Comparison of Type

Written & Illustrated by Linda Shaw MBA

The standard for the German Shepherd Dog, while annoyingly vague in many respects, has not changed appreciably over the years. Unfortunately, the same cannot be said of the breed. From the 1940's, when most dogs in most countries looked pretty much the same, we now have West German show, West German working, East German, Czechoslovakian, English Alsation, American show and probably others yet in the making. Partly this is due to a natural, genetic diversification of families, and is probably a good thing. Related dogs tend to look alike. Partly it's due to legitimate differences in breeders' preferences. Working line breeders, for instance, will tend to put less emphasis on movement than on drive. But in many cases it's just ignorance of what correct conformation is all about. The short legs and long bodies of the Alsation were simply not efficient. Neither are the extreme rear angulation and sloping toplines of American show dogs, nor the roached backlines of West German show dogs. These faults have never been acceptable under the standard, but somehow they became fashionable in their respective countries and have been promoted by "big" breeders and judges alike.

Dog A illustrates correctness, standing four square (with the hind feet placed under the hip joint), standing show posed and moving at a flying trot. This dog shows correct proportions of 10:8.75; slightly longer than tall. This is measured from the top of the scapula (including muscling) to the floor, and from the tip of the breast bone to the rear projection of the pelvis. This dog shows a strong head with parallel planes, a deep skull (measured from the top of the head to the underline of the jaw), and a muzzle no longer than the length of the skull (from the back of the skull to the corner of the eye). The neck is arched and is wide at the base, because of the well laid back scapula. The head is carried generally erect, at about a 45 degree angle.

The scapula is attached to a long upper arm at somewhat more than 90 degrees. It is not necessary for the shoulder to form a right angle, because when the dog is moving, its centre of gravity will drop, lowering the body slightly and causing the shoulder angle to close. Straight, upright bones are optimal for support, but angulation is necessary for movement. About 95 degrees is the best compromise for both. Besides, reach is not limited by the scapular angle, as it has no bony attachment. A very fit dog with this lay back of shoulder can reach further than 45 degrees when necessary.

The upper arm, lower arm, femur or upper thigh, and gaskin or lower thigh, are all equal in length. These are the levers that provide propulsion, and the smoothest, most efficient propulsion is provided by levers of equal length. The scapula is generally not as long as these bones, as it is not a true lever. It pivots on its centre point, being pulled forwards and backwards by massive layers of muscle across its entire surface. It is more important that it be wide, to provide roomy attachment for those muscles. Short forelegs are less vulnerable to injury, but they are less effective at propelling the body. Very long legs are a feature of racing dogs, but are much more vulnerable, particularly in jumping. The medium length leg is the best all around compromise for speed, strength and propulsion.
The pastern is only slightly angled. The more angled it is, the less absorption it has, a bit like soft shocks on a car. A strong pastern has great absorption, but can also generate propulsive energy. As the foot travels back in the stride, the tendons are stretched like elastics over the back of the joint, gathering energy for when the foot leaves the ground when they snap back and giving the stride an extra bit of spring.

The back is level when standing normally, and slightly sloped when posed. The withers must be long and high, flowing up into an arched neck and back over a straight back, as this is where the long muscles that move the scapula are found. In a normal spine, the vertebrae are strung together in a straight line, while the long upper spines of each vertebra describe a high arch at the withers, and a longer, lower arch over the lumbar region, with a slight dip in between. In a well muscled dog, this dip is not visible, while the lumbar arch should only be apparent as an arching of the muscles of the loin.

The rib cage reaches well back to the centre of the dog, and balloons out only slightly behind the forequarters. It should be flat relative to, say, a pitbull or Rottweiler, but well enough rounded to provide ample heart and lung capacity. If the ribs are well rounded, the sternum will only reach to a point an inch or two above the elbows. Chest muscling will bring the brisket to the point of elbow or slightly below, and hair will seem to increase the chest depth even more. Maximum body depth should be at the elbow, with the underline sloping upwards into the belly.

The pelvis is set at about 30 to 35 degrees, measured from a plane laid across its top. I find this more accurate than trying to eyeball a line through it. This angle is common to most big predators, and is the most efficient angle to channel the upwards energy from each stride, forward horizontally along the spine. The croup will generally follow the line of the pelvis, but its length will depend on the lay of the caudal vertebrae at the root of the tail. Whether the tail is high or low set has no effect on gait, so a long croup is really more esthetic than practical. On the other hand, a pelvis that is too steep or flat will result in a shortened stride as well as a faulty croup. A flat pelvis hampers reach while a steep pelvis restricts follow-through, and a dog will tend not to reach ahead any more than he can follow-through (this is true for the forehand as well as the rearhand). A long, smooth croup that flows into a beautiful saber tail is certainly the most visually appealing finish to a fine moving dog. However, it should be remembered that a very strong minded, dominant dog will often carry its tail high, shortening the croup somewhat. Given a choice between a weak minded dog with low tail carriage and a strong dog who flags his tail, the choice should always be the latter.

