Canine Toplines and How They Translate to Function

What does canine topline refer to and what is its significance?

Canine Toplines

Introduction

There is a special reason I look forward to the month of February each year–the Westminster Kennel Club (WKC) Dog Show as a credentialed member of their Media/Press team.

The show is pure happiness and the Westminster staff considers the dogs the true stars of the show.

At the same time, I struggle with a few of the breed conformation standards and how they affect dog health.

The balance between rewards of breeding dogs that have winning conformation and obedience traits versus the long term welfare of the breed’s health and quality of life seems a challenge to maintain.

The Westminster Kennel Club promotes responsible breeding with concern for soundness and temperament, beyond basic conformation standards.

I chose the upper posture or “topline”, as my WKC Show media focus.

What is a topline?

The topline means exactly as it reads; it is a dog’s profile along their spine horizontally from behind the base of their neck and withers, to the top of the tail.

Though variations in contour of toplines exist, their common denominator is smoothness, evenness.

The ideal topline is flexible and flowing, both essential ingredients for balance and proportionality.

The same applies to mixed breed dogs. A smooth topline is of benefit to every dog as it indicates structural symmetry and core muscle stability.

What affects a dog’s topline?

Can toplines by affected by handler technique in posing a dog during a judging show?

Sure, this occurs in the static standing phase of showing both in the ring and at the judge’s table. Handlers use a skill called ‘stacking’, where they place the dog’s limbs, tail, chest, head, and neck in position to mimic ideal breed conformity. 

It isn’t cheating, merely a way to bring out the best pose for visual presentation to the judge.

If a dog has a particular glitch in their posture, the handler might artificially stack them in a way to hide or minimize it.

This is often achieved by elongating the dog’s stance. Interestingly, I noticed many judges giving a firm yet gentle backward push to the dog’s chest after stacking by the handler.  I presume this to be a test to see if the topline ‘holds’.

The handler technique can also control the topline during gaiting.

The true topline shows when the dog stands naturally in the ring. This, however, hardly occurs as handlers constantly adjust the dog’s position. Hence, I took most of the photos n the pre-ring area.

Example topline analysis

Let’s examine the topline of a non-Westminster canine, namely Miss Cookie Rade as an example.

Canine Toplines: Cookie

Cookie is a Rottweiler. The topline AKC standard for this breed is “level”, with the withers and croup on the same straight horizontal plane.

Rotties are trotters and part of the working group of canine breeds. A level topline is an asset for the Rottweiler during livestock herding (especially with larger livestock such as cattle.) The dog needs to stay well balanced with their heads up high as they trot and circle.

One variation of the Rottweiler topline posted by AKC is a slight rear sloping near the rump. You can often find this topline in dogs that guard and protect.

Looking closely at Cookie, I notice that her croup is slightly higher than the withers, resulting in a topline that is slightly off the AKC level standard. 

There is no rear sloping either, in fact, the opposite appears in Cookie. As your eye travels along the topline starting at the neck moving left, you will see slight sag or dip occurring just behind her harness strap, at the lower ribcage.

So, what‘s going on with Cookie?

Cookie might need a bit of targeted core strengthening via “belly tickle” right under the area of the dip in topline, to help fully level it. This would be a quick exercise. I’d do with her 3-4 reps, once per day initially, then every few days, just to fine-tune her posture. Let’s be honest, Cookie is a beautiful specimen, finely formed, and fit!

One more interesting observation. Cookie’s torso appears slightly longer than the Rottie breed standard.  If so, this could also explain the slight dip in topline. It also justifies why I teasingly refer to her as “Jana’s Rott-Hound”, as she has the heart and soul (and topline!) of a warrior hunting hound!

Toplines explained

Arched
Canine toplines: Roached topline
Greyhound, Westminster Dog Show 2015
Canine toplines: Arched topline
Whippet, Westminster Dog Show 2015

Description: 

  • convex upward curve
  • similar to a hump, seen in the following breeds:  Whippet, Greyhound, Saluki, Afghan hound, And Scottish deerhound.

Function: helpful to sighthounds and those dogs that run at a gallop, particularly at fast speeds.  This topline allows the dog to tuck their hind limbs under the core, to cover the increased horizontal distance with each gait stride during a gallop.

