The Middle Piece

Written & Illustrated by Linda Shaw MBA


The dog's chest or rib cage consists of 12 true ribs (Fig 4, R1 to R12), attached to and suspended from the vertebrae of the withers. They house and protect the heart and lungs, which are actually positioned somewhat behind the shoulder. The ribs themselves arch down and backwards, creating a cage that is quite long and that balloons out behind the ribs, giving the typical "pear" shape as seen from above (Fig 1). This means that the rib cage is comparatively narrow in front, so that the forelegs have plenty of maneuvering room, not only front to back, but side to side as well. A very wide or barrel chest, often seen in breeds bred for strength, compromises agility (Fig 2), just as a very narrow or slab sided chest compromises strength (Fig 3). The last two ribs ( Fig 4, R12, R13) are "floaters" that are attached to vertebrae at the top, but are only about six inches long. Still, they help to protect the back (Fig 4).

The depth of the chest is important as well. In many wild dogs, the chest only reaches to well above the elbows, without in the least compromising stamina, although the larger subspecies of wolf seem better endowed in this respect. It's not unreasonable to expect a dog as powerful as a shepherd to have a somewhat deeper, well muscled brisket (that part of the chest which hangs between the forelegs). Working dogs are required to jump far higher than any wild dog, and a deep, powerful forechest helps withstand the impact. The standard suggests a depth of 45 to 48% of the dog's height at the withers, but this is partly a function of the dog's length of foreleg. The brisket itself should be even with the elbow, with the skeletal sternum situated above the elbow. However, in extremely well conditioned dogs, the muscles of the brisket may be so well developed as to come below the elbows. It may take some determined palpation, and a patient dog, to conclude that it is actually not the rib cage which is too deep. A dog whose brisket and sternum are both too deep is also invariably narrow in chest, as seen from the front. Excessive depth is often actually achieved by squashing the chest flat, so to speak. This is commonly seen in some bloodlines and, needless to say, should be considered very undesirable. In some of these dogs, you can actually see the heart beating behind the elbow. Conversely, the round, barrel chest is generally too shallow. Finally, there may be the illusion of excessive depth just because the dog has a thick, fringed winter coat. A beautiful coat may give a dog an appearance of substance which it might not have, but that's easily determined, and it's the lack of substance, not the coat, that should be faulted.

From the side, the forechest, or prosternum, should protrude just a bit from behind the point of shoulder, assuming the shoulder is correct. The pectoral muscles which attach to the upper arm and draw the foreleg forward are anchored to the prosternum, and that bit of forward leverage helps the dog to reach. Too much projection will make it more difficult for the dog to execute sideways maneuvers, as the prosternum can actually get in the way of the shoulder. Dogs with underdeveloped fronts may still show great reach at the gallop, where the forelegs move ahead in tandem, but they usually exhibit a more stilted reach at the trot.

(Figure 5)
The true back's structure consists of two parts. The first is the four thoracic vertebrae (T10 to T13) which are at the end of the withers, and which have short, upright dorsal spines. They constitute the transition from that part of the spine which carries the load, the withers, to that part which channels the drive. These thoracic vertebrae create the "dip" behind the withers which all dogs have, but which only some show. A visible dip may be the result of a weakness in the back, excess length or simply poor condition. I've seen a neglected male with a terrible dip who with time and conditioning developed a wonderful topline and powerful back. A dog with a straight, high set rear will show a definite dip, but this may be more a problem of rear angulation than back weakness.

The second part of the true back is the drive train, and is constituted of the seven lumbar vertebrae (L1 to L7). These are large vertebrae with long dorsal and lateral spines that slant forward to withstand the tremendous pressures generated by the drive muscles of the hindquarters that are anchored to them.
The back, including the withers, has two purposes. First, it must transmit the power generated in the rear in a straight line forwards, carrying the body with it. Secondly, it must support the weight of the internal organs, and in the case of bitches, repeated litters. For transmission purposes the straight, level line is best. For support, the arch is most effective. In the dog, the most efficient conformation is a spine which is only very slightly arched, so slightly that in a well conditioned dog it is only visible as an arching of the loin muscles. Any visible curvature of the topline is too much. The spine which shows this much roach will buckle whenever stress in the form of drive is applied, and the roach will accentuate. The less straight the spine, the more energy is dissipated and wasted, tiring the dog. While the roach back can be very strong from a support perspective, it is weak in movement. Some commentators distinguish between a roach that occurs in midback, or over the loin, or over the withers. In my opinion a roach is a roach, and wherever it occurs or to whatever degree, they are just variations of the same fault.

When the spine is malformed, the other components of the dog's conformation are thrown out of balance, and it can become rather difficult to judge the various parts. For instance, a pelvis set correctly to the spine will appear even more sloped due to the rounded back (Fig 6). Conversely, the pelvis which appears correctly set despite a roach may actually be set too level to the spine, with the slope of the croup being achieved through the midback (Fig 7). This is definitely not correct. At the other end, the roached spine slopes down into the withers, causing them to take a flat (or worse, downward) orientation. In extreme cases the entire forehand is forced forward and down. In movement, even with a good shoulder, the dog can barely reach past his chin. One typically sees such dogs standing and traveling with their heads level and even down; not a noble picture at all. A correct dog when standing will have a moderately high headed, attentive look, with a distinctly high, sloping wither and a STRAIGHT and level or slightly sloping back. The spine behind the withers will arch very slightly, but this is not visible. The muscling of the loin will also arch, at least in a well conditioned dog, but the visible topline over the back will remain straight. Aside from the questionable esthetics of a roach back, and the impairment of movement it causes, one has to wonder what orthopedic problems can arise when such a crucial linchpin in the dog's structure is malformed. Nature created the roach in subterranean reptiles and rodents to protect them from the weight of the earth, and in giants like elephants to support the weight of their own bodies. Our shepherds do not fall into those categories.






Even worse is the opposite, the sway back (Fig 8). This back is extremely weak, will be very vulnerable to injury in motion, and will not support a bitch in whelp. Any tendency to sway back should be discarded. The very short back, which will result in a dog that is somewhat square in proportion (Fig 9), is undeniably strong and is often seen in small, highly athletic dogs such as terriers. However, it generally doesn't have the flexibility needed for extreme maneuverability in a larger dog. The long back, which is very common in animals bred strictly for side gait at the trot (Fig 10), is not necessarily weak, especially in young dogs, but it tends not to bear up well over many years. Such dogs can sometimes show a tendency to sway back in their later years. A long back also impedes agility where the back must flex quickly, such as during galloping and jumping. Additionally, there is some suspicion that the long back creates such a roomy capacity within the abdominal cavity that vulnerability to torsion may result.

The middle-piece is conventionally referred to as the coupling, but is really just what's in between the rib cage and the hindquarters. Hopefully, not much. A dog in good condition will show a definite waist from above (Fig 1), between the ribs and thick loin muscles, and a definite tuck-up from the side (Fig 5). This area should also be fairly short. Where the middle-piece is too long, the back will also be too long. This is where the dog's stomach and gastrointestinal tract lie, as well as the liver, kidneys and reproductive organs. The firmer the abdomen, the better. A long, deep or loose abdomen is going to sap the dog's stamina, or worse, create an environment for bloat. Depth of body, that look of substance and solidity, should be achieved through strong muscling and good coat, not looseness, lack of condition or, God forbid, fat.