A question came up in some correspondence with fellow judges and fanciers, about the position and height of the vertebral spines (top protrusions) that are between or immediately fore-or-aft of the shoulder blades. Whether standing or lying on its side, the vertebral segments between the dog’s scapulae will not be beyond those blades.
Even when in a prone position, resting on the elbows, such as is seen in Schutzhund or obedience training when the dog is told to “Platz!” with both elbows on the ground and the dog not leaning to either side but looking forward at the handler who has walked on, the top of the scapula is slightly higher than the vertebrae. If the dog in this position rests its head (chin) on the ground, the scapulae will usually feel even a little higher than the spine between them, but this is because the cervical vertebrae are lower than, rather than higher than, the blades.
I judge conformation shows for several registries and clubs. One is the UKC (United Kennel Club), a venerable organization almost as old as the AKC and headquartered in Kalamazoo, Michigan, USA. This international dog club requires the judge to physically touch each exhibit. On the other end of the spectrum, some judges are used to such procedures as are found in many WUSV shows where they seldom if ever touch the dog. If the entry is large enough at these German-style GSD shows, often there will be a qualified assistant who pre-checks testicles and dentition, and if there is any question, he will call it to the judge’s attention—otherwise all is evaluated by eye.
Forgive me, but for the sake of novices and people in other breeds, I must repeatedly refer to the SV methods. That is because the SV has the best system of training (“vetting”) judges during an apprenticeship period in which they must prove they will judge and critique the same way the teaching-judges do. And the more anatomical training such a judge has, the better he will be able to “see and say”—by which is meant not only the ability to pick the best dogs but also to explain in clear and tactful terms his choices. Incidentally, it is SV custom to place every dog from first to last, even in a large class. Contrast that with typical other shows in which that is only done for the top dogs in each class, if at all.
But I diverge. My purpose was to show that certain types of judge training result in the ability to see structure without the necessity of palpating the pooch, although knowing anatomy is enhanced by earlier hands-on education as well as familiarity with radiographs, especially of standing dogs. Other than myself, I believe only Rachel Paige Elliot and Curtis Brown used that upright-stance view. Recently, Fischer & Lilje used that approach as well, but with a very limited number of subjects.
How, you might ask, if one does not have access to fluoroscopy or X-ray machines? Palpating is feeling the lengths and angles and comparing them to draftsman tools such as compasses and 30-60-90-degree triangles that every high-school geometry student is familiar with. If you do enough of that, you will become adept at “feeling” with your eyes. The easiest is where learning should begin and in the case of canine anatomy, that’s the topline. The area from head through neck to withers is higher than the “true back” and in AKC-type shows you will generally find that to be rather upright, partly due to poor structure, partly to showing style in which the dog is held or trained so that the neck is almost vertical instead of the natural angle closer to 45 degrees.
Regardless of posing style, if the dog is standing with the forearms vertical, and the lower part of the rear leg—the part often called the hock—also vertical (at least in one limb), you should be able to see the slope, if any, of the part between withers and croup. In other words, between where the vertebrae can be felt after the scapula and the beginning of the pelvis (which is sloped in comparison, and the subject of another article). In the GSD and perhaps 90 percent of all other breeds, this mid-piece is supposed to be level. Because of certain influences since the late 1960s, it is very hard to find the level back called for in the GSD Standard. By the way, it should be evaluated when the dog is in a natural self-pose.
After a look at the mid-topline, your eye should be drawn to the front assembly. To find a dog with superior angulation there, look at where the vertical front limbs are in relation to the forechest. A dog built like the once-ubiquitous VW microbus (with front wheels under the vertical windshield and only a few centimeters behind the bumper) does not have much angulation in the scapula-humerus area. We call such a dog “upright”—and we are not referring to its morals! A dog with those front limbs set well back will have superior angulation in the front assembly and might cause you to liken it to a 12-cylinder Jaguar or sports-model Rolls-Royce with its grille well out in front of its wheels. Such a dog will cover more ground with each trotting stride, and therein lies one major raison d'être (reason for existence): tireless working ability.
Remember: in evaluating shoulder/upper-arm angles, look for a dog with much forechest ahead of the front legs. All else being equivalent, this type of dog will have better reach, smoother gait, and more endurance. Things that are historically needed in an all-day herding animal as well as in an agile police dog. Great foreassembly angulation is less important if you are evaluating fighting dogs such as Chows, diggers such as Terriers, lapdogs such as Pekinese, or galloping breeds such as Salukis.
The author is an all-breed judge for several registries, and a well-known GSD authority.