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The Emperor's New Clothes

And Other Popular Genetic Misconceptions

Diane Klumb - Pentimento - 1997


In the world of purebred dogs, which is after all just a microcosm of the world at large, misconceptions abound. "Truisms" are expounded and then repeated as Gospel or Urban Legend without anyone ever really taking the time to ask why on earth that may be so, or even, Heaven help us, what exactly it means. (My personal favorite in this regard is "hocks well let down:' Think about this for a minute - is this a direct translation from another language, maybe? I'm pretty sure even old Malcolm E. Miller himself would be baffled… yet we all say it as though it were not in actual fact pure gibberish, and we even sort of know what we're talking about when we refer to hocks in that way, which is even scarier…)


The whole thing reminds me a lot of the subjects watching the Emperor in his invisible finery - nobody wants to be the one to say "Huh???" so we just allow absurdities in our sport to remain unchallenged, and to reach even more absurd levels.


Come on, you know what I'm talking about. When I started showing dogs, Westies did not have heads that looked like big white basketballs, and although I'm sure it's an art form unto itself to achieve that perfect circle, what I want to know is what’s the point? Or - and I've used this one before - exactly what is the advantage to the incredible gravity-defying heights that topknots have reached? I'm not opposed to excessive grooming on principle, because of course it doesn't affect genetics in the least and in the final analysis this is about the evaluation of breeding stock, but I'm just flat-out curious: At what point does something that started out as an effort to make an animal more attractive cease to make that animal attractive, and cross the line into grotesque parody? Let's look at this in another light. If a woman's cosmetic enhancements garnered compliments, would she be wise to apply more and more layers of makeup? Soon she'd cross the line from enhanced beauty to cartoon character, and I think the same applies with purebred dogs.


As a grooming issue, the question of when "better becomes the enemy of good" is more or less academic, and in truth I'm pretty amused by it. When the same principles are applied to anatomy, however, it ceases to be amusing, and we ought to take it more seriously. Form, after all, must reflect function - or at the least original function - or what's the point of having different breeds at all?


Anatomical absurdities are most dangerous in the dogs bred for specific functions if breed type is to be preserved. The Working Group is certainly a case in point, and this is the Working Dog Issue.


You want an example? OK. At what point did the, femur (first thigh) cease to be the longest bone in the canine, which is basic anatomy, and the tibia (second thigh) take its place? And for Heaven's sake, to what end??? Lately, I've been seeing examples of it in the Working Group, when heretofore it has been confined to Herding and Sporting, which is bad enough… There are certain principles of anatomy that apply to quadrupeds in general, and dorsimobile (those with a flexible spine) quadrupeds in particular. Beyond that we have variations that have developed based on food-gathering styles: sprinters are built differently than endurance animals, for example. When the dog became domesticated, the varying anatomy born of the different food-gathering styles was found to have value in various jobs, and man continued to selectively improve upon it until he achieved its quintessence, which to my mind would be the dachshund, a dog designed to effectively fit in a hole. Amazing what we can do when we put our minds to it…


But the principles of the dorsimobile quadruped still apply to all, and chief among them is the fact that unless he is lame, any member of the genus Canis will stand with his forefoot directly under the center of his scapula, and his rear foot under his tuber ischiadicum, (the bony protuberance ending at the point of buttocks, or what poodle people call "the shelf') because that's where the column of support is. If the tibia and fibula (bones of the "second thigh") are longer than the femur, the only way the dog can do this is by having the tarsus (that collection of seven bones we call the "hock") long enough to get the foot to where it needs to be. As a general rule, and in the interest of preservation of the species, the genes that control the length of one bone often are linked to the genes that control the length of the corresponding ones. (This most likely is Nature's way of ensuring that in spite of mankind's endless tinkering, the dog will still be able to stand and walk unassisted. Sometimes I look around the rings and think Nature is losing this battle)


If you doubt I am correct about this, look at the dogs standing ringside. By and large, in a relaxed stance, those who are not too badly out of whack will be standing with their hind feet under the back half of the pelvis, and with their hocks slightly sloping to get the foot there, looking relaxed and reasonably bored. (Unless food or sex are involved, relaxed and reasonably bored is a totally natural state for the entire genus Canis…) The introduction of bait (sex works just as well here) will cause the dog to wake up, throw his weight toward his shoulders, shifting his balance and whole frame forward, and the hocks will usually then be perpendicular to the floor with the hind feet slightly behind an imaginary vertical line drawn from the point of buttocks. (Good ones can effect this transformation without moving a foot.) The dog is now "stacked" in dog-show terminology, and suddenly looks a whole lot more attractive. The first and second thigh together now have an elegant "sweep" to them, ending in a short, straight hock.


Now, this is where man and Mother Nature collide. If that sweep is so attractive, more sweep would certainly be more attractive, right?


Wrong. As surely as God made little green apples, excessive sweep, which is no more nor less than excessive angulation, will give you sickle hocks, and unless the dog's sole purpose in life is to stand around stacked from sunup to sundown, it is NOT a Good Thing. And in one breed I can think of (and since you all know what it is I won't single it out) the grotesque length of tibia and fibula has resulted in a dog that is incapable of standing with both hocks perpendicular to the ground. If you tried to make them do it they'd collapse onto their stifles, so instead they are stacked with one hock perpendicular to the ground (that foot is somewhere back in another zip code) and the other foot under the dog for balance. Huh?????? To talk about soundness in a breed that can no longer stand in a position natural to the rest of the canine world is just short of blasphemy.


This is clearly a case where better is the enemy of good, everyone knows it, and yet I see other breeds heading in this direction. I don't give a rip what your dog looks like stacked, if he is standing ringside with his hocks nearly flat under him just so he can put his feet where they need to be, your breed is in serious trouble.


What happens when these dogs move? Not what's supposed to happen, that's for sure.


The dog is, essentially, a rear- wheel-drive machine. A powerful rear propels the dog forward as he pushes off with it, and the front reaches out to "eat ground," allowing it room to do so. This is the "reach and drive" we all revere. But simple physics tells us that forward thrust is useless unless there is corresponding follow-through (think of a golf swing or a fastball pitch) and a dog who is sickle-hocked will have no follow-through. Drive will therefore be reduced. The tarsus (hock) joint, like the pastern, is a hinge joint, rather than a ball-and-socket, and it is held together by ligaments, and backed by the calcaneus process, which acts as a "stop" in the rear of the joint. If the articulation of that joint is too acute (as it is in a dog with too much angulation) the joint will flex forward but not a corresponding distance backward, resulting in what we call sickle hocks. The dog plagued with it will lack rear extension and thus have reduced power in the rear.


Moderate rear angulation, on the other hand, in which the femur is indeed the longest bone in the leg as Nature intended, will produce a shorter, more flexible hock, because of the correlation in length between the tibia and fibula and the tarsus bones, with good rear extension. This dog will have powerful drive, and odds are the rear will match the front, as a moderately angled rear is really the best match for a well-laid-back shoulder, and will result in better overall balance. (In far too many dogs suffering from over-angulation and sickle hocks, the front is not nearly so angulated, resulting in a lovely sloping topline and a dog who simply cannot get out of his own way. But they do look nice stacked…!) A dog balanced on both ends will have both power and endurance for any job, and judges ought to be rewarding them. A pretty outline does not necessarily denote a good dog, and we'd do well to remember that, as both breeders and judges.


Can you get a dog with excessive angulation and a short hock? Yes, occasionally, thanks to Mendel's Law of Independent Assortment, and they will likely do a lot of winning, too, as they are probably not sickle-hocked and will have a very pretty outline stacked. But they are really genetic freaks (sorry), and will be outnumbered in their breed by long- (read sickle-) hocked dogs, and they will still lack balance, unless they have a front that looks like the bow of the QE II, and then unless they have a really long back, they probably won't be able to get out of their own way, either... Their appearance generally means your breed is headed for trouble, rather like a glorious show of the Northern Lights really means your pipes are probably gonna freeze tonight up there in Minnesota… and unlike top knots or too much hairspray, you can't brush the bad anatomy out of a dog once the show is over.


As I'm finishing this, I just heard that a Russian airliner left Tel-Aviv this morning and exploded over the Black Sea with 80 souls on board and they've closed Ben-Gurian, which is probably the most secure airport on the entire planet, which makes me wonder why we bother with all this, and how trivial canine anatomy seems at this point in time in a world seemingly gone mad. And then I remember the phone conversation I had with my son, who is in Army Intelligence, (next time you see me I will be entirely gray, by the way...)


On September 12, he was in DC for a couple weeks after a tour in Kosovo, taking yet another class in the weird black arts that InTel types specialize in, and was once again far too close to the action for his mother's taste. (I should be used to it by now after emerging unscathed from Syria and Kosovo and God knows where else -they could tell you, but then they'd have to kill you is an old joke at our house - this idiot buys a 750 Ducatti with his hazardous duty pay so he can roar down the German auto-bahn at 120 mph in a donorcycle… dogs are so much easier...) They were evacuated, he split to go drink a few beers at his sister's (I ask you, how many people are lucky enough to say both their kids actually watched the Pentagon attacked? Lord…) and by the next morning hadn't really gotten any orders on what to do next, as the Army was a little preoccupied with a large fire in its Intelligence Wing among other things… So entirely on his own he decided to attire himself in his Class A dress uniform and show up for his class. (Generally the intel guys wear civvies so as not to stand out or anything. And this is the kid who hated Juniors because you had to wear a tie…) Apparently everyone else had decided to do the same. He said the image of our Armed Forces, from Marine Generals -an awesome sight any day -on down to privates, in full dress uniform, all over our nation's Capitol, walking into, among many others, a building that was still burning out of control as though it were just another day and there was work to be done, was not something that could easily be forgotten. And it's probably an example the rest of us need to follow, because it's who we are as a nation, and it is our greatest strength.

So put on your dog show clothes, and get out there and do what you do. And remember to have fun, because that's OK, too. It's who we are.


reprinted courtesy of ShowSight Magazine 1997



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