Revised December 2012.
Sometimes the seasoned exhibitor fails to remember how long it took him to get the hang of things when he was first going to dog shows. To the first-time spectator and for some time afterward, the activity at a show is confusing. After a few discussions with someone who knows the ropes, the novice probably has a working understanding of how the classes and groups are organized.
Yet for many, the second step—that of learning what’s going on in the judge’s mind as he arranges and evaluates the dogs, comes much later. If at all. Progressing from a state of “Oh, look at the lovely doggies to “That one looks better than this one” to “Well, I picked them just about the way the judge did” can be speeded up with a little help in analyzing why one dog was considered a bit better than another. Some of that help involves some new terminology such as anatomical words (croup, stifle, prosternum, etc.) or other terms such as side-gait, crossing over and more. But what really helps is to have things pointed out by an experienced fancier.
Many years ago, I judged a unique match in which fanciers were allowed in the ring to hear comments while the dogs were being gaited and examined. This is not allowed at AKC shows, so the next best thing is to describe how most judges go about making decisions, so that you can practice the same orderly, analytical approach. Each judge has a slightly different technique, but you can apply these fundamentals with any of them.
Whether you try to or not, the first thing you get when the dogs enter the ring is a general impression of each dog, which is created by his bearing, ear and tail carriage, size, color, and proportions. Most judges will have all the dogs go around the ring once together before calling them out one at a time. This gives you a chance to spot the obviously inferior dogs as well as any outstanding ones.
The judge may next begin his individual examination either before or after the dog is “set up” (posed) by the handler. I prefer to have most breeds approach me on a loose lead so I can determine something about temperament or personality, then check the dentition before the dog is “stacked”, which is another word for posed by hand. Once you start examining the mouth, most dogs will either wiggle or sit or otherwise break the pose anyway, so why make it difficult? After checking the rest of the head at that time, I step back and let the handler set up his dog.
Now while such hand-setting has become an accepted way to put a dog in an exaggerated pose, a stance he would not always step into on his own, you really can’t tell much about the dog’s proportions, topline, or structure at that point. Therefore, I look at things that aren’t going to be different whether stacked or natural. You can see the prosternum (forechest), neck, head proportions, pasterns, tightness of feet, and get a fair idea of the shoulder layback (the angle the shoulder blade makes with the horizontal, vertical, or upper arms. You often cannot get an honest view of turned-out feet (also call Frenched or east-west) nor of body proportions. So at this time, make an entry into your mental notebook only of the parts seen from the side, and forward of the elbow. During this formal pose, the judge will check for testicles in the male, shoulder lay-back, tail, and physical condition.
You might now see the judge ask the handler to let the dog take a couple of steps forward, again on a loose lead, so he can determine foot placement, natural tail set, and undoctored rear angulation. In some breeds wherein temperament is not quite as important, I look for these as the dog first approaches me. In the pose, an adept handler can “create” a wide variety of types or styles, but when the dog stands on his own, almost nothing can remain hidden from a watchful and knowledgeable judge. A dog whose topline was grotesquely exaggerated into a ski slope or sliding- board angle by hand setting is suddenly revealed to all with its back in a natural position. Take note of it now: does it fit the standard of the breed? Does the dog stand with elbows pinched together when on its own? Are its front feet pointing in roughly the same direction? Does all that apparently extreme rear angulation and/or topline slope disappear? I hope you’re still taking notes.
Speaking of rear angulation, let’s define that parenthetically, since it’s a term misunderstood by many. It refers to the angles made by the upper thigh with the pelvis and lower thigh, and also the lower thigh (below the stifle or knee) with the metatarsus, commonly called the hock. Many breed standards call for a ‘well-bent stifle,” which means there should be a noticeable change in direction (but not extreme) when your eye or hand follows the front profile of the back leg from the abdomen around the stifle to the hock. The Chow Chow is an example of a breed that should not have much of a sweep of the stifle; instead its standard calls for a fairly straight leg. Some untutored novices have thought that “rear angulation” meant a sloping top line in which the hips were significantly lower than the shoulders. I’ve seen more rear angulation on some high-rump Basset Hounds than on some high-withered German Shepherd Dogs. The downward slope of the back is a fad among some exhibitors of Setters, Shepherds, even Dalmatians and other diverse breeds – an attempt to make dogs into caricatures by silly posing.
Where you are sitting or standing makes a difference in how much you can see, so if you haven’t done so already, get into a position where you can see the dog coming directly at you and going away. The diagonal mat in most rings will probably be used by the judge for this “up and back” gaiting. When the dog moves away from you, look at his true hocks (the point of the hock, called the tarsus, not the metatarsus) – do they move up and down as if riding on tracks laid on the branches of a letter V? That is correct movement for most breeds.
