Why some dogs look a picture stacked but fall apart when they move?
A hint can be found in the AKC Great Dane standard; there is a little important word in a phrase that says: “It is always a unit-the Apollo of dogs”. The Canadian standard goes even further – under ‘faults’ it lists “lack of unity”. Some won’t pay much attention to it – because it’s not something clearly understood on first reading. Especially when one has never actually seen a dog that is perfectly and totally “a unit”. So what does it mean ?
The FCI standard uses the words “harmonious appearance, well proportioned outlines”. The original Danish standard calls for “completely harmonious proportions”. Every dog is supposed to be a unit, right? I mean it’s supposed to be one piece? Yeah. Trouble is, dogs are bred by people. And if you listen to dog show folk talking, they tell you they need to improve this or that, add more return to the upper arm or length to the leg or whatever. They are talking about parts. Mostly. They obsess about heads. Excessively. Very rarely do you hear someone saying “in my next litter I want to achieve unity because my dogs are nice but they aren’t one piece”. This awareness seems to be a small minority. Of course everyone wants to breed dogs that are perfect. But often people think that means improving bits. That’s not how genes are inherited though. As they come in blocks, its extremely unlikely that you can get the x,y,z bits that you want from a male to improve what you have in your female. With every breeding combination, you can hope to improve at most two features or traits – and that’s pushing it. As the dog is made of parts, and every part is selected for individually, it’s quite easy to breed dogs that are made of wonderful parts, but they lack essential symmetry so they aren’t “a unit”.
Being “a unit” means cohesion. Means structural integrity. Means biomechanic superiority. Means the building is sound. It means that all the parts fit each other well, the major ones at least; they are well connected, they coordinate well and they move in unison with efficiency and harmony. Means there is overall balance and the structure works, both standing and, most importantly, going. But how can that be truly tested if a breed is not expected to perform in anything beyond the show ring? We often speak about balance. But what is balance? Bad parts can be balanced, too. An atrocious front end can be balanced with an atrocious back end and stuck together through an atrocious midriff. A combination of dysfunctional parts does not create unity because mismatched parts lack what a good clockwork mechanism has: synchronicity. And without it, things tend to break down, even if they are made from quality material.
Are dogs supposed to tell the time, like clocks? Well, yeah, in a way, they do. They show the passage of time like we do. They have their internal timer. From the minute they are conceived – no, before even that: from the moment we decide who their parents are going to be – their biological clock is ticking. And we know that high quality units last longer – because the parts are perfectly fitted and there’s less wear and tear as forces are applied. A quality piece – tool, structure, or living mechanism – lasts longer. Because their moving parts have exquisite timing – and they are a well-functioning unit.
Am. Ch. BMW Fantasia.
For the mechanism to work, and the moving gear to be efficient, each part must be the right part for the job. And as dogs come in different shapes and sizes, the parts need to be the right size for the dog, and the right size for the other parts they are connected to and work together with. Ask any good car mechanic. But as every dog gets bits from its mom and bits from its dad and some bits from its grandparents, and in size it can vary from all of them to an individual degree, and in different areas, for example it can be wider or narrower in chest, taller or shorter, longer in body or more short-coupled etc, there can be a very wide range of combinations between parts. And every mismatch between then, or mismatch between each part and the size of the dog, can result and if fact, in most cases than not, does result in the artificially produced (as in, not by mother nature) dog not being a unit.
A dog that isn’t a unit doesn’t move efficiently and harmoniously. Its front may not work well together with its rear; or the two parts, front and rear, maybe connected by a back that is not quite right (the GSD is a prime example that you only have to mess with the spine to completely ruin a breed), or a loin that is not up to the job, as we discussed before. Its upper thigh might be too short for its second thigh or its pasterns might be too vertical to move smoothly and absorb the shocks of each step, or its hocks, that are very important lever systems, maybe too long or too short or out of kilter. Its muscle might not be sufficient, its ribcage might be too wide or too narrow, its shoulders might be loaded or vertical or too tight to allow optimal extension, its croup might be too steep to allow the thrust that a sufficiently angulated front needs in order for the footfall and the stride to be coordinated. And those pesky little invisible things that almost nobody really talks about at breed seminars or takes much into consideration when choosing mates, the ligaments and the tendons that join everything together and keep them in place, might not be strong and supple and elastic enough to function perfectly.
Am. Ch. BMW Ruffian. Laura Kiaulenas photo.
