Top of The Line

I receive a lot questions about the topline, the line of the dog’s silhouette that runs from the base of the neck to the base of the tail. Some like to include the neck as well. It seems to be the most obscure part of the dog’s structure, in the sense that the spine is not readily observable to the same extent as the leg bones, the skull or even the pelvis.

The topline consists of the withers and back, which correlate to the 13 thoracic vertebrae and the 7 lumbar vertebrae. The last three thoracic v. are sometimes called the mid-back. In a normal spine, the bodies of each vertebra are aligned in a straight column. The longer thoracic dorsal spines, and their overlying muscle, create the higher, sloping withers, while the shorter lumbar dorsal spines, and their overlying muscle, create the straight, level back when a dog is standing informally.

The topline of a dog can slope or appear to slope, for a number of reasons. A dog with correct structure will show a slight slope when set up for show, with one hind leg pulled slightly back. Unfortunately, in the minds of some, if some is good, more is better, regardless of how that slope is achieved. Of course, it’s best to see the dog live, moving and standing naturally. Then it’s easy to see if the dog really has a correct topline. However, dogs that are deceased and exist only on pedigrees, and dogs being advertised through their photographs, may give a wrong impression of their true structure. A slope can be the result of several different things.

Correct Topline

The most common reason, at least in North American lines, for a sloping back is too much rear angulation. The dog appears literally to be sinking in the rear end, which effectively is what is happening. The knees, or stifles, are bent more than they should be, and the rear end drops. It’s the same as if you, while standing, were to bend your knees and sink down. These dogs are usually cow hocked and sickle hocked, and show soft, low, squishy movement, as if they are moving across a mattress with soft springs. Some judges think this is a sign of good shock absorption, but anyone who has had their car’s shock absorbers go soft know what a hard ride it can be. Some of these dogs will stand with a fairly level back when both hind legs are set well under them, but they can go very low in the rear when set up for show. To set the rearmost leg back so the hock is vertical, it must be stretched very far back, and the topline takes on an almost ski slope aspect. It may look dramatic and flashy, but it is not a powerful rear and is not correct.

Extreme Rear Angulation

Handling can also cause a dog to stand incorrectly. Handlers don’t seem to train their dogs to set themselves up, so there is a lot of hand setting of dogs in the ring. Inevitably, the dogs get overstretched as the handlers try to make them show more rear angulation. Perfectly good dogs that would look wonderful if they could stand naturally get overstretched and pulled into showing more of a slope than they naturally have. A few years ago a photo of a Canadian champion who had beautiful structure, but was extremely overstretched in his photograph, was circulated around the internet as an example of an extreme American dog by someone who apparently didn’t know the difference. If a dog is over-stretched, regardless of how much or how little angulation it has, the hock of the leg pulled back will not be vertical, but will be sloped. Dogs usually don’t stand this way naturally, so it’s a pretty good indication of a dog that has been improperly posed by hand.

Overstretched Show Pose

A roach back can also give the impression of a slope. If the spine behind the withers is arched more than it should be (the natural anatomy of a wolf or hunting dog shows no arch), then the back will bow downwards towards the rear, making the croup steeper than it should be and lowering the pelvis. In the worst cases the hindquarter appear too small, almost as if nature has shrunk the hind legs to accommodate the lowered rear. It’s also common to see cow hocks in roached backed dogs, even when the angulation is normal. A slope due to roach generally doesn’t disappear when the dog is standing naturally, and posing the dog by hand seems to cause it to hunch up even more. Any curvature of the spine alters the relationships of the major parts of the anatomy, as the back is the cornerstone of the dog’s entire structure.

Roached Back

Even dogs with basically level backs can give the impression of a sloped topline. Dogs with very high, sloping withers (sometimes the result of straight shoulders) and steep croups can seem to slope more than they should, especially in a show pose. The angle of the withers and croup creates the optical impression of an overall slope, even though the back itself is reasonably normal. I’ve seen this combination of traits in more than a few American dogs, but it probably doesn’t exist in German showline dogs.

Steep Wither and Croup

Finally, any dog, whatever its structure, will show a sloping topline when it is pulling on the lead, whether standing or gaiting.  A dog that is “strung up” when gaiting to force the head unnaturally high can show a dramatically different topline than when it is gaiting naturally, hence the wise German requirement that dogs be gaited off lead. Dogs that are baited to get their attention will pick up their heads and drop their rears, and while we like a dog to look alert and poised, it will change the profile somewhat from a natural, relaxed stance.

Pulling on the Lead

As you can see, a “sloping topline” is really just a symptom that doesn’t mean very much unless you look further for the underlying structural causes.