Some dogs’ hocks will trace the “legs” of the letter H instead. This parallel tracking is often evidence that the dog is cow-hocked (hocks a lot closer together than the rest of the metatarsi or the lower thighs when standing freely). There should be an imaginary straight line from the center of the haunch through the lower thigh, hock, metatarsus, and footpad. This line, seen from the rear, is straight and vertical when standing, but when trotting, the left and right lines tend to converge at the bottom, whence we get the letter V.
“Sloppy hocks” is one description of the condition in which the hock joint goes either outside or inside the branch of that V when the trotting dog picks up each foot and brings it under his body. Sometimes it wobbles so much that it appears to do both! A dog which stands extremely cowhocked may also continue to show the X – shaped condition when gaiting away from the observer, and in order to avoid bumping the hocks together when running, it may swing the legs around in an arc on the forward movement.
After having observed how tight or loose the hocks are, i.e., whether they stay in the lines of the V, take a peek at the pads, which are most visible at the rearmost end of the thrust. Do they also follow the branches of the V? Some trotting dogs will draw the letter Y, by which I mean the thighs seem to start off in a V but the metatarsi are vertical, parallel, and close, perhaps even crossing over. Dogs with the metatarsi in line with the thighs can also cross over. Both are said to move “too closely behind”.
There are other faults “going away” that you can spot if you know what to look for, Some dogs track wider in the rear than do others, and while much depends on which breed is being observed (read your standards) those that form even a partial V are probably more correct than those that trace a Y or H. Remember also that the slower the dog moves, the wider apart he will place his feet in order to maintain balance. If he were slowed down to the point of standing still, and one foot was lifted from the ground, he’d fall over toward that side if he didn’t compensate by leaning to the other. So a dog which seems to move wide at a slow trot will generally look better when speeded up.
Now the dog has reached the far end of the ring and is heading back in your direction. Look first at the whole front from neck to feet. Do the pads hit the ground as far apart as the shoulders, or more, forming somewhat the letter A? This faulty gait is often seen in a dog that is narrow in chest at the lower half of the rid cage. He is pinched at the elbows and “throws” his paws wide. Now look specifically at the elbow area. Do his front legs seem almost to “come out of the same hole”, as one judge described it to me many decades ago?
Looking at the elbows from a vantage point of directly at the front as the dog approaches can also show you that some dogs throw their elbows out excessively. Of course, if the front feet tend to converge toward a single track, the elbows of necessity must come from partly under the torso forward around the lower rib cage to a point closer to midline. But in some cases, the elbows are too obvious in momentarily jutting outward as the dog brings his arms forward.
Occasionally you will see other faults, such as a disconcerting weaving or crossing-over in front.
By now you’ve mentally noted which dogs are better going and coming by looking specifically for certain things at the points I’ve described. You also have an idea of proportion, topline, tail carriage, and expression. What you have not been able to see or feel from ringside have possibly included the finer subtleties of temperament, dentition, shoulder layback, angle of croup, coat, and muscular condition. It takes a while (years, perhaps) for the eye to learn what the fingers teach, but eventually you can see these things on a normal-coated dog (easier than on one with so much grooming or furnishings so as to hide structure in stance). The GSD in Europe and European-style shows, for example, is almost never touched by the experienced judge except to check testicles and perhaps find a premolar hidden by the tongue or the handler’s finger.
Next, look at the pasterns and feet. It is normal for all dogs to have a slight rotation of the radius and ulna (lower arm) outward when bringing the limb from under the body, with the rotation being reversed (inward) by the time the pad is fully on the ground again ahead of the dog. But dogs that are unbalanced, having more rear angulation than front or shoulder angulation, will frequently exhibit too much of a flip at the pasterns, showing an observer standing in front more pad than would a correct dog. Such dogs that have either an upright shoulder (poor layback) or short upper arm, or both, need to waste some micro-seconds doing something like this in front to match the timing of the longer stride taken by the rear.
Depending on breed and personal preference for technique, the judge may follow with an evaluation of each dog’s “side gait’. This is a term used by fanciers to denote the gait as viewed from the side, obviously, but in some breeds a flashy “side-gaiter” may win over a dog that is truer coming and going. It shouldn’t happen as often as it does. Quite often the judge will send the dogs in a triangle or L-shaped pattern so he can see their movement from all three directions in a single exercise. Find out what pattern he uses by observing what he does with the first dog, then position yourself for the best view—the one nearest to the judge’s own—that you can.
Several things can be seen during the sidegait. If the dog is on a fairly loose lead, the picture will be accurate. Firmness of back is preferred over one that bounces much in the middle. A roach (an unnatural arch or convex curve to the back with the apex higher than the withers) can be seen either while the dog is standing or trotting, but don’t confuse this with the sight-hounds’ proper arch further back on the topline. Also, don’t call it a roach when you see those banana- or boomerang-back British, Australian, or some German GSDs unless the excessively curved back is really higher than the shoulders at some point. The hinged or “broken” topline came about at the end of the 1960s.