So looking at your dog, you thought you were going to get a superior animal if you tweaked this or that bone length and you chose what you thought was the right partner for your bitch, and you got a puppy or two that look better than the parents. And then you start training your pup as soon as it can stand, and you put it through its paces and teach it to stand beautifully and allow manipulation and stacking. And it looks stunning when good handling puts everything in place and moves the elbow just under the withers and the hocks vertical and all the rest of it. And you think, ah it’s OK to move all over the place as it’s only a baby. And then you go onto the showring and you get beaten (if you do, and that’s, unfortunately for the breed, a very BIG if) by a dog that perhaps doesn’t look as dramatic or angulated or sweeping in outline or gorgeous in detail. But what that dog has and your dog doesn’t, is unity.
I don’t even have to go too much into the excess that many breeders intentionally breed for, because that’s all they hear about: more angles in the front (the mythical and non-existent 90 degree angle at shoulder joint) and tacked on shoulders that can’t pivot. More angles in the back – to balance the front and because they look pretty and flashy, oh, those well bent stifles! And those hocks that are too short to work and those loooong second thighs! Trouble is, those lengthy bones, angled like that, on a dog that’s square or close to square, have nowhere to go: there’s no room under the dog for them – plus, it takes more time (and therefore more effort and precious biologically produced energy, which in turn puts more pressure on the organs that produce it) to unfold them. So the movement is either restricted or laborious. It might be only a fraction of a second slower, but it’s a fraction of a second too late, as the other leg is coming to meet under the body and the dog has to compensate, in a variety of ways, so that its feet don’t hit each other. It’s these compensations, that we call faults.
Ethiopian Wolf : perfected by nature.
These motion faults are mostly caused by lack of moderation and balance between front and rear, or between the relative lengths or the long bones, or because of a defective spine or withers or croup – because those areas are mostly where the effectiveness of the levers, and therefore the timing, is determined and where the kinetic energy is transferred by or through. And when the dog is young, provided it gets enough exercise and the correct exercise regime, the muscles do all they can so it might actually look okayish the first time around the ring and even the second. Muscle can amazingly keep in place even atrocious hip joints, for example. But after a while, with age and laxity, the extra pressure, the cumulative effect of forces applied and grinding and the extra energy required to move those extra long (and often too heavy) bones is going to become more and more telling. That’s why at some specialty shows for certain trotting breeds, like the rottweiler, they send the (adult) dogs round and round and round for a long time; maybe even thirty, or forty minutes continuous trot, changing handlers on the run, until the evidence of any structural weakness or lack of fitness begin to show. It’s a process of elimination. It’s an attempt of mimicking the survival of the fittest. It may sound excessive, but there is a logic to that simulation, in breeds that are expected to work long hours driving flocks about, i.e. drovers. Which ours isn’t. So we can see the problems much quicker, because the square proportions of the Dane are far less forgiving and revealing of any ugly or uncomfortable truths that are there to be revealed. Unfortunately, we rarely get to assess them galloping. Which is what they were bred to do.
Yet there is a way to tell when an animal is a unit, before it even takes a single step. It’s called harmony. It’s that almost undefinable quality that pleases the educated eye. When everything is in place and in good measure and the structure looks well-knit. And above all, those dogs – and they are not many, as they have been produced either, very occasionally, by sheer luck or, with some consistently, by those most intelligent of breeders who don’t select for bits and bobs, but instead combine compatible units, do assortative matings and test their pudding by function; those breeders who look for the whole dog and for true balance and efficiency – those dogs are very easy to show (provided they also have the right temperament) because they don’t require much handling skills; they just can’t stand wrong, they stack themselves and they always look right. They’re ‘easy on the eye. They flow. They’re smooth. They’re hard and fit and muscled and composed and on their toes. Everything falls into place without excess or waste. They look fluid standing and you know they can go all day and do whatever it is that the breed was meant to do. They’re stylish – but that’s an accidental bonus. Style is the appeal of form that can perform – without wasted energy. True elegance is borne out of functional economy, not by extravagance. So look for honest and true and simple and unexaggerated. Look at the whole dog.
It’s among these individuals that good group judges and good all rounders find their group winners and their BIS winners. The well-oiled machines. The performers. The tireless energetic special ones. Yet the best of them are, not at all strangely, the least flashy-looking; they are understated and sometimes missed – because they can be elusive, as nothing about them is out of place and nothing pokes you in the eye, so sometimes they go unnoticed – until they move. And you have to know what you’re looking for then, because in our follicly unadorned breed, which is not supposed to be a trotting supremo, they don’t cut daisies and they don’t flick their wrists and they don’t pedal bicycles with their rears – at least they’re not supposed to – so they’re not loud or dramatic. They look workmanlike. They just go like trains and they cover the ground without frenetic exertion. They turn on a dime. They have good chassis and springs and good suspensions. How often do you see such dogs in the Dane ring is the question. And they are not the biggest – with few exceptions – because it’s not easy to breed very big dogs that good. All that extra weight is the enemy that works against the giant breeds.
