What Africa’s Wild Dogs Can Teach Us About Conformation

Our show dogs are obviously not selected by nature, but perhaps we need to give some thought to how they would fare if they were.

The African Wild Dogs in Botswana trotted smoothly with their heads down and forward, their backs were level, and their feet were always close to the ground. Unlike many of today’s show dogs, these wild dogs moved with no wasted effort. Via Jeff Kubina/Flickr
The African Wild Dogs in Botswana trotted smoothly with their heads down and forward, their backs were level, and their feet were always close to the ground. Unlike many of today’s show dogs, these wild dogs moved with no wasted effort. Via Jeff Kubina/Flickr

On a recent photo safari to Botswana, our group was blessed with the opportunity to spend some time in the company of a pack of seven African Wild (Painted) Dogs. We came upon them at a water hole, and as we drove up it became apparent that they were just about to head off. For those of you who aren’t aware, African Wild Dog packs have huge ranges, and they often travel as much as 25 miles per day. This pack took off together on an elephant trail, and because our guide knew the trail, he was able to race to get ahead of the pack several different times so that we were able to watch the dogs for quite a while.

The pack consisted of four adults and three half-grown pups. If not for the variation in their markings, it would have been impossible to tell them apart because in size, substance and structure they were so similar. The four adults were nearly identical to one another and so were the three puppies.

From Show Dog People’s Perspective

Because we were a group of show dog enthusiasts, we were fascinated to be able to finally see these perfect creatures in the wild. By “perfect,” I mean that they are the ultimate endurance trotting machines, with their type, structure and soundness determined solely by nature and survival of the fittest. As we were watching them and shooting as many photos as possible, the comments being made from the trucks were, “Look how much ground they are covering, how fast they are really traveling, yet it seems they are expending no effort at all,” and, “They all move exactly the same way,” and, “Look at the incredible shoulder assemblies on them.” We were all amazed at the efficiency of these dogs in motion at the trot.

Seeing these dogs in the wild was an experience that I will never forget. I am a firm believer that humans have seriously changed breeds to make them prettier, more exotic or exaggerated, and in the process, we have destroyed the ability of some of these breeds to cover ground and move as they were originally intended to. Watching these wild animals confirmed that belief in my mind, and I want to share the thoughts that I brought away from our encounter.

Movement And Structure

The dogs moved smoothly through the savannah without making a sound. When trotting, they kept their heads down and forward, and their backs were perfectly level. Their feet stayed very close to the ground regardless of which phase of the trot they were in. There was no lift or kick at all. And I never saw one crab or overreach. They moved in a straight line, no interference, no wasted effort.

Their legs were all straight, their pasterns were fairly long and had excellent flexibility, and they had wonderful feet, with well-arched, closely held, rather long toes.

In profile, their croups were somewhat long and sloped gently, giving them the ability to get their rear legs up under their bodies and have long steps on the ground, not in the air. In every stride, the feet were lifted just enough off the ground to be able to move forward to begin the next step.

Because they were fairly smooth-coated and were bone and muscle with no excess flesh, it was easy to see their amazing structure. If I could breed dogs with the shoulder assemblies that these dogs had, I would feel like the most successful dog breeder on the planet. Their shoulder blades and upper arms were very long and laid perfectly back on their rib cages at a deep angle, giving great support to the body and allowing their front legs to swing smoothly and freely. Those beautiful fronts also gave the dogs incredible length of neck, so useful in a hunting animal because they can use those long necks to manipulate their heads easily in every direction.

Their hindquarters were well angulated at the hip and nicely angulated at the stifle and hock, but not excessively so. Their rears were very strong, no cow hocks, close hocks, no interference of any kind.

They were all alike in proportion, long-legged and just off-square. They were all alike in silhouette. In head shape, they were close to identical, with broad skulls, moderate stop, oval-shaped eyes and good length and depth of foreface with very strong jaw muscles that were clearly defined.

They obviously are all of the same type, as they look so similar, and they are all unbelievably sound in the manner which suits their purpose. What is their purpose? To stay alive and bring yet another generation into the world to keep the species alive. And why do they need to stay alive? Because they are a top-ranked predator in Africa, and their existence helps to keep the prey species healthy and their numbers in check.

Predators prey on the old, the very young and the weak, which leaves the prime animals that have survived to adulthood to breed on and produce the strongest in the next generation. African Wild Dogs are the most successful predator in Africa, having success in more than 80 percent of their hunts, which is far superior to any of the big cats. Hundreds of years of natural selection have created and perfected a hunting machine that works.

How This Relates To Our Dogs

Are you wondering why all this is important to us in the modern world of the show dog? It is important because with the exception of a few breeds, our breeds were created to do a specific job, and the people who created them selected for the ability to do those jobs, discarding along the way any dog that was unable to do the work. Selection on ability is what created uniformity in breed type, and when that type had been established, the people who were instrumental in establishing the breeds wrote the standards that described the dogs that could best do the jobs for which they were created.

Dog shows were established to compare useful breeding stock, and choices were made on the basis of ability. Pretty is as pretty does was the motto then, and breeders and judges understood that “pretty” in each breed meant adherence to the breed standard.

Through the years, things changed. Many breeds stopped being used for work and became only family companions or show dogs. They were not put to the test to ascertain that they could still do the job they were created to do. Instead of training their eyes to understand that “pretty” meant the ability to work and fit the standard, breeders and judges got creative and changed the meaning of pretty to exaggeration or enhancement of certain characteristics. In the process, some breeds lost the ability to move as they had been intended in order to best do their jobs.

Instead we started to see unnaturally high head carriage, sometimes even back over the shoulders. Shoulder assemblies migrated forward to produce that high head carriage and the sloping toplines that go with the package. The vertical front assemblies and the far-too-horizontal croups combined to make side gait all about lift and kick, very fancy but inefficient. To get big, long, open side gait, leg length was shortened and loin length extended. In an effort to have “no toes,” pasterns went vertical with the tiniest feet on the ends of them. It’s all very showy, but not very useful to a dog that is supposed to be capable of working, as the lack of correct angulation and balance leaves the dogs having to expend extreme effort to get across the ring.

Are the African Wild Dogs exciting to watch at a trot? Not if your idea of exciting is legs flying all over the place and heads held so high they cannot see where they are going. But they sure get the job done, and any that cannot are removed by natural selection. Our show dogs are obviously not selected by nature, but perhaps we need to give some thought to how they would fare if they were.

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