The German shepherd is a dog breed that has undergone several transformations in the past years. Many people may remember that the German shepherds of decades ago looked quite different than the ones we see today, especially those shown in the show ring. One trait of this breed that has become quite popular is a sloping back, a trait that seems to have been exaggerated, up to a point that many people wonder whether it's a good thing for the breed or not. In today's trivia we will discover why this breed has a sloped back.
So why do German shepherds have a sloped back?
A It's meant to help this dog work in the field with sheep
B It was introduced by influential 'breed authorities'
C It allows an effortless trot
D It's meant to reduce the incidence of hip dysplasia
The correct answer is: drum roll please....
The correct answer is B, the sloped back feature was introduced from influential breed authorities.
A Look "Back"
German dog breeder, Max von Stephanitz is credited as being "the father" of the German shepherd breed. Von Stephanitz was fond of dogs with a wolfish appearance and sharp senses and worked hard in creating a working dog that could have been potentially used for herding and protecting sheep throughout Germany.
In his 1923 book "The German Shepherd Dog In Word And Picture" Von Stephanitz describes the German shepherd as having a back that is "straight and powerful." And then, he further adds "curvature of the spine diminishes the power of endurance and speed, and is therefore, an especially serious handicap for efficiency..."
Even earlier, in 1915, the book "Dogs of All Nations" described the German shepherd as having a "deep chest, straight back and strong loins". German shepherds were recognized as a breed by the American Kennel Club in 1908.
"The gait of a good shepherd dog is so easy and gliding that, during an even trot, not a drop of what would be spilled from a full glass placed on his back."~V. Stephanitz
The German Shepherd Today
While back in time, German shepherds were mostly used for work, nowadays, a great part are used as companions and protectors of the home and farm.
Sure, there are several others still used for work, and the working line specimens must (hopefully, so!) have a body built for endurance and an effortless gait and one would imagine a level, non-roached back should be part of the package.
On the other hand, showing lines of German shepherds mostly used for the show ring and breeding, are often the ones that stray away from the necessary characteristics needed for being a successful working dog.
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The breed's conformation therefore shifted from a rectangular shape to sloped with an exaggerated hind leg angulation, features that would perhaps make Von Stephanitz roll over in the grave. But how did it all start?
Did you know? German shepherd dogs with sloping backs are now often nicknamed " the hatchback, "downhill dog" and "dog in front, frog in back."
A Bad Apple Spoils the Batch
According to Louis Donald, a working dog judge, the curved spine seen in German shepherds dogs is fruit of a ''very small number of very influential people" that go by the name of "breed authorities" who promoted this feature at dog shows.
Why did they promote this feature? There is really no reason other than it came "with the package" and since these features gained them several wins at dog shows, they soon became the norm since breeders started breeding based on the looks of dogs who won the most, causing the breed to evolve accordingly.
What the Standard Says
Oddly enough, many German shepherds with sloped backs are competing and winning in the show ring, yet the breed standard doesn't state a requirement for such a back. According to the American Kennel Club German shepherd breed standard: "The back is straight, very strongly developed without sag or roach, and relatively short."
Just recently, three-year-old Cruaghaire Catoria, a German shepherd bred by Susan Cuthbert, won Crufts Best of Breed 2016 and there were several complaints about the dog's heavily sloping back and associated struggle to walk. The Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, RSPCA claimed to be "shocked and appalled" and asked the Kennel Club to "take urgent action" to better protect animals' welfare, says an article for The Telegraph. The video can be watched in the Telagraph's article.
The Negative Impact
A sloped back can affect a great deal when it comes to orthopedics and therefore it can have an overall effect on a dog's health. With the back curved, the dog's hip and knee come closer to the ground causing the dog's hindquarters to become more angulated (the bent legs in German shepherds, people describe).
These dogs often shuffle when they walk and after years of wear and tear they may become prone to serious complications that can negatively affect their quality of life.
According to a study, there are major health concerns lately in the way German shepherds are being bred. Indeed, the The Kennel Club Breed Watch system has listed the German Shepherd breed as one breed 'requiring particular monitoring and additional support'. One main point of concern being complications arising from the excessive angulation of the back knee and leg joints.
Dr. Dan O'Neill, lead author from the Royal Veterinary College, claims: "We found osteoarthritis to be one of the most common conditions reported, which may be caused, in part, by breeding for cosmetic traits such as lower hindquarters or a sloping back."
More concerns associated with the sloping back are noted in the quotes from veterinarians listed below.
"Because her hind legs are sloped rather than straight up and down, your German shepherd is prone to lower back pain."~Winterpark Veterinary Hospital
" I thought we had moved on from backs like playground slides. This conformation will only lead to hip displasia, spinal problems and an early death due to the inability to walk. I actually now rarely see GSDs this extreme in the ‘real world’ and was super surprised, and really sad, to see that they are alive and well in the show ring."~Cat the Vet
- American Kennel Club, German Shepherd Breed Standard, retrieved from the web on Sept. 27th, 2016
- The German Shepherd Dog In Word And Picture, By V. Stephanitz, Hoflin Pub Ltd (January 1994)
- The Telegraph, Crufts plunged into cruelty row over 'deformed' German Shepherd, retrieved from the web on Sept. 27th, 2016
- Dan G. O’Neill, Noel R. Coulson, David B. Church, Dave C. Brodbelt. Demography and disorders of German Shepherd Dogs under primary veterinary care in the UK. Canine Genetics and Epidemiology, 2017; 4 (1) DOI: 10.1186/s40575-017-0046-4
- Wikipedia Creative Commons, The show-line dogs usually have an extremely sloping topline, revista de monogràfiques del pastor alemany, Copyrighted free use