Measuring Proportions and Finding Landmarks – Part 2:
The Head, Chest & Forequarters
After doing a visual assessment of the standing dog, the next step, as it is taken in the show ring, is the hands-on examination by the judge. As a breeder, there are many areas on your dog that you must physically examine to determine if it is correct for your breed. What must be physically checked (hands-on) can vary from breed to breed. It is more challenging to find the landmarks on a coated breed, but they can be found by parting the coat and gently searching for them. The coat can cover a lot of faults, as can a groomer who is clever with the stripping knife or scissors.
Examples include checking the zygomatic arch and the formation of the topskull, and determining the actual placement of the elbows. These are just a few areas that you will need to put your hands upon to determine what is real and what is an illusion of skillful (dare I say, artistic?) grooming of the coat. I often jokingly say, “This is why God gives a judge hands—to search out the truth and not just see the illusion.” Since this series is on form and function, we will mainly deal with the structures having to do with movement and leave the other areas for another day.
When examining a dog, it would be far more precise if each of us had access to radiographic machines so we could know that what we see on the surface of the dog is true. Alas, since few of us have this ability, we will search out the exterior landmarks we can either see or feel to determine the skeletal structure beneath the coat, skin, and muscles. I have colored these landmarks in blue.
To check the neck’s arch and length, put your hand behind the skull’s occiput (O)—a relatively easy landmark to find. (See Figures 1 & 1A which show the outline of the skull and the approximate point of the occiput in blue.)
From this location, follow the line of the neck with your hand until it stops at the shoulder blades (SB), another important landmark. (See Figure 2.) This shows the thumb resting on top of the shoulder blade, another landmark shown in blue.)
To find the end of the neck and the beginning of the thorax (ribcage), start palpating gently with your finger or thumb for the last cervical vertebrae (C7) and then feel for the landmark of the higher projection of the first thoracic vertebra (shown in blue). (See Figures.3 and 3A.)
Next, put your hand, palm up, below the neck with your fingers going between the legs to feel the prosternum. The landmark formed by the prosternum should fit into the palm of your hand. (See Figure 4.)
With your hand placed on the dog’s chest, your fingers should be able to reach between the legs and feel how the ribs curve under the body to attach to the sternum (brisket) beneath the dog. For all but the rounded chest shapes, this should feel somewhat akin to the keel of a boat in the way the ribs reach down from the spine and attach at the sternum. By doing this, you will be able to determine the chest’s width, its depth and a bit of the shape of the chest due to the way the prosternum (Arrow 5 A) fits into your palm. The sternum (Arrows B1 & 2) extends under your fingers from the prosternum backward and under the dog for rib attachment. (See Figure 5. Prosternum and Sternum, from B1 through B2 and back.)
The next all-important step is to determine the layback of the shoulder blade on your dog. When you are considering the front assembly, the first thing you must remember is that the shoulder assembly is “held on” to the dog’s body only by muscles and ligaments, referred to as the shoulder girdle group. In the rear assembly, the hip is fused to the three vertebrae that form the sacrum, thus creating a much more rigid connection in the rear than in the front.
The front assembly of the dog is mainly used for its “pole vault” effect, whereas the rear is the “motor” that pushes the dog along. A dog does not pull itself forward from the front, but is pushed along from behind. (There is some pulling action on the front end, but it is not the primary driving force for propelling the dog forward.) The angulation on both ends of the dog should be in balance.
It is vital to be able to discern not only the layback of a dog’s shoulder blade but also how it is placed (laid onto) the body of the dog. The angle or layback of the shoulder blade determines the distance (reach) a dog can cover when the front leg is reaching forward. We must learn to feel for the landmarks when palpating through the skin, muscles, and fat in order to ascertain the angulation on the canine. These landmarks are easy to feel if you know where to put your hands.
The shoulder blade (scapula) is a broad, flat bone with a ridge running right down the center. (See Figure 6.) The ridge, called the spine of the scapula, is the landmark you must seek in order to determine the layback of the shoulder blade. The spine is there for the attachment of the muscles: the longer the shoulder blade, the more room for attachment; the shorter the blade, the less attachment.
The spine of the scapula is much easier to understand when seen in profile. (See Figure 7.) The spine of the scapula is marked “A” in Figure 7. From this illustration, it is easy to see how prominent it is and how it could support the attachment of many muscles. The surface marked “B” is the side of the scapula that lays flat against the ribcage and is smooth so that it more easily oscillates (rotates back and forth) against the ribs. The bone marked “C” is the top of the upper arm, and “D” is the ligament (on both sides) that enables the articulation of the two bones. The landmark of the top of the spine of the scapula is shown in blue.
To physically examine a dog, in the majority of breeds, you should put your dog four square in a show stance with the elbow under the withers and the front feet in the proper position. (Positioning the foot either forward or further back can change the angle of the shoulder blade, and lowering or raising the head can throw it off, too!) You can easily find the landmark of the spine or ridge along the shoulder blade. (See Figure 8.)
Place your fingers along where you think the spine of the shoulder blade is located. (See Figure 9.)