After you’ve noted the topline, which in most breeds shows a level back or mid-piece during the trot, look at the extension of the front limbs. The most efficient movement will show the lower arm at approximately a 45-degree angle with the ground at the time the paw is fully extended. Generally, the steeper the shoulder, the less reach the dog would have, but some dogs compensate by trying harder to reach out.
The old idea that the paw should reach as far as the nose (or more) is only partly rooted in truth. If the lower arm is closer to horizontal at its farthest reach it’ll appear to be extended more than the correct one if you use the nose as point of reference. Such a dog is faulty, however, and you can spot this deficiency better than can your fellow novice sitting in the next chair if you look at how much “day-light” there is under the paw at this time. Besides, if the dog is holding its head up to search for someone, or is being “strung up” like a Cocker or terrier by the handier, a false impression of great reach may be given to the novice. Again, you can be deceived if your angle of view is not perfectly perpendicular to the plane in which the dog is moving; if the dog’s head is fairly level with its back yet turned toward the side, it’ll also give an invalid impression.
A steep-shouldered dog cannot move its forelegs under the body any better than it can extend them in front, because the scapula (shoulder blade) is not as mobile—its top end doesn’t have much room to move forward (since it’s practically behind the ears already) and therefore the bottom end, to which is joined the arm, cannot be pivoted rearward very well.
One more thing that you can see from the side, before you shift your eyes rearward, is how smoothly the dog’s front paws hit the ground. Pounding or stabbing the ground can be seen as well at the withers (where neck and shoulder meet on the topline) as anywhere else. Do the dog’s forequarters rise too much between steps and thud down with bone-jarring suddenness? That jolt or jostling can be seen at the tops of the shoulder blades if you are looking for it.
All right, now, if the dog is still moving across your field of vision, you can study the rear action. A dog with a proper croup angle and rear angulation should exhibit proper and breed-typical movement. Look how far under the torso each dog can reach. In many breeds built for trotting, the dog that does not step into the “prints” left by the front feet is apparent—it looks like the back is too long or the rear legs too far away from the front ones. As I mentioned earlier, this can be caused by too straight a front and the subsequent inability to follow-through with the front feet under the torso. There are differences in breed standards, which are supposed to be descriptions of ideal type, but the vast majority of non-coursing breeds will have an ideal pelvis slope of 30 (or up to 35) degrees from the horizontal.
What about the rear extension? As is the case with the front, the most efficient movement appears to be that in which the rear limb, when straightened out as much as possible, makes approximately a 45-degree angle with the ground. This happens just as the footpad leaves the surface after delivering all of the thrust developed by the contracting muscles of the back and thighs. Don’t get carried away with trying to measure this angle—be satisfied with estimating it and comparing one dog’s gait to another. A dog with too short a croup will normally not reach under itself well and thus won’t cover as much ground with each step. Many of such animals, especially those that are also too “flat” or low in withers, will “kick up in the rear”, meaning they lift their rear feet too high off the ground. If you see a dog that doesn’t seem to reach its front paw prints and also kicks up, chances are that (if you could get your hands on it) you’d feel a croup shorter or steeper than usual.
While a dog with a short croup and low withers sometimes looks as if it’s running downhill, a dog with a steep croup may have the look of an uphill runner, or a crouching appearance. A steep croup, seen or felt during the standing exam, may have an adverse effect on the thrust and drive, but it is the short pelvis that limits length of stride. Some dogs have both. Whatever the cause for a high-stepping or short-striding gait, the dog is faulty, and you can judge for yourself the extent compared to its competition in the same ring, or to the breed standard.
The image of power and drive, assuming the leash is not so tight as to interfere with true movement, is often as much a matter of other things as of structure. Estrus, fatigue, worm infestation, time since latest meal or nap, whether there’s a dog in front of the one you’re evaluating, personality, and a host of other factors can slightly influence how a dog moves. The elusive effect of “ring presence” or attitude can make the difference between winning and coming in second (or farther back) in the ring. However, if you’ve now become a little more adept at analyzing the movement, attributes, and proportions of dogs from your ringside seat, you’ll usually agree much more closely with a good judge’s placings.
Where you and the judge disagree can be on matters of interpretation regarding emphasis of one point over another. Or perhaps one of you needs more practice and help. There are plenty of people the spectator can go to for help, but not enough judges seek each other’s advice. Another reason, probably the most frequent one, for differing opinions is that from ringside you see only part of the dog. You can glimpse but a part of the “perpendicular view” while the judge can stand in the middle of the ring and see that aspect at length while the dog runs around him. You can guess at croup and shoulder angle in a heavily-coated dog, but the judge can feel them as well. You can see coat color but not always texture. Looking down on a dog, or seeing it coming in toward him, a judge can gauge proportions, see a whip back (moves somewhat snake-like side to side), and catch the look of apprehension in a dog that is otherwise under control.