beautiful dog, or preserving the classic good looks of this breed, but it has to be based on fundamental soundness.  There is no kind of work that is as demanding as the pressures put by nature on wild dogs, and the possession of titles or working certifications is not sufficient to ensure that a dog has excellent structure.  It’s still important for the breeder/trainer to develop an eye for good structure, so that superior animals can be selected prior to the training process.  

Conformation can be divided into two areas – structural anatomy, and type.  Generally speaking, type is those characteristics that are specific to a breed – head structure, pigmentation, coat, ear carriage, eye colour – and make an animal attractive and typical of its breed.  Structure is more fundamental, involving the relationships of bones and muscles and their effect on function. The three big components of structural anatomy are the forehand, the middlepiece and the rearhand.  A shepherd can function perfectly well with ear or colour faults, but faults of structure will have consequences to its ability to work.  



Correct angulation front and rear gives the breed its characteristic silhouette, as well as its athletic ability.  However, while the breed typically shows a bit more angulation front and rear than most other working breeds, extremes should be avoided.  That some is good does not imply that more is better.  To simplify things, I’ve shown balanced dogs whose fronts match their rears.  Balance is good of course, but I’d personally rather have a dog that was good on one end and less than perfect on the other, than one that was equally bad at both ends.

The dog that lacks angulation will show a square profile, high in the rear, with little forechest.  This dog can be quite effective at a gallop – this structure isn’t that different from that of the sight hounds – but his limitations will show up at the trot and in jumping.  His lack of stride at both ends will result in a short stepping, choppy trot that uses a lot of energy.  When he comes down off a high jump, he will be unable to rotate his shoulder far enough forward to effectively absorb the impact of landing.  Dogs like this often try to jump outwards, coming down as much on all fours as they can, to keep the stress of impact off an inferior front.  This sort of structure is of little consequence in a small dog such as a terrier, but in a larger, heavier dog it leaves the dog vulnerable to injury.

The moderately angulated dog shows a perfectly workable structure that will be able to function in any working capacity.  This dog is very similar to the wolf, and there is nothing wrong with that.  In fact, this is the structure that was typical of the breed until relatively recently.  What it won’t show is the long striding, fluid trot of the ideal dog.  This structure is still very common in working lines.

The ideal dog is capable of a swift gallop, athletic jumping, and a tireless flowing trot.  The bit of extra angulaton that this dog shows both front and rear over that of the wolf gives the dog the wolf’s long stride, without the wolf’s longer legs.  It should be remembered that the northern gray wolf achieves a level of fitness that probably no shepherd ever reaches, and that extra bit of angulation helps compensate. Angulation does require a bit of energy to support – try standing with your knees bent – but if the animal’s body weight is kept low, a balance is achieved.  Nature commonly puts extreme angulations on smaller species such as fox, civet, smaller cats and so on.  The ideal shepherd should not be a very large, heavy animal, and can well accommodate the degree of angulation required for a ground eating trot.

Further along the scale, we now see dogs showing extreme angulation, usually in the rear.  This can certainly give the animal an extended, dramatic side gait at the trot – unfortunately the only gait at which the dog is judged in the show ring.  It also makes propulsion at the gallop and in jumping more stressful.  Only a dog that is very powerfully muscled is going to match the correctly angulated dog in its ability to jump.  We no longer test a dog’s ability to scale 8 to 10 foot vertical palisades, or 15 to 20 foot broad jumps, tests that in my opinion would effectively demonstrate the limitations of the over-angulated rear.  However, even at the gallop, the over-angulated dog will have a hard time matching the speed of the correct dog.  Extreme angulation of the bony levers of the leg tends to lengthen the muscles and ligaments, but a shorter muscle contracts more effectively, and tighter ligaments snap back with greater force.  In the AKC and CKC show rings, this desire for angulation in physically untested dogs has gone to unfortunate extremes, resulting in animals that cannot even stand normally, let alone work.

We thank Linda for letting publish these articles online. You can find more about Linda and her work on her website:

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