Physiology of the dog – structure and movement.

Logan – Photograph supplied courtesy of Alison Ingram of Osketra German Shepherds.

While there are many different shapes, sizes, colours and coat types of dogs which reflect the many differences between various breeds, all dogs must have the correct structure in terms of balance and angulation in order for them to move and function efficiently. Of course, because of their structural differences not all dogs move in exactly the same way – some have different styles of walking and running and in this Holidays4Dogs article, we will focus on how dogs move.

Balance is associated with the overall appearance of the individual dog, which must be symmetrical and proportioned correctly in relation to other parts of the body.  Angulation generally refers to the bones at the front and the rear of the dog, in particular the angles at the hip and shoulder joints.  Without correct balance and angulation, a dog will move less efficiently, less smoothly and may suffer more injuries over the course of its life.

In understanding how a dog ought to move normally can help the owner to recognise any abnormality that may be associated with disease, injury or weakness and bring this to the attention of their vet sooner, rather than later.

Taboo and Logan – Photograph supplied courtesy of Alison Ingram of Osketra German Shepherds

In the world of competition dogs such as agility, sled dog racing or obedience, there is a growing interest in the way dogs move.  Dogs that move correctly and can shift between gaits efficiently will perform better and, significantly, will be much less likely to suffer injuries.

When describing movement, we call this ‘gait’ which is the pattern of movement in all animals during locomotion, including humans.  Many people compare the gait of dogs to horses, but in fact dogs have quite a unique gait.  Dogs have much more flexibility in their spines than horses and they are also much better at turning tight corners and changing direction due to the fact they have more traction in their paws in order to grip.  There are several main gaits of the dog – walk, amble, pace, trot, canter and gallop.

Walk – when a dog walks he moves one rear leg forward followed by the front leg on the same side; then the other rear foot and the front foot on that side and so on and so forth.  Sometimes the dog will have only two feet on the ground at the same time, sometimes three.

Amble – as the dog speeds his walking up he moves into what is basically speaking a fast walk, or amble.  His legs move in the same way as they do at walking pace, only slightly quicker so that at times, it may look as if the two legs on one side of the dog’s body are moving in unison.  The amble can appear to look as if the dog is moving rather awkwardly and is usually only a brief gait as the dog moves from walk, to pace or trot.  Many experts suggest that allowing a dog to amble should be discouraged.

Pace – when a dog is pacing, only two feet, (on the same side) remain on the ground as the dog moves forward and thus, all of the dog’s weight is carried on one side or the other, as his centre of balance shifts. The pace is most often seen in large breeds or overweight dogs.

Trot – dogs love to trot!  This gait is the most efficient way for a dog to get around and a fit dog can cover long distances in this manner. This is why many dogs will pull strongly on the lead, simply because a dog’s natural pace is much faster than ours.  In the trot, the use of his legs changes and he moves using his diagonal front and rear legs, leaving his body momentarily suspended in mid air.

Canter – there are two ways a dog will canter.  The first is in the same way a horse would canter.  The dog moves forward with one rear foot, then the other rear foot moves at the same time as the diagonal front foot, after which the final front foot moves.  The other variation of the dog’s canter is known as the rotary canter – this is where the feet will move right rear, left rear, left front, right front – (or the other way around).  The rotary canter is the most frequently used gait in canines and is seen most frequently in performance dogs such as those competing in agility.  Dogs engaging in a rotary canter can make fast turns and drive forward effectively from the rear.

Gallop – the gallop begins with both of the dog’s rear feet on the ground, with one foot slightly ahead of the other.  He then stretches his back and body forward with his front feet outstretched.  One front foot will hit the ground a little before the other and then the dog will use his back to spring the rear feet forward again. As with the canter, there are two variations of gallop; classical gallop which is seen in horses and the rotary gallop which is the more natural and most used gait in dogs.

Getting accustomed to your dog’s natural gait can help you to detect when there might be something not quite right with the way your dog is moving.  The trot is the gait in which it is often easier to see any faults in the dog’s movement and this is why the trot is most frequently employed in the world of show dogs.

Lameness can often be detected in a trotting dog, as he will tend to avoid putting weight on the affected limb and this can usually be noticed quite clearly.  Other signs to watch out for are lowering of the head and arching of the back which can often happen as the dog is attempting to compensate his balance when feeling pain his fore limbs.  If he has pain or discomfort in his rear legs you may notice he drops his pelvis, or tilts it to the side.  Intermittent skips, or a gait that looks as if the dog is ‘bunny hopping’ can also be signs of skeletal dysfunction.

Witnessing canine agility is perhaps one of the most thrilling things to see in our own dogs.  They are spectacularly efficient at covering the ground and do so much faster than we can!  Seeing dogs gallop at full speed, especially if he is one of the more graceful fellows such as a greyhound, is almost a spiritual experience that we can only stand and marvel at.

Photographs kindly supplied courtesy of Alison Ingram of Osketra German Shepherds