Rear angulation has been the source of a great deal of contention in the breed. Show animals have more of it, and working breds tend to have less. American dogs have taken it to the extreme, to the point where no animal who is not ridiculously over endowed will achieve top conformation ranking. German show dogs are more reasonably structured, but even some of those are starting to show excessive rear. Almost as a form of rebellion, many working breds have so little that their stride at the trot is almost terrier-like. Correct stifle angulation should mirror the shoulder, being somewhat greater than 90 degrees, and for the same reasons. The dog will in all postures stand up on its toes, and its metatarsus or hock will be parallel to its upper thigh. This is also the typical configuration of most predatory animals, where long term, low to medium speed and great endurance is required, with occasional bursts of short term, extreme speed.

In movement, Dog A shows length of stride, power and suspension. His head is at about 45 degrees, not straining up or down, while his neckline flows down through long, strong, medium high withers, over a short, straight, level backline with no arching or dipping, and down over a gently sloping croup. Because of the sloping withers and croup, there is the appearance of a slight slope to the topline, even though the spine is level. He shows a 45 degree reach with a well opened shoulder. In the rear, he under-reaches to his centre of gravity with only the toes touching down, not the hocks. When driving back, he shows a 45 degree, snapping rear follow-through with straightened hocks, tight Achilles tendon and a gaskin that is not parallel to the ground. There is no flipping up of the pasterns, or dragging of the rear toes. The effect is of a moderately low, sweeping, efficient gait, with a period of suspension propelling the body effortlessly through space, and making it appear to hover. When other dogs must shift into a gallop, this dog can just stretch out into a longer stride and a longer period of suspension, giving a beautiful illusion of slow motion.

Dog B is an animal that probably could not win in any conformation arena, yet this dog could work perfectly well at any task, and show decent speed, strength and endurance. His proportions are 10:9.1, almost square. His relatively short body and long legs make him athletic and quick, but will tend to make him a galloper rather than a trotter, and will deny him the grace and suppleness of a longer body. His muzzle is too short, and a bit upturned, but his grip would be very strong. His neck does not have a wide breadth of attachment, because of his straighter shoulder. This is accompanied by a short, upright upper arm, and his breastbone and forechest are not well developed. At a trot, this dog will not be able to reach past his chin, and will be choppy in movement, but in all likelihood he will still show good reach at the gallop, as both forelegs are drawn forward in tandem with maximum exertion. Where he may show problems is in coming down off very high jumps, such as a French palisade, when a straight shoulder will not absorb as much of the tremendous impact of landing as could a well laid on shoulder. I say could, because fitness is such an important component of any physical activity. A very fit dog with straight shoulders may perform better than a soft dog with good shoulders. The fit, correct dog will perform the best of all. He also shows rather upright pasterns, with very good feet. Unless the pastern is completely straight, and risks buckling over on impact, an upright pastern probably offers more absorptive capacity than a technically correct pastern. The correct pastern is sufficiently sloped so that, no matter the angle of impact, the joint will compress and there is no risk that the pastern will be "jammed".

This dog also lacks in chest depth, although its capacity is unaffected. He will be slightly barrel chested, and as a result, will probably throw out his elbows when gaiting. His shortness of body is reflected in a short spine, which also shows a decided roach. His withers are flat, reducing the area of attachment for shoulder muscles and forcing the scapula further forward and down. This type of spinal configuration also has the tendency to cause the dog to carry his head down, both standing and gaiting. His arching spine has also forced his pelvis downward into a steep position, making a long, driving follow-through more difficult and shortening the rear stride. As well, his rear drive will accentuate his roach, in effect causing the spine to buckle upwards, wasting a huge amount of energy and making the spine more vulnerable to injury. A roach might be an advantage to a pack animal whose back must bear weight, but it is of no particular advantage to a working dog. Still, a roach is better then a sway back, and is less likely to break down with pregnancy or age.

