What Is Conformation and Does It Matter? Part 1
Updated: Nov 5, 2018
PART 1: Conformation – What is it?
Lots of dog people talk about conformation and we often associate it with purebred dogs - how pretty they are and how well they conform to their breed standards. But conformation is much more important than that just how your dog looks. It is structure and function. It is speed and agility and strength. It is predisposition to injury and appropriateness of exercise. Should your bulldog play Frisbee? Should your whippet bush bash? Just how much agility should your cavoodle do?
Conformation is simply the dog's structure, in particular the proportions of their body. Bone structure and bone length, joint angulation and musculature are all important.
Bone structure, bone length and musculature are often discussed in terms of body type. There are essentially 3 body types – ectomorphic, endomorphic and mesomorphic. Ectomorphs have long, light bones, for example borzois or whippets. Endomorphs have short, strong bones such as bull dogs and clumber spaniels. Mesomorphs are the intermediate and most common form seen in most working breeds for example labradors and beagles.
The Borzoi has the long, light limbs typical of an ectomorph built for speed
The Beagle has the sturdy intermediate body shape of a mesomorph
The Clumber Spaniel has the short, strong bones and heavy muscles of an endomorph built for strength and endurance.
Each body type has advantages and disadvantages. Ectomorphs can run fast and jump well but their long stride means they have trouble turning and their high centre of gravity means they have to work harder to maintain their balance. Endomorphs have a low centre of gravity that aids in balance and their short heavy bones have broad heavy muscles so they are often very powerful for their size. It is harder for them to run fast and jump high and there is much more stress on their bodies when they do so, especially if they do so repeatedly. Again mesomorphs are the intermediate form – they can run and jump well, have good balance and reasonable strength and are the all-purpose, utilitarian design.
Joint angulation refers to how the long bones of the body come together, especially at the shoulder, elbow, stifle and hock. Generally speaking more angulation is better. It means the muscles have more leverage enabling more power and a longer stride that is more energy efficient. They can absorb more concussive force so the joints are better protected. However extreme angulation, such as seen in some modern German Shepherd Dogs, has its own subset of problems as it is inherently more unstable and needs greater muscle strength and coordination to control. Less angulation may mean a shorter stride but a shorter stride means more agility as it is easier to change direction quickly and place the paw accurately (neater sits and heeling, faster turns in agility, less likely to fall off the dog walk, etc).
angulation of the German Shepherd Dog has its own subset of problems
The back legs of this Chow Chow show the extremely straight hind limb angulation typical of the breed
Whilst it is better to have evenly matched rear and forelimb angulation, in some dogs they are very different and this can result in a mismatch between stride lengths and problems with movement. In some breeds, like the Ibizan hound, they are actually breed for straight forelimb angulation but well angulated hind limbs.
The Ibizan Hound has straight front leg conformation (for accurate paw placement when landing in rugged terrain) but well angulated hind leg conformation (for a strong vertical jump).
Different types of conformation carry increased risk of different types of injury. We need to consider these risks when we decide what activities we should do with our dogs and how we should train them.
Dogs with poor joint angulation (meaning straight legs) are more prone to joint problems such as subluxating patellas (knee caps), shoulder injuries and anterior cruciate ligament rupture than are dogs with good joint angulation. Dogs with well angulated back legs and straighter forelimb conformation often develop forelimb problems as their structure is not strong enough to control the power generated from their hind quarters.
Endomorphs and even mesomorphs are more prone arthritis, especially if they have poor joint angulation and indulge in lots of high intensity activity such as chasing balls and agility. Ectomorphs are more prone to muscle and tendon strains such as psoas and flexor tendon disorders.
Extreme conformation types carry specific injury risks and need to do specific exercises to help reduce this risk. Two examples are the long backs and short legs (chondrodystrophy) seen in Dachshunds, Bassets and Corgis and the extreme angulation and body shape (long and narrow) of German Shepherd Dogs. The former need exercises to develop their back and abdominal muscles so that their spines are well supported. The latter need stretch exercises to balance their hind limb musculature and strengthening exercises for both their core and for side to side stability.
Next time we will discuss why conformation matters and what type is best.
Disclaimer: The information in this article is general in nature and not intended to provide specific veterinary advice. If your dog has specific health issues a thorough physical examination by a trained veterinary professional is recommended. Veterinary clearance before instituting any new activity program is also recommended.