- Written by Cindi Schuler
- Category: Cindi's Corner
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Stand around any group of dog breeders, trainers, or owners long enough and the topic of conformation will come up. Some will discuss faults a certain stud or dam passes on to their offspring. Other groups will watch a dog moving, perhaps working, and make note of how the faults impact the dog’s way of going; or how the conformation makes for a lovely moving dog. Others will complain that the big registries/clubs have ruined many breeds by hosting breed standard shows. In some circles, even the thought of showing in breed shows is strongly discouraged. The fear is that breeding for conformation automatically means you give up the working traits. This fear can sometimes lead to a complete disdain for all things related to breed standards or conformation. The problem with this is, just as breeding only for looks may cause a loss of work ability, breeding only for working traits you want can cause a loss of other traits, health, longevity, and useful work years. It is important maintain a balance. Clubs like the AKC or UKC don’t destroy breeds, breeders do. Breeders decide to only select for beauty, breeders decide to breed extremes in their bloodlines, and breeders decide to breed without truly understanding working traits, bloodlines, temperament or conformation. It’s okay to know conformation, and to consider it in your breeding program, as a PART of your program. Understanding how the dog is put together doesn’t mean you “sold out” passion for the working traits or the temperament. Breeding should be a three phase approach with conformation, temperament and working traits.
It is important to differentiate between structure, conformation, and a breed standard. Conformation is simply the shape and structure of the dog. It is the way he is built from the ground up. Conformation is the structure of the paws, legs, shoulders, hips, and spine. Conformation is the entire dog as a single being. Structure is part of conformation. The breed standard is the written word describing how a breed should look, or how its conformation should appear. Originally, conformation shows were opportunities for breeders to evaluate their working dog stock. Originally, conformation was considered only in terms of a dog's performance. This means a sighthound needed depth and spring to house large lungs and a strong heart. A herder needed a laid back shoulder and low hock to travel several miles a day. This was the intent of the original conformation shows. If you want to see a modern day example of the original dog shows, attend a fox hunting hound exhibit. Those dogs are still bred to cover miles and miles several days a week, to obey, to signal the scent by baying/barking, and to use their noses. Those shows judge how the dog is put together based on the job they were originally bred to do. The contestants are actively working dogs. I truly wish this was still the sole intent of breed standard shows, but I realize it isn’t.
While those interested in "working dogs" over beauty contestants may not care about an ear set, the length of the tail, accepted coat colors or length, while they may not care about how wide the head is, or even care about the bite (more on this later), there are parts of the breed standard that should matter to every breeder. Things like the breed standard’s description of the shoulder, hip, balance, croup, topline, etc. all relate to the job the breed was meant to do. If a breeder doesn't care about any of these things, if they never consider how a dog is put together as part of their breeding program, it will take them as long to lose a healthy, functional dog as it takes "beauty show only” breeders to lose working traits.
Our English Shepherd breeders of the past bred for dogs who traveled many miles a day, 6-7 days a week. If a dog wasn't put together correctly, it couldn't keep up, it suffered injuries, and it may have broken down completely. Are these things less important to breeders now that many farms are so much smaller? Are breeders less concerned with faults causing breakdown because the dogs don’t have to travel as far? I hope not. A weak hind end (you can insert straight shoulder, crooked front, narrow chest, or any other fault you want to insert) may not breakdown for several years, on a small farm where the dog only travels a mile or two a day. A weak hind end may not immediately break down on a dog who guards a small flock of chickens and walks with their owner collecting eggs or feeding chickens. That weak hind end will still break down on a ranch, a bigger farm, a busier farm; it breaks down as it accompanies the owner on daily runs, it breaks down in the agility dog, obedience dog, fly ball and dock diving dog. Is it fair to the puppy owner(s) to retire their working dog early due to preventable arthritis or injury? Is it fair to the working dog who will work through the pain because his work ethic is bred in to him? Is it fair to the buyer who invests their time, money, training, and love in a dog with poor enough conformation that it has to be retired after just a few years?
Let’s revisit the dog’s bite. While it isn’t considered part of “structure”, a poor bite can impact the work and health of the dog. A herder with an underbite may do damage to the stock it grips. Underbites aren’t designed to release easily, so much more flesh may be torn if the dog must grip in his work. Overbites and underbites can be severe enough to cause problems when a dog tries to eat or chew. Either of these bites can create ulcerations in the soft tissue of the mouth. Level bites cause quick wear on the teeth, exposing nerve roots and hyperplasia of the gums. A dog with teeth worn to the gums will have trouble defending itself, or defending against predators that challenge it. This is one example of why the dog’s conformation matters. Will all dogs with a slight under, over, or level bite develop problems? Probably not. But if we don’t consider these things in our breeding programs, how many generations will it take to have a severe bite, and how many will it take to correct it?
Does coat color matter? Do ear sets matter? Does tail length matter? Does eye color matter? For the most part I don’t believe these things are as important as topline, front and rear angles, hocks, pasterns, and feet. BUT, the extremes can begin to cause problems. Every breeder should know their breed standard, and why it is written the way it is. Every breeder should know why a level topline matters, or why movement matters. Understanding these things is just as important as being able to read personality behaviors or properly evaluate working traits. If you take the time to understand why the standard was written as it was, then you can make an informed decision in your breeding program paired with your knowledge of the other traits you want.
Future articles will break down each body part and describe the “ideal” per the breed standard. We’ll describe why the traits are desirable for the type of work our English Shepherds were bred to do, and in some cases we’ll describe how the faults impact the rest of the dog. I encourage all of you to read the four breed standards out there for the English Shepherd. They are very, very similar, especially as they relate to the angles, bone lengths, and movement of the dogs. In areas where the breed standards are different, we’ll be sure to discuss each standard, so we give fair representation for all registries. Please understand, these articles are not meant to say HOW you should breed. They are merely informational articles on why our beloved breed was designed the way it is. It doesn’t matter if your dog needs the toughness for thick brush and rank cattle, nurturing lambs and monitoring farm kids, or anything in between (or even all these things). The standard is a guideline for what the breed was designed for…helping farmers and ranchers in their daily work.
Cindi Schuler’s love for English Shepherds started in 2002, but her dog education started 40 years ago when she entered her first dog show. Working for professional handlers ignited her passion for understanding why breeds were built the way they were. Competing in various dog sports and using dogs in her daily chores helped Cindi truly understand how conformation strengths and weaknesses impact the dog. That passion for learning continues today.