Ch. Bak’s Hesper v. High Acre (source)
Nature produces such animals consistently because natural selection is ruthless and it’s supreme fitness and efficiency that decides who lives and who dies and who gets to mate and pass on their genes. The most efficiently built and put together animals require the least effort in motion so they don’t tire quickly, they conserve energy and they can go on for longer. Their joints are less stressed (provided there is also sufficient lubrication) and better quality of life means they are healthier. For longer. People aren’t that successful in breeding such dogs at the same level or quantity, because not many people possess the cerebral ability – the ‘eye’ to recognise that unity, to see the whole and not just the parts. It’s not a matter of being clever, or well-educated, it’s a matter of how the brain is wired so its not something we are all born with – spatial intelligence is an innate property of the brain to compose the visual elements, analyse and assess the effectiveness of the overall picture, commonly found in architects, designers, sculptors, painters and similarly skilled individuals, who by nature can ‘read’ composition better than others.
Rottweiler, Venus Yavier von Aratanha (Brazil).
Many breeders and judges possess that capacity and when they do they also find it easier to comprehend and assess movement, although evaluation of locomotion being very complex, it does require a very quick eye and a lot more training than static compositions. As it’s not an ability equally shared by all, because our brains’ synapses differ, many people tend to breed more for parts (because that’s what they can see better) and less for the grand total. The bigger picture requires to squint your eye a bit and take a step back to observe objectively – and it’s not easy to do with your loved ones. It’s a massive challenge and emotions get in the way. It’s no coincidence that the great breeder, Laura Kiaulenas of BMW Great Danes, was a very talented architect. She could instinctively capture the overall picture of each dog and put her finger exactly on the strengths and weaknesses of each ‘architecture’, feel, rather than just see, how they could be ideally combined. Needless to say, personal taste plays a major part in the process so apart from the eye, objectivity is a must.
Saluki Qirmizi Ovation
So next time you are at a show, see if you can pick out those dogs that are ‘a unit’ standing and moving. Every little disharmony will present itself, no matter how good the handling. The handlers that know their onions, and are very aware their dog is not 100% coordinated, will try to move as fast as they can, faster than the eye can pick out the faults. You may need to employ your peripheral vision and not look directly at your target; our peripheral vision, spatial perception & awareness are defensive survival mechanisms: they have evolved to enable us perceive things we were not actually looking at, to save us from predators (nowadays it’s very helpful and kept sharp by driving cars), so this sense is quite good at picking up things that your full focus right in front of you, while consciously trying too hard, might miss. Just sweep the ring at a glance and see what your subconscious tells you. Don’t try too hard to look at parts. Squint. The good dogs stand naturally and their lucky handlers have very little to do. These dogs carry themselves better. They don’t require much stacking, propping up and repositioning. They are not over-stretched. They’re at ease because they’re balanced so they don’t fidget much. They’re happy with themselves. They have better posture. Their feet point straight on and ever so slightly – almost imperceptibly- outwards: because that’s the natural position at static balance for a dog that is not too wide and not too narrow. Unlike what you might have been told to the contrary.
perfect co-ordination and footfall. Excellence in movement that is rare to see.
Sukh sokhi photo.
And when they move, they move in unison, with their middle section holding its shape and with minimal effort. Their strides are not dramatic and wasteful, but measured and effective. They don’t throw their feet up in the air, or their elbows out. They don’t overstep and they don’t put their feet down hard; their pads stay low to the ground, and they seem to glide with energy to spare in the tank. Their toplines are parallel to the floor and their flanks don’t roll. They lower their necks as their speed increases (if their handlers know what they are doing) and you can see a clean pair of pads but not too high off the ground as they’re going away. They instantly hit a rhythm from the first stride. Their front feet have left the ground when the hind feet come to land. They don’t pin in, they don’t paddle, their knees and hocks don’t falter and they move with their spine perfectly straight along the axis of direction. That’s balance, efficiency, unity. You won’t see them very often. But after you’ve seen them at work, you won’t be the same again 🙂
Balance + Unity = Harmony
It’s possibly the best training for your eye, although the jury is still out on how much of that ability can actually be acquired and learned. Worth a try though. And it’s extremely pleasant to watch, when you do see dogs that are ‘a unit’. Study what makes them so, play that video again and again and again and then again, in front of your mind’s eye and try to save it, to form your mental picture: it can teach you more than a truckload of books; and make that your breeding and judging goal. Because from this unity, functional integrity and harmony, the most exquisite beauty is born.
I provided some pictures of good examples in the post; and as the Great Dane is supposed to be the Thoroughbred among dogs, and we mustn’t lose sight of that visual reference, the most awe-inspiring example of that exquisite thoroughbred functional beauty can be seen here.
Recommended reading: Great Dane Proportion and Balance by Nikki Rigsbee: