What is the normal, correct topline (back) in the canine and for the German Shepherd Dog? International breeder-judge graphically and authoritatively answers for GSD owners, breeders and other judges.
TOPLINE: CANINE AND GSD ILLUSTRATED
To see what might be called the most “natural” canine topline, we should look to Nature to find that which is untouched by the genetic manipulation and aesthetic influence of humans. After all, Man has so changed the look of the canine that it is hard to imagine an English Bulldog or Chihuahua or perhaps even an Irish Setter existing or persisting “in the wild.”
Look at the wolf (click image to enlarge) and various other “primitive breeds” such as Dingo, Canaan Dog, and a few others. We see in these nature-selected dogs a topline that does not resemble the downward-sloping backs of many modern canines or the almost wheel-back that has or had become acceptable in a few coursing hounds. The wild dog has a level topline segment—called the true back—between the shoulder blade and the fall (slope) of the pelvis. All other backlines, with possible minor exceptions in a very few coursing hounds, should be considered unnatural or at least man-made.
In modern canines, any topline that deviates from this wild-dog model is, in a manner of speaking, a “mutation” that has been fixed in these breeds because of human rather than natural selection. In nature, the inefficient or odd tends to die out, because the carriers do not get as much chance to breed—only the more functional individuals tend to get the greatest opportunities to donate their genes to offspring. Survival of the fittest is still a valid norm.
Allow me to initially draw your attention to the matter of “front (shoulder) angulation” even though, at first thought, you might not see it as pertinent to a discussion of topline. A good front assembly is harder to breed or find than good hindquarter angulation, because in the former you are trying to hit a target on the extreme end of a range of phenotypes, while in the case of rear (stifle/lower-thigh) angulation, your target is the middle of the range, the hindquarter extremes being a Chow or Shar-Pei on one end and an AKC-type GSD, Cocker, or Setter, etc. on the other. Think of an archery contest where one person is supposed to hit a target within an inch of the left edge and another is supposed to hit his target somewhere between the left edge and the right edge. Which is easier?
Seen from the side, a dog with that harder-to-attain superior front angulation will have a broader withers, which is that part of the topline from where the neck meets the scapula to where the well-sloped scapula ends and the level back begins. A dog with its front legs set back further under its body—and consequently more forechest showing—will have that longer transition area between the neck and the back. In judging standing dogs, a good judge will look for those which have more forechest in front of the forelegs, and these will automatically be the ones with the better shoulder angulation and withers. Of course, you must also be able to recognize the protruding sternum of the “pigeon-breasted” dog who lacks a true filled-out forechest/prosternum, as well as be able to “see through” the hair of long-coated dogs such as Newfies or fluffed-up Poodles. With practice, your eyes will eventually be able to see what as a novice only your fingers had earlier told you. Once your eye has reliably told you what the spinal situation is from neck vertebrae to onset of the pelvis, the rest is very easy—in regard to evaluating the topline.
If a dog has a very upright foreassembly (very little angulation between humerus and scapula), there will be much less transition area from neck to back vertebrae than seen in a dog with good front angles. That means it will appear more like a sudden change from the angle at which the dog hold its neck-&-head to the horizontal portion over the ribs. Such a dog will not be able to reach as well in its stride because “the swing of the pendulum” (shoulder blade) is dependent on how much change is possible in the angle (layback) of the scapula as the dog reaches forward. If the scapula is attached to a narrower spread of neck-&-thoracic vertebrae (having a relatively vertical position), the pendulum will not have as great a swing (less reach per stride). As some have put it, “the dog is running downhill” or “it falls on the forehand”—this picture is a result of a foreassembly (humerus-scapula angle) that is too upright and thus does not have the cushioning effect that a well-angled forequarter gives.
In gait, the most obvious result of imbalance—that is, the shoulder-arm angulation being much less than the rear (femur-lower thigh) angulation—is a high-stepping gait in front. Yet, it always amazes me that even licensed judges so often cannot see that when a flashy exhibit appears to “reach past its nose” it often is actually goose-stepping like a Nazi soldier! Train your eye to see how much “road clearance” there is between front foot and the ground at the instant of furthest reach. The GSDs at an AKC show may be the best place to see this.
As a rule, when any natural breed is posed with hocks vertical (in order to accurately compare one dog to another), you will almost always find that the withers over the shoulder blade is slightly higher, then the back is level as far as the pelvic bone, and then there is a slope to the end of the pelvis, the ischium. Many people mistake the word “level” for “straight”—carpenters will tell you it means horizontal; not sloping. American GSDs largely became high-stepping dogs with no forechest (lack of shoulder angulation) and with a ski-slope topline.
German dogs’ hindquarters began to look as though they belonged on a dog half the size, and for many years their toplines suffered so badly that it seemed 70 percent of their dogs looked like hyenas or worse. The “broken back” look, as if there was a broken hinge in the middle, was another result of this negligence. The two-angle back is often erroneously called a roach back, but that word should only be used when the mid-piece is actually higher than the withers.
As your eye follows the topline further back, you see that at the end of the nearly-level) ideal back, the pelvis is set on at a slope. Most well-made dogs have in the range of 30 to 35 degrees here, from the highest protuberance of the ilium to the rearmost bumps on the ischium. A drawing should be attached to this article, made from a radiograph of a standing dog (a GSD). Another sketch, but hand-drawn over the outline of a photo, shows the steeper pelvic slope normal to Greyhounds and a few other breeds. We find much steeper croups (pelvis) and fore-assemblies (shoulder-upperarm) in the coursing hounds than are desirable in the endurance trotting types that more resemble wolves.
Re the extremely steep croup area that has become so prevalent in the GSD (and overlooked even by SV judges!): Some dogs make one think of Dante plunging straight down into Hades. If you start in mid-back with a ski-slope topline, even if you stay close to the 30 or 35 degree additional pelvic slope which otherwise would be natural, the total effect is of a very precipitous drop, fast approaching the vertical. See Figures 3 and 7.
A steep pelvis does not give as broad an area of attachment for the muscles of the thigh (and to a lesser extent, of the loin). So, you may ask why a dog—and the GSD is not the only one—with a steep (and shorter-looking) pelvis can still have an impressive length of stride in the ring. Almost all breed-book writers miss the chance to explain this, or else have never analyzed it. The answer is that, even with an inadequate croup (too steep), many dogs have more upper- and lower-thigh (femur, tibia-fibula) length, putting the hocks “a mile behind the dog” and allowing a long stride despite the pelvic inadequacy. That same disparity in bone or limb lengths does not exist in the forequarters.
In England, The Kennel Club has cracked down on non-functional extremes. There, and in the rest of the dog world, breeders, buyers, and judges should be self-policing in order to stop the trend of turning dogs into caricatures. A return to normalcy is called for, and this can be accomplished without erasing differences between breeds. We can have a functional, healthy dog that is beautiful and typey at the same time.
This article also appeared in the UK’s The GSD National Magazine, April 2014
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