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Why conformation is important to your dog

There's this idea, peculiar to many pet dog owners, that conformation is irrelevant unless you want to buy a 'conformation' dog and show in conformation. However, if you ask a cattle breeder, a horse owner, or your local 4-H kid about the conformation of their respective species, they'll immediately launch into a long discussion in which you will find yourself wading through terms like, 'post-legged, sickle-hocked, depth of loin, croup', and a sea of explanations, often with pictures.


Because, conformation - as in structure: how bones are built, length, angulation of joints, muscle depth, length of loin, and all the rest - tell us everything about an animals ability to live a long and healthy life..

How your dog is built can tell you how well they can tolerate heat, anesthesia, jumping, running, and more. I can look at a knee (stifle) joint in a dog and tell you if they are likely to need expensive cruciate surgery in their lifetime.

Shouldn't we, as dog owners, whether we throw a ball in our backyard, or noodle around with agility, or have a dog we want to be a service dog, ensure that our dogs' bodies will hold out for the intended job?

Shouldn't we be forearmed for possible future injuries and be able to take counter measures to postpone or avoid injury?

Jeanne Joy HartnagleTaylor came out and did a three day workshop, the last two days were stock dogs, but the first evening covered just the things we are talking about here. Her book Canine Form Follows Function should be on every dog person's book shelf.

As a veterinary technician, I have seen, far too often, poor conformation being compounded by poor owner choices that led to painful, expensive, and in some cases, fatal consequences for pet dogs - not fancy agility dogs, or hard working police dogs, every day pet dogs like yours.

Learning to see conformation in any animal takes time. Being an expert takes a lifetime, plus the knowledge passed down from generations before, but simple things, telling and important things can be seen at a glance, and every day dog owners can learn to see them too.

Here are a few examples:

Look at one of your dogs. look at the front feet of your dog. Do you see the little dewclaw partway up the inside of the leg? That little dewclaw helps your dog take turns; it helps them get out of a pool, or out of a hole in the ice. A study ( shows that removal of the dewclaw increases the likelihood of injury in agility dogs.

So, if your dog has no declaws, you now have information. You can act upon that information (strengthen the front limbs through targeted physical therapy, using care when asking for sharp turns where the lack of a dew claw could put additional stressors on the limb, and even picking different surfaces for sports (deeper footing will hold the leg in place better than slippery surfaces))

If you're buying a purebred dog for performance, you will be forearmed with knowledge about the need of the breeder to retain dewclaws in your chosen puppy.

Look at the shape of your dog's skull. Is it rounded and short (bull-dog- type), moderately rounded and short (pitbul type), moderate (golden retriever), longer type (sight hound), very narrow and long (collie)?

For dogs whose nose from the stop (the dip where the eyes and face hit the nose) is shorter than the length of the skull from the back little knob between the ears to the stop), there are increased risks of: heat-related injury, intolerance, and death; anesthetic injury and death, malocclusion of the teeth leading to mouth injury, dental disease, retained puppy teeth, need for surgical removal of mis-aligned teeth; long palate obscuring airways leading to stressful sleep, snoring, having to accommodate certain head positions for restful sleep, inability to move air through the throat through panting.

The shorter the nose, the more extreme the heath risks.

Dogs with extremely long noses (dachshund, collie, sight hounds) often have higher incidence of dental disease, probably due to the pockets present between teeth in their elongated mouth.

Moderation is always the key to good health.

One last one, look at your dog's ears, are they long and droopy? Short and folded, partially upright, fully upright? Are they V-shaped or more rounded?

Long droopy ears not only impair the dog's use of ears as a communication tool to other dogs, but their lack of airflow can make them more prone to ear infection.

V-shaped ears that are dropped, and semi-rect ears (like collies) are more prone to aural hematoma (

This is good to know, as the research shows that the folded cartilage in semi-rect ears may contribute to weakness and make dogs more susceptible to aural hematoma, meaning, if you buy a purebred puppy of the type that should have folded ears (shelties, border collies, collies, Aussies) and your pup is born with prick (upright) ears, skip gluing the tips down to 'make them look right' and enjoy the added safety from hemotoma provided by those lovely upright ears!

I hope you can see how important a little understanding of conformation is for even 'pet dog' owners. It's not about right and wrong, but more a question of effect on longevity and health, and the ability to proactively protect both for our dogs.

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