By Stan Zielinski
I would sing a serenade to the wondrous beauty of canine locomotion. Over the years I have observed quite a number of people in the dog fancy, be they judges, breeders or other experts, go through the process of evaluating Saint Bernards in action. Some people seem to have an eye for analyzing the moving dog, and some people must work very hard do develop this talent. Unfortunately, it seems that there are quite a few other people that can’t (or won’t) learn. This population has a problem for which I have no solution. But those people who would like to be exposed to some strange neoteric thoughts on this subject should read on.
Since my purpose here is to convince you that you should be very concerned with movement, I will take on this project in two pieces. The first piece is about the importance of judging movement whenever anyone is evaluating an animal. The second piece is about the best approaches used to evaluate canine locomotion.
Let’s start with the question, “Why is it so important to appraise the movement of a dog whose worth we want to determine?” Do you suppose it is because we consider the dog’s movement to be some sort of artistic expression? I think not! Some people like to see a hackney gait; they think it is stylish. Others like a standard (correct) reach in front because they think it is beautiful. Beautiful because they feel that such a gait is efficient, and because it is the gait usually associated with correctly constructed and athletically fit dogs.
I would offer the concept that we do not look at a dog’s gait in a search for beauty but, rather, as evidence that the dog is both fit and functional. As the proof of the pudding is in the eating, so the proof of the dog is in the moving.
I really want the readers to think about the logic here. How can an observer evaluate all of the parts of a dog? By all of the parts I mean the literal thousands upon thousands of individual components that go into the formation of a dog! Of course, such a task is impossible – unless we look at how all the parts function together. The reason that judges and breeders must make a thorough evaluation of movement when judging dogs is that one cannot fully understand the proper conformation of all the parts nor the correct assembly of all those parts except to observe how the entire package functions as a unit.
In observing how a dog uses himself, how a dog moves we can judge the total dog as a unit. Does not your innate reasoning tell you that this is so? I must argue that this is the only reason we look at dogs while they are in action.
If I could be forgiven for departing from the main topic here for a moment; it is this idea of judging the total dog as a unit that seems to me to be missing from the judging of many European judges of my breed. While not true of every European Saint Bernard Judge, the most common procedure is to look at the dog standing still and then move the dog down and back. The evaluation procedure is usually completed without the judge having touched the dog nor having evaluated the side gait. This is a great procedure for evaluating certain pieces of the dog, but it is a procedure that is totally inadequate for evaluating the entire dog. And that is the impression I have of much of the European judging fraternity – that they do a good job of evaluating pieces, but fail miserably when it comes to evaluating the total dog.
Obviously, there are only so many things that one can tell about a dog, or any other animal, when they are standing still. That is why, when evaluating dogs, most judges spend more time looking at how the dog moves than they do looking at how the dog stands. Most judges and breeders, when evaluating dogs, use their eyes first to sort through the dogs, for general conformation and points of breed type. Most then proceed to put their hands on the dogs to feel the dog to evaluate other points of conformation, to assess the dog’s fitness and condition, to check the quality of the coat and to get an indication of the dog’s temperament. The third thing most people do, when evaluating dogs, is to see how the dogs move and how the dogs use themselves. This simply serves as a final check on the first two processes. It is only by this three-pronged approach – look at the dog, feel the dog, and gait the dog — can one truly and accurately evaluate the total dog.
Having finished my short digression on judging the total dog, and having no more to say on why evaluating a dog’s gait is essential to the judging process, I want to now talk about the correct approach to evaluating canine locomotion.
Before continuing, I probably need to define the term “Correct” when I apply it to judging movement. “Correct” means that the judge has evaluated all aspects of movement which contribute to effective locomotion and all aspects which should be of importance to a breeder worried about the next generation.
Of those judges who use an evaluation of movement in their judging process there are two extremes. There are those judges who only look at the dog moving straight away and straight back. (As already mentioned, this seems to be a common practice of many European judges of the Saint Bernard.) There are those judges who only look at the side gait to form their opinions about the dogs. (A practice common in the German Shepherd Dog ring but used elsewhere by some judges.) As there are so many aspects to dog movement, we find that too many judges choose just a few things to be important and ignore the rest.
