There’s been a lot of discussion in the press over the weekend and first few days of this week about the german shepherd dog that won it’s breed (but not group) at Crufts. There’s also been a lot of emotional discussion on social media. I’m almost slightly hesitant to comment, but feel that it would be remiss of me to not bring my thoughts to the table.
Firstly, I’m so pleased that Channel Four didn’t brush the issue under the table, but brought a panel of people to their sofa on Sunday night. It wasn’t a bad panel either - a vet, a judge and a member of the Kennel Club. Anyone who looked at the video or the footage of the German shepherd bitch could see that she had a sloping back and was nearly walking on her hocks- almost a flat footed stance when dogs are generally walking on their tip toes (not en pointe as per ballet dancers and horses!). This 'roach back’, as it is called, is now considered an undesirable trait and should be heavily penalised, however, a slight slope is considered desirable (I'm paraphrasing the Kennel Club website but this is what I interpret from the breed standards which can be found here ). So why is a slight slope considered desirable? Well it's all to do with the hindlimb angulation and the benefit this has on stride length- an animal with a greater hindlimb angulation is able to take longer strides and so uses less energy to get from A to B.
What is rear limb angulation? If a dog is stood so that the metatarsal bones (the bones from the hock to the toes) are perpendicular to the ground, the pelvic limb angulation (or hindlimb angulation) is the distance between a line drawn perpendicular to the ground along the caudal aspect of the metatarsals and the ischial tuberosity. Confused?! This picture is from Canine Sports Medicine and Rehabilitation by the superb Christine Zink and Janet B. Van Dyke and I think shows beautifully what I've tried to put into words.
This picture, also from the Canine Sports Medicine and Rehabilitation textbook, demonstrates how two dogs from the same breed (in this case golden retrievers) can have notably different pelvic limb angulation. You can see that the dog on the left with the increased pelvic limb angulation has a slight slope to its back, but not the exaggerated slope that we see in some german shepherds.
If we consider what the German shepherd was originally bred for, and the benefits conferred by increased pelvic hindlimb angulation, we can maybe see why the breed started to move toward increasing pelvic limb angulation. Being a pastoral dog, German shepherds were originally bred for herding and flock guard, so being able to efficiently cover ground and with a faster ground speed was an advantage, as would be improved springing ability. However, over time this pelvic limb angulation has become more and more exaggerated in the breed, and with this comes problems. Excessive pelvic limb angulation requires tremendous muscular strength and coordination to stabilise the rear end- more strength and coordination is needed to effectively use the hind limbs for locomotion. This has the effect of making these dogs less accurate with placing their hind feet and they struggle with making sharp turns. Whilst they seem to get less injuries due to torque, they are more prone to injuries due to hyperextension. So ideally what we want is a moderate pelvic limb angulation - and that wasn't what was seen at the weekend at Crufts. This was a bitch with a marked exaggeration in its pelvic limb angulation, and this is what is being seen in some german shepherds - we seem to be breeding preferentially for this exaggerated angulation. The owners have stressed that this bitch has good hip scores -what this shows is that whilst hip scoring is an attempt at trying to determine who best to breed from to reduce issues with hip dysplasia in a breed, it is not a determining factor for overall good hindlimb health or conformation, and is of little consequence to the issue here of pelvic limb angulation. There are limitations to these tests that we do which we must be aware of.
My feeling is that, as with all breeds, we need to look at what conformation minimises the risk of injury or pain to the dog whilst trying to preserve what gives the breed their distinctive appearance and skill set - and although a balance needs to be obtained, we should prioritise the welfare of the dog over the welfare of the breed. I think the Kennel Club are trying to do that with their various schemes, although some of this is because of public pressure, but it's sad that the judges are not adhering to the new standards because this doesn't encourage the breeders to steer away from more detrimental traits. I think we must also be aware that we are focussing heavily on the german shepherds due to this bitch at Crufts, yet there are a large number of other breeds with questionable traits that confer health issues to them -it seems only fair that they should also receive some concern.