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Form Follows Function: Make & Shape and DNA


I have heard the term “make and shape” throughout my time in the fancy, usually when discussing a breed with a fellow judge. But what exactly does it mean? Most of us agree that we must start evaluating a dog by first considering the make and shape of the dog before us, which is why a judge walks the line to view a class of dogs in profile once all exhibitors have entered the ring and stacked their dogs.

Cambridge Dictionary defines make (or more precisely makeup) as “something or someone is the combination of things that form it.” The noun “shape” is defined as “the form or outline of an object”—and uses “form” as a synonym. Just as the phrase “form follows function” relates to the formation of a breed to suit a particular purpose, the term “make and shape” of a dog is similar in that the profile of a dog should suffice to identify which breed it may be.

What defines a dog breed? AKC recently recognized its two hundredth breed by adding the Bracco Italiano to its stud books. Dog registries such as AKC define an individual breed by its parentage. Both sire and dam must be registered as members of the same breed. Each breed has a “Standard of Perfection” (usually referred to as “the standard”) written by the AKC parent club of that breed, and each parent club owns the copyright for their standard.

Each breed standard is the blueprint of the essential traits that make the breed unique from all other breeds. The standards’ primary focus is onthe physical attributes of the breed, such as height and weight, proportions of height to body length, the shape of head and body, length of leg, etc. Also included is the temperament and personality of the breed and how the breed should look in motion. In conformation competitions, the judge chooses the dog that most closely represents the breed’s written standard. The basis of any breed is in the makeup and shape of the dog.

make and shape
Figure 1. Purebred Dog Diversity

I have always marveled at the vast diversity found within the canine species. There are at least 400 to 500 unique dog breeds worldwide. A Chihuahua and a Great Dane are immensely different in appearance, yet they are members of the same genus and species—Canis lupus familiaris, first classified as the domestic dog (Canus familiaris) by Linnaeus in 1758.

In 1993, dogs were reclassified as a subspecies of the gray wolf (Canis lupus) by the Smithsonian Institute and the American Society of Mammologists when mitochondrial DNA studies via the dog genome project launched in the early 1900s proved that the domestic dog had descended from wolves. It then became Canus lupus familiaris.

The earlier genome research focused on finding disease markers in dogs, hoping that discovery would lead to finding disease markers in humans. I do know that the research on Degenerative Myelopathy (when a Pembroke Welsh Corgi pet owner who had two dogs go down with the disease approached the PWCCA for matching funds, which were then also matched by the AKC Health Foundation) discovered that the disease did occur in the breed and found a DNA marker for it.

Due to that study, it is my understanding that those results helped researchers find the marker for ALS in humans. Since then, several groups have begun to use genetic tools such as markers to define the concept of a dog breed. A genetic marker is a position in the genome where there is variability in the sequence inherited in a Mendelian fashion (that is, following the rules of classical genetics). These alterations are invaluable for understanding the role of genetic modifications within and between breeds.

make and shape
Figure 2. Chihuahua and Great Dane

More recently, research at Uppsala University and the Swedish University of Agricultural Sciences have used new methods for DNA sequencing to build a new, more complete dog reference genome to aid a new generation of investigation. This newer genome reduced the number of genome gaps from over 23,000 to only 585.2

All of the discoveries in DNA sequencing are a tremendous advantage for the purebred dog breeder. Before DNA discoveries, breeders had to make “test breedings” to determine if a dog carried a harmful recessive gene (such as Progressive retinal atrophy or PRA). This meant dogs had to be old enough to be bred, thus slowing down a breeder’s progress, and the results were often heart-wrenching.

When most breeds were developed, the farmers and hunters who were prominent in developing them did not go great distances from where they lived in their lifetimes. Therefore, every area of the country had a different dog to hunt or control livestock due to the changes in terrain and weather conditions, the animal they were to hunt, or the livestock they were to control. Make and shape, along with the purpose (function) expected of the dog, is the basis for the formation of any breed. Add into that the terrain over which the dog would work and the climate in which it will live, and you can better understand this diversity and the need for more than one universal breed in any Group.

Think of the shape of the sighthound, the Greyhound, streamlined and formed for speed, weighing 65-70 pounds. The topline and underline are shaped so that the dog can have a speedy, ground-covering, double suspension gallop. Compare this to another member of the Hound Group, the Bloodhound. Weighing in at 110 pounds, this sturdy dog is a scenthound whose prowess is so well-known that the breed’s actions (testimony) are allowed in court. When seen together, these two breeds could hardly be more different in make and shape. Scenthounds and sighthounds have very different forms, as their hunting methods are quite different. (See Figure 3.)

make and shape
Figure 3. Greyhound and Bloodhound

The Herding Breeds are expected to be square or slightly off-square so that they can sustain a balanced trot for an entire day with no loss of agility. Working Dogs come in many shapes and sizes, but all must be capable of the work for which they were developed. The Terriers are designed to go to ground after game, and be determined and fearless. Even our precious Toy Dogs must still show the ancestry from which they were developed by those who wanted a lady’s lap dog that could live in the house as a companion, not only to be cuddled and loved, but at times, useful in controlling vermin or as an alarm dog.

As breeders, we should avail ourselves of all the tools we have to determine the genetic makeup of our dogs. But we must also learn to evaluate our dogs through visual and hands-on examinations. The first step is learning the correct make and shape of your breed.

As breeders, we should avail ourselves of all the tools we have to determine the genetic makeup of our dogs. But we must also learn to evaluate our dogs through visual and hands-on examinations. The first step is learning the correct make and shape of your breed.

make and shape
Figure 4. The Setters in Profile

Can you determine the individual breeds in Figure 4? Study each one and see if you can decide which is the Irish Setter, the Irish Red and White Setter, the English Setter, and the Gordon Setter. (I won’t leave you hanging; they are identified at the end of the article.)

The goal of every breeder is to produce dogs that look like, move like, and act like their breed as described in the standard. We all hope to have such uniformity that all of our pups look the same.

Any comments or questions, contact me via email: [email protected] or PM Stephanie Seabrook Hedgepath.


Answer to Figure 4 Question:

  1. English Setter
  2. Irish Red and White Setter
  3. Gordon Setter
  4. Irish Setter



  1. Ostrander, Elaine A. “Genetics and the Shape of Dogs” 2005, American Scientist, September-October 2007
  2. Uppsala University, “New improved dog reference genome will aid a new generation of investigation.” Science Daily. Science Daily, 10 February 2021.
make and shape
Figure 5. Uniformity