An Over View of the Gait

Written & Illustrated by Linda Shaw MBA

We don't pay all this minute attention to the fine points of conformation just to have a beautiful dog, although that is certainly an inevitable bonus. The whole purpose of correct structure is to produce efficient movement, but that should mean movement at more than just the trot. A multi-talented breed must be proficient at every gait, as it will use them all in the various tasks expected of it.

The GSD, or any dog, shows a characteristic mammalian walk (Fig 1). A typical sequence of steps would be the right rear, right front, left rear, left front, with no period of suspension. One can imagine that each stride of the rear, pushes ahead the foreleg on the same side as the animal proceeds ahead. This form of locomotion evolved from the reptilian gait, in which the right hind foot moves simultaneously with the left front foot, and vice versa. Mammals evolved longer legs, a more refined sense of balance and a stride which converged to the center line of the body, all of which allowed a far wider range of gaits and much greater speed and agility. About all the typical reptile, such as crocodilians, can do is move their legs in the same sequence, but faster.

The GSD at the walk can show us quite a lot. While there is insufficient time in the average conformation ring to judge dogs at this gait, it actually has some advantages. Most obviously, the relative slowness of the gait makes it much easier to see. If a hock or pastern is bending or twisting slightly, it will be more apparent than at a faster gait when it might be missed altogether, despite the fact that any flaw which is observable at a slow gait will most certainly not disappear under the pressure of greater speed. In overangulated dogs, hyperflexion of the joints, particularly the pastern and hock, will show up as the serious flaws that they are, rather than masquerading as part of an extreme, flying side gait (Fig 2). The tendency to single track can also clearly be seen. This is important, as it demonstrates the animal's sense of balance. Even a bull elephant walks with an elegantly precise, single tracking gait. Correct overreach will be apparent as well. My male shows an overreach of the hind foot beyond the footprint of the forefoot on the same side, of about eight inches. At a trot, it will be more. The overall outline of the dog's structure will be easier to see than when gaiting, particularly the topline, assuming it is not pulling into the lead (which is easier to prevent at a walk). If a dog shows a poor outline walking, it's not going to improve with movement.

When the dog increases speed, he may briefly pass through a period of "shuffling". This is just a running walk, and is perfectly normal, although most animals built for speed don't do it very much or for very long. It's no different than the running walk of the Icelandic horse, in which it has been genetically selected and intensified. In wild animals, it is typical of really big animals, such as elephant and grizzly, whose mass makes suspension difficult or impossible.
More typically, when increasing speed the dog may shift into a pace, with the legs on the same side moving in synchronization (Fig 3). This is not abnormal, nor is it an indication of structural problems. All dogs pace at one time or another. It's a gait that offers more speed than the walk without the energy consumption of the trot, which is probably why it is seen as a lazy gait. It appears clumsy because the body shifts from side to side, in exactly the same fashion as the camel, nature's best pacer. In fact, what is happening is quite interesting. Normally, a leg, front or rear, must be hauled forward by muscular work, and then thrust forward with more muscular work. But at the pace, the slight shift of the body to one side allows the legs of the opposite side to be swung forward by pendulum action, with very little muscular exertion. The camel uses this gait because of the incredibly harsh nature of its environment and the shortage of resources. It cannot afford to expend a drop more energy than is required. Generally, it is movement without any period of suspension. This would require extra speed and exertion, which the pace is not intended to provide. The Standardbred pacing horse specializes in a highly artificial, high speed, suspended pace because of breeding, training and special harnesses. For the horse, this gait prevents hoof interference and injury, allowing a huge overreach which is more difficult to achieve at the trot. These concerns don't apply to dogs, who use the pace as a more leisurely means of covering ground. For this reason it is not uncommonly seen in tired, aged, sick or unsound animals, and has been construed as an undesirable gait which is necessarily the result of these problems. This is simply not the case.

When the demand for speed increases, the dog will shift into a trot, with diagonal legs moving together. How he makes the shift is entirely up the individual dog. One of my males never paces, merely hurries the step of a hind leg to match the stride of the opposite front while increasing speed, thus achieving a trotting cadence from a walk (Fig 4). The other male likes to pace first, and manages to get a fair bit of speed. Then he takes a skip in the rear to reverse his rear stride, without altering his forward stride (Fig 5). Whatever works.

The trot is an endurance gait used by wolves to cover vast territories without undue exertion, and without unnecessary speed. It is a patrolling gait that the animals can keep up for hours, and it is the typical working gait of a sheep herding dog. In the conformation ring the trot has the advantage of displaying the angulations and length of stride, and the ability to cover ground. There are two kinds of trot: the supported and the suspended, or flying, trot. In the supported trot, there is always some contact with the ground, and the dog's ability to cover ground is limited by the length of its stride (Fig 6). This doesn't necessarily mean that it's a slow gait. Overangulated animals with huge strides can move with great speed, without ever achieving a period of suspension. In the flying trot, the dog completely leaves the ground with each stride, increasing the amount of ground it can cover without unduly increasing its energy expenditure (Fig 7). This gait is a function of speed, and is most beautifully demonstrated by a correct GSD, but it is not unique to the GSD. Any dog of any structure can show a flying trot, even a dachshund (Fig 8).

When even more speed is required, the dog shifts into a gallop. There are also two kinds of gallop: a supported gallop known as the canter, and the suspended, high speed gallop. The canter in the dog is no different than in the horse (Fig 9). It is a three beat gait, and a typical sequence would be right rear first, left rear and right front together, and finally left front. It is a parallel gait with, in the case of a right lead, the left feet of both front and rear landing before the right feet of both front and rear. On a left lead, the reverse would be true. The dog, like the horse, changes lead depending on whether he is veering to the left or right. A dog circling to the right would move with a right lead, so that his weight at the end of a stride is caught by his right foreleg. The canter is a nice, easy working gait that offers a bit more speed than a flying trot and is easier to execute over uneven territory.

The gallop is the high speed, pursuit gait, with maximum extension and maximum exertion. There are two kinds of gallop: the single suspension, parallel gait exhibited by the horse (Fig 10), and the double suspension, diagonal gait most dramatically demonstrated by the cheetah, the fastest mammal on earth. The GSD shows the gait sequence of the cheetah (Fig 11). A typical, four beat sequence would be right rear, left rear - a long, leaping period of suspension - left front, right front - and a brief, secondary period of suspension. In the dog, as in the cheetah, the spine becomes a crucial instrument of propulsion, flexing deeply and springing straight, even reversing its curvature, to add extra thrust to the period of suspension and hugely increasing the stride. Of all the gaits, the gallop exerts the most stress on a dog's structure and whatever weaknesses exist will be accentuated, although one usually needs slow motion video to see it. The criteria of course, is speed. The ability to perform at top speed is a necessary asset to police and herding dogs, and all GSDs should be able to demonstrate an impressive gallop.