Why structure matters for working spaniels

“Excuse me, do you have a moment to talk about dog structure? 🤓”

A lot of people, especially in the working spaniel world, look down on dog shows – they’re seen as being about appearance and, as such, an unnecessary vanity. It’s all about PERFORMANCE for working cockers, so appearance doesn’t matter! The implicit subtext is that this focus on performance is somehow morally and ethically superior – and in all honesty, once upon a time, I embraced this attitude as well.

The problem is that there is no performance without structure*.

This is especially the case for working breed dogs because whether they want it or not, they’re all amateur athletes – they’re wired to have a LOT of energy and more speed than sense. We owe it to them to make sure their body structure is up to the requirements of their brain – the brain that we humans wired to be a certain way.

The problem is that very few people who breed working cockers or springers know much about structure. It’s obvious when I see lots of dogs being offered for stud with no side picture to evaluate their structure – it doesn’t even occur to anyone. It’s also been a big learning curve for me, especially because I have no interest in biology (anatomy) or physics (gravity, friction, angles).

Why it matters is that the structural flaws our dogs have will compound over their life, to the detriment of their well-being. Testing for elbow dysplasia doesn’t go very far if the dog has loose elbows, which grinds the joints unevenly – neither does a hip dysplasia x-ray if the dog has tall hocks or poor angulation in the back because the hip joint will suffer way more pressure than it would if the structure was more optimal, and they might be less prone to knee injuries.

These issues rarely emerge when the dog is young, so we assume they just come with age, but they don’t have to. Of course, trying to optimise a dog’s structure for the movement is not a perfect science, and doing so doesn’t 100% protect them from injuries, but if we KNOW the likely impact certain structural issues, we should do our best to ensure as healthy life as possible and that includes an optimal body structure. It’s not a question of a dog being more or less worthy – it’s about our responsibility as humans to do better once we know better.

It’s heartbreaking to read story after story on social media about dogs who are in serious pain relatively early on in their lives. Just yesterday, I read about a dog who has serious knee issues at the age of 6, and the owner is stressed about whether she could have done anything to prevent it – probably not, it’s likely due to the dog’s structure. I also read about cockers, one of whom have had an elbow amputation due to multiple failed surgeries to repair a fractured elbow injuries, and the other is on Librela injections (a more serious pain medication). These are just the ones that are fresh in my memory, but there are many more.

I’m not a big fan of dog shows – they are not necessarily a great institution for a lot of dog breeds. However, show judges are actually professionally trained to evaluate dog structure and movement – something that would require lots of study from a dog owner (I know, because I’m trying to, and it’s a steep learning curve!). Having your dog professionally evaluated can be really helpful to understand their structure and how you might need to help them to stay in good condition with certain kinds of exercises.

In Polish Hunting Spaniels, it’s also a mechanism to certify that the dogs used for breeding meet the requirements of the job they are meant to do – this won’t be the case for all breeds (not anymore), but it should be. We have hunters showing their dogs in addition to completing hunting trials – they don’t dress up for the occasion, and there is even a special utility class for dogs who are actively working. Unfortunately, that isn’t the case for working cockers or field bred springers because of their history and we are now seeing the consequences of that.

Dog structure is such a niche topic that the information is somewhat difficult to find, let alone digest, so I am preparing a series of posts to shed light on the impact of structure on dog wellbeing. Stay tuned!

*(If you disagree, think about professional athletes: ballerinas, gymnasts, long distance runners, sprinters…)

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