To find the actual ridge, gently move them back and forth as indicated by the arrows. (See Figure 10.)
This is a crucial step to determine the layback of the shoulder blade. The trick is to gently place the fingertips with the pads of the fingers over where you think the shoulder blade lays on the body. You may need to part the coat of a long-coated breed to feel the scapula’s spine.
- By rotating the skin back and forth as shown, you can feel the protrusion that is the spine of the scapula.
- By following this ridge down toward the point of the shoulder and up towards the withers, you will know the actual layback of the shoulder blade.
- By doing this, you will have a more accurate representation of the shoulder layback than you would by just “spotting” what you think is the top of the shoulder blade and the point of the shoulder.
Once you have determined the line of the ridge, you can see whether the blade is well laid-back (pointing further toward the back of the dog) or more upright (pointing more at the sky than at the dog’s tail). (See Figure 10.) Next, place your fingers at the next landmark, the point of the shoulder. You can feel a notch at the joint where the shoulder blade meets the upper arm. (See Figure 11.)
What we consider to be the point of the shoulder is the outside “bump” of the end of the humerus or upper arm (Figure 12 “B”) with the inside “notch” (Figure 12 “A”), which is the ball and socket joint of the shoulder blade/upper arm junction. For most breeds, the upper arm is longer than the shoulder blade, but the landmarks we can palpate often give the impression that the upper arm and shoulder blade are equal in length.
From the point of the shoulder, it is easy to palpate the landmark formed by the end of the upper arm at the elbow. The upper arm should “return” back underneath the dog’s body to be positioned approximately under the wither at the highest point of the shoulder blade. (See Figure 12C.) This position is what is meant by “return of upper arm.” (See Figure 13.)
The connection between layback and reach is just one component of the front assembly on a dog, and it is a significant one to understand. I have known some dogs that could actually “outreach” their layback! These dogs were few and far between and they usually have had more relaxed ligaments throughout the body. Also, some pups seem to move so well in the front reach department and seem to have such lovely reach of neck until they mature, when the forward stride becomes shortened, and they take on a stuffy look. Once those muscles develop and the ligaments tighten up, you can see an appreciable difference in their gait and outline. The forward reach is usually about the same angle as the shoulder blade at rest. The length of the upper arm can also affect forward reach, and a short upper arm also shortens reach in front.
Whenever you discuss the dog’s bone structure, you must remember that the bone has no way of creating motion—it is a support structure only. It takes muscles to move those bones. Overall conformation is determined not only by the condition of the muscles but also by their size, shape, and distribution in conjunction with the dog’s skeleton. Some dogs have shorter, “bunchy or weight-lifter-type” muscles; others have longer, sleeker, “runner-type” muscles. (Think Bull Terrier and Whippet as examples.) You don’t want bunchy muscles on a Whippet, nor do you want to see the sleeker, long-distance runner muscles on a Bull Terrier.
- A dog with upright shoulders and straight stifles may have the same length of back as a better-angled dog but will look much shorter overall.
- A dog with a shortened front reach will also have some bounce over the withers due to pounding—the front leg is pounded into the ground by the rear-drive of the dog.
- A dog with lesser rear angulation will not produce as much pounding or bounce when accompanied by straighter front angulation, simply because they are more in balance (there’s that word again!).
The final area to be addressed in examining the front assembly is the placement of the shoulder blade on the side of the dog’s chest. When the shoulder blade is set correctly on the side of the chest, there will be a nice rounding of the chest. If the shoulder blades are set too far forward, they will then point towards each other, and you will often see a dog out at the elbows that also toes in. When shoulders are placed too far forward, the muscles holding the blade in place are usually not strong enough to prevent paddling or other time-wasting motions when the dog is coming toward you at a trot. (See Figure 14.)
The shoulder blade on the dog’s left side shows proper placement (often referred to as the way the shoulder blade is “laid-on” as opposed to “laid-back”) of the shoulder blade. The dog on the right has shoulder blades that are placed too far forward on the dog’s chest. You can easily see how the blades point toward each other more and could cause the elbows to turn out and the feet to toe in.
Looking at the shoulder blade on the dog’s left side from this angle, it is easier to see what is meant by how the shoulder blade is laid onto the dog’s body. (See Figure 14.) This example is a fairly well laid-back shoulder blade, and it is easier to see how it would be attached to the body. The lay-on of the shoulder blade to the dog’s body also determines the distance between the shoulder blades.
In a dog with a narrow chest, the upper points of the shoulder blade will be closer together, making it more difficult for the dog to lower its neck toward the ground—a considerable impediment in any dog used to hunt in order to put food on the table. A dog with a rounded chest will have the shoulder bladespositioned much further apart, which is why Bulldog fanciers describe the fore assembly of their breed to be “tacked onto” the body of the dog.
In the next installment, we will continue with the physical examination by the location of the landmarks of the dog from the shoulder assembly to the rear of the dog. If you have any questions or comments, or to schedule a seminar, contact me at firstname.lastname@example.org.