His hindquarters show angulation that is less than ideal, but which is perfectly adequate for work. It is about the same amount as one sees in wolves. His hock and upper thigh are parallel and well articulated, and what his rear lacks in stride length it will make up in power. The front and rear are balanced, and in most cases his flaws err on the side of strength. His gait at a trot will be unimpressive, and in order to cover ground he must shift into a flying trot at a relatively low rate of speed to make up for his lack of stride. However, he is short coupled, dry and tightly ligamented, and should show a normal ability to gallop and jump. While not an outstanding specimen of the breed, he is perfectly serviceable, and should be judged accordingly.

Dog C is the extreme type of animal that can win top awards in the American specialty show ring. His proportions are 10:8, which don't sound unreasonable, but in actuality creates a dog of unacceptable length. He represents an evolution of the breed away from a body type that is athletic and strong, towards one that shows an optically dramatic gait. The emphasis on gait has resulted in a lack of attention to other problems and a noticeable loss of breed type.
This dog's head is small and weak, lacks good depth of stop, is too long in foreface, and the skull lacks depth and jaw strength. The head has a collie like quality which is atypical and weak. He has a straight front assembly and associated short upper arm, and carries his head vertically because of the steepness of the withers and backline. This neck also lacks breadth of attachment, and is too long. The large prosternum and filled forechest can give the illusion of a broad, well set shoulder. His lower arm is a bit short, which contributes to his low station and low, sweeping gait, but it is less efficient for galloping and jumping. The pasterns are down and will probably collapse into a plantar position under the pressure of landing off a high jump. The feet are flat. His withers are high, but more because his hindquarters are low than because of their structure. The chest is very deep, because it has been squashed flat, and is slab sided and narrow when seen from the front. A tremendously long body means a very long spine. It's strong enough to give the dog an elegant topline, but is too long for agility and jumping, and slopes unnaturally even when the dog is standing informally. He has an underline and abdominal cavity which is long and drooping, giving the abdominal organs far more space than they need. The croup and tail are long and beautiful. Angulation in the stifle is unbalanced with the angulation of the shoulder, being considerably more acute: a full right angle. The lower hind leg has lengthened proportionately much longer than the lower arm, pushing the hock downward and forming an acute angle at the hock joint, known as sickle hocks. These are accompanied by long, loose Achilles tendons which cannot snap the hock open for a sharp, strong, propulsive follow-through.

In movement, Dog C gives the illusion of impressive stride and power. He does show fine reach, because he is so loosely ligamented. Some show an exaggerated reach, with the foreleg actually achieving an horizontal position. A normally muscled front with good bone relationships can't do this, at least not at a trot. The exaggerated rear angulation ostensibly increases power and drive. What it actually does is produce an overextended length of stride, which requires an excessively long back to absorb it. It also gives the associated floppy, sickle (and probably cow) hocks that are unable to completely snap open on follow-through, and that waste a great deal of energy. The rear is lowered as a result, sloping not just the topline, but the spine as well. An opened hock is achieved by speed, with the hock thrown back and flipped open of its own momentum, but providing no power. Hence the over fast gaiting at so many specialty shows. Loose, excessive angles also prevent the dog from showing any period of suspension, even at faster speeds. The hind leg has landed almost up to the hock (plantar) before the forefoot is anywhere near leaving the ground. The dog can't generate sufficient power to lift and suspend the body. Needless to say, this conformation is incapable of providing the power or coordination necessary for fast galloping or athletic jumping.

The overall effect is of a very dramatic, even elegant, moving dog (especially if it's in good condition), with a racy topline, huge stride and great speed. The speed at which he is gaited makes the details inside the silhouette difficult to see, and an extreme dog can appear very impressive. He can even make a correct dog seem lacking, and will initially cover more ground, faster and with more flash, leaving the correct dog behind. It would take some time, longer than a few hours in a show ring, before the correct dog's effortless, floating gait ran the extreme dog into the ground. Also, the correct dog will show a normal walk, won't stand on its hocks, can gallop well and will have good jumping and turning ability, things that will be more of a problem for this extreme dog.

Dogs D and E are compilations of actual dogs, showing an unfortunate example of the divergence of type that has occurred. Dog D is an amalgamation of two fine German imports, the Jims, Neuman's and v Fiemereck. Dog E is a combination of a US Grand Victor and a Best in Show winner. I didn't choose the best or worst of the photographs I used, just the elements that showed the perspective I needed. As you can see, the first dog shows strength of expression, normal angles and an appearance of power throughout. The second dog makes obvious his weak ligamentation, fine bone, fragile head and complete lack of expression and masculinity, all in the name of side gait.