Sloped
Canine toplines: Sloped topline
Canine Toplines: Sloped Topline
German Shepherd Dog (GSD) from WKC Dog Show 2015
German Shepherd Dog (GSD) from WKC Dog Show 2015

Description:

  • gradual downward gradient
  • gently sloping
  • rounding toward the rear end, commonly seen in the German Shepherd Dog.

Function: the slope causes increased flexion of the hips and stifles. This helps the dog be at the “ready” for a lunge or forward thrust movement. E.g. jobs that require springing into action such as police work, protection, guarding. This topline also causes the hock joint to flex into the upward cranial direction more than the opposite, extension or plantar flexion.

Sloped topline and health

A sloped topline may also be indicative of hip dysplasia or degenerative joint disease of the hips and spine.

In the German Shepherd Dog, sloping top lines are desired by breeders and judges to conform to the club standard. Does this topline cause degeneration in the joints or does the genetic structure of GSD manifests itself in the slope? The answer is ……..probably “both”.

GSDs have genetic predisposition to

  • hip dysplasia
  • hip arthritis, and
  • Degenerative Myelopathy

These conditions cause hind limb weakening and lowering of the rear end of the topline, resulting in a slope. Conversely, GSDs bred for conformation and show are trained to adopt the sloped bent limb position. This, in theory, might cause hip and spine problems later in life.

Interestingly, there is a benefit to a sloped topline for the stifle joints: cranial cruciate ligament tears are rare as tibia angles are closer to the horizontal, similar to human being or dogs that have undergone TPLO surgery (where the angle of the tibia plateau is leveled).

Roached
Canine toplines: Roached topline
Roached topline, Boxer, WKC Dog Show 2015

Description: Roaching of the spine is an abnormal topline characterized by

  • an upward curve
  • higher, and
  • longer than the arched topline described above.

Roaching indicates pain. It is a non-functional topline.

Level
Canine toplines: Level topline
Yellow Labrador Retriever, WKC Dog Show 2015
Smooth Coat Dachshund, WKC Dog Show 2015

Description:

  • consistently flat all along the top
  • withers and coup at the same horizontal plane, commonly seen in Labrador Retrievers, Beagles and scent hounds.

Function: helps dogs that trot and move at consistent speeds as seen in long-distance travel, hunting, retrieval. Seen in other breeds such as border collies with a flat topline held in a low plane to the ground, helpful for penning, driving herds.

Sag/Swayed
Canine toplines: Sag topline
Mastiff, WKC Dog Show 2015
Mastiff, WKC Dog Show 2015

Description:

  • a normal sag or sway with
  • a small but noticeable dip near the beginning of the topline closer to the neck.

Commonly seen in working breeds such as St Bernard, Akita, Mastiff, Boxers, and in other breeds as Bulldogs.

Function: in response to large thick muscular necks of dogs that stand in alert attention, helpful for guarding. This sag or sway at the base of the neck increases if the head is large and heavy.

A sway that occurs in the middle of the topline (saggy spine) often indicates

  • weakness in the core muscles
  • being overweight with extra belly mass, and
  • an unstable spinal column. 

Breeds that tend to sag in the middle spine are Basset Hounds and Dachshunds. Owners can prevent sag with proper weight management and fitness. Doxies and Bassets should have a level topline.

Dachshund with abnormal sag/sway in the center of the spine
Straight
Canine toplines: Straight topline
Toy Fox Terrier, WKC Dog Show 2015
Toy Fox Terrier, WKC Dog Show 2015
Straight topline,
Chinese Crested

Description:

  • straight but not level
  • with the withers rising up slightly from the croup

The tilt up toward the head and neck, usually seen in toy breeds such as Min Pin, Chinese Crested, Toy Fox Terrier, Broken Coat Jack Russell Terrier.

Function: aids a lively, spirited dog with a springy, prancing gait and in vertical jumping.

A dog’s topline doesn’t tell the whole story of its health or soundness. It provides a clue to the basic structure and how that relates to form and function, though.

Related articles:
Canine Gait Analysis

Further reading:
Canine Body Structure and Movement

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