Most people who attempt to analyze dog movement do not limit themselves this way. It is safe to say that the majority of evaluators spread their observations over the whole spectrum of movement. While I count myself in this group, others might not quite agree to the comparative weight I put on the various aspects of movement.
So, let us talk about just where one should place his or her emphasis?” It is my opinion that seventy percent of the evaluation weight should be placed on the side gait with fifteen percent given to each of the other two gaits — coming and going. The rest of this article will try to convince you that my position is the one that should be more universally accepted.
Now let us contemplate the mechanics of evaluating movement. There are three views used in evaluating a dog’s gait;
- the side view, which is used to evaluate the side gait,
- the front view, which is used to evaluate the coming gait, and
- the rear view, which is used to evaluate the going gait.
When one is judging movement, you are trying to assess the ability of the dog to do its historic work. If you just consider the number of features that are to be evaluated then it is obvious that much more attention must be paid to the side gait than to the views seen when watching the dog go straight away or when watching the dog come straight towards you.
From the rear and from the front, you are looking basically at two features; does the dog single track or not, and does each leg operate exclusively in the canted plane it shares with the other leg on the same side? It is these deviations from the plane of action that denotes a form of weakness that we want to insure is not present in the dog under scrutiny. Most of these deviations from the planes of action have been given names.
From the front we see:
From the rear we see:
- moving close
I would advise the reader to forget all these terms and just remember what was already stated about what the evaluator should be trying to evaluate when the dog is coming and going. We want to know whether or not the dog single tracks and whether or not each leg operates exclusively in the canted plane it shares with the other leg on the same side.
Now we move on to the hard stuff – the side gait! I have heard speculation that so many judges don’t do a proper job of evaluating side gait because the task is difficult and demands a trained eye. I suppose there is some truth in that piece of folklore.
From the side you look to find an athlete in action! This is the view in which you must assess
- Stride length (Does the dog have an adequate reach and drive; that is, does it have a good length of stride and is the front stride balanced with the rear stride?),
- Foot timing (Do you see the rear foot set down in the just vacated track left by the front foot on the same side?),
- Suspension (Do you see a moment of suspension with each stride?),
- Stability (Does the body function without rolling or bouncing?),
- Strength (Does the dog show a strong firm top line? Do the feet, pasterns, hocks and legs provide firm support without buckling whenever the dog’s weight is imposed?),
- Joint articulation (Do the primary joints open and close during each stride, or do they seem frozen in place – especially the hock and elbow joints?),
- Head carriage (Does the dog run with its head level or above level? Or does the dog run down hill all the time in an effort to relieve the weight on the rear assembly?),
- Tail carriage (Is the tail carried correctly, or is it carried over the back, or in a tight curl, or tucked between the legs?),
- Grace (Does the dog move effortlessly? Do the feet lift off of the ground cleanly, or do they simply slide along the surface? Do the feet set down firmly without a sudden thud? Do the feet travel in an efficient path or do they go on some energy-wasting journey of their own design? Do you see poetry in motion? Do you see a dog able to perform its historic task?),
While it is more difficult to evaluate these aspects of side gait, you can see that they are the more important and that it is more necessary for them to be correct. I have always felt that small problems detected while the dog is coming and going can be overlooked when that dog displays an outstanding side gait. You should note, however, that the converse is not true.
Let me summarize the points made here. Whenever we evaluate dogs we must assess movement to see how all the parts function as a total unit. It should be obvious to anybody considering this subject that an incomplete evaluation of the dog in action cannot result in a competent evaluation of the dog. A correct approach to evaluating gait uses all views, and looks closely at each aspect of movement. However, when we assess movement we must put much more weight on side gait than on the information gathered while simply viewing the dog coming and going.
Given my druthers, I would have everybody love the breathtaking beauty of the Saint Bernard in action. I hope these words will convert those of you who are unbelievers.