Conformation + Terminology

Conformation + Terminology


This amazing species demonstrates a significant breed variation in both size and conformation.

For example compare a small Chihuahua (the smallest breed of dog worldwide) to a giant breed, the handsome Bracco Italiano.


Breed sizes

  • Small
  • Medium
  • Large
  • Giant

Conformational differences

  • Head shape
  • Body shape
  • Back length
  • Leg length
  • Ear type
  • Tail type
  • Paw Shape



Breed Definition; a group of animals that originate from common stock and are bred for their distinctive features. These features are formulated into the “standard” for that breed. Every breed has its own set standard of conformation and physical excellence.

There are around 340 breeds worldwide. Certain breeds have various names as they often change when introduced into other countries.

For example; German Shepherd dog (GSD) = Alsation, the Vizla = Hungarian Pointer and the Chow = Canton Dog.

Several breeds which are well known in one country may be unheard of in another country and examples include; the Chinese Crested dog, Finnish Hound and the Danish Pointer.

The Kennel Club of London currently recognises 218 breeds which are divided into 2 main categories;

1. Sporting Breeds

  • Hounds
  • Gundogs
  • Terriers

2. Non-sporting Breeds

  • Pastoral
  • Utility
  • Working
  • Toy

Breed History

The Romans were thought to be the first to systematically breed dogs for particular work such as hunting dogs and sheepdogs. They also recorded the qualities and functions of the different breeds.

Canine breeds demonstrate a huge variation in their size, body shape, skull shape, leg length and morphological proportions.

The Greyhound type with narrow heads, long legs and light bodies appear to be one of the most ancient breeds, evidenced in paintings and potteries in Egypt and western Asia. There is also evidence of large, heavy mastiff dogs bred in western Asia, as illustrated in Assyrian and Babylonian friezes.


Clinical Tip: Dogs have greater variation in skull shape and size than any other mammal, therefore specific additional terminology is needed to accurately describe this vast difference in canine morphological features. Therapists require this knowledge to integrate with their canine functional anatomy and chosen clinical interventions.

Crossbreeds are a hybrid animal of two purebred parents. They can also be a dog where the breed status of only one parent or grandparent is known.

Designer breeds are continuing to develop due to increasing demand.

Mongrels are dogs with unknown parentage and have a large variation in temperament, size, colour, conformation, exercise needs, grooming requirements and life expectancy.


Mongrel health problems vary widely, but are often considered to be healthier than purebreds as the breeding lines are wider. It's always useful to see the roles and conformation of the parents if possible.


Check out this useful link: "Origins and genetic legacy of prehistoric dogs"

Breeding Programmes

Before "showing dogs" became popular, breeding programmes concentrated on producing a type to do specific work and desirable canine qualities were bred to follow human instruction and be suited to it's role size wise.

Examples include guarding premises, hunting game and herding sheep or cattle. The particular work usually required a specific confirmation and suitable size. Both the temperament and personality of the dog was considered to be incredibly important as the dog needed to accept human direction and enjoy the work.

With the advent of the “show ring” the priorities of breeding changed significantly leading to a profound impact on the UK breeding programme for many breeds. In the show ring we know that a large emphasis is placed on the head and their expression.

Breed Terminology

Due to the wide size and conformational differences in the canine world canine therapy terminology includes a number specific words to help describe these significant conformation variances in the dog.

Breed Differences in Head Shape

Head shape descriptors


This is a long head, with eyes set obliquely and to the side. Breed examples include the Greyhound, Saluki and Borzoi.




This is essentially a short head, which is actually more of a short face as the length reduction is between the nose and the lips rather than the eyes and skull. Eyes are set to the front and a wide zygomatic arch and wide skull. Breed examples are a French Bulldog, Shih Tzu and Pekingese


This is an intermediate and medium sized head. Breed examples are a German Shepherd dog (GSD), Labrador Retriever and a Beagle


Skull Variation

A prominent occiput at the peak of the cranium (palpable as the occipital protuberance) is expected in particular breeds and is very prominent and palpable in gundogs and hounds. Breed example is a Bloodhound.

However, in short face breeds it's not visible and is slightly developed. Breed example is the Borzoi.

There is greater variation in dog skull shapes than in any other species.

Flat foreheads between the ears are expected in some breeds such as the Boston terrier, Italian Greyhound, and Pekingese.

In the Chihuahua and some other short faced breeds, the sagittal crest is absent or poorly developed and a gap exists between the sutures of the parietal and frontal bones.

Poodles carry a slight peak at back of head whereas in the Chihuahua and Beagle, their head is "apple shape".

In the Bulldog and pronounced brachycephalic breeds the vomer bone is incomplete or more deeply notched at its cranial end. This results in interference with the suspension of the soft palate, leading to difficulties with breathing especially in the warmer weather. This can be further complicated by a faulty development of the sphenoid bone, which is common in short faced breeds.

These are just a few variations found in the canine skull shape of this amazing species.


Clinical Tip: Relate breed differences of head shape to their functional anatomy and consider the impact this may have on your treatment technique selection. An example would be the choice of therapeutic ear techniques for a gun dog with well developed ear musculature.

Breed Differences in Body Shape

Body Shape Descriptors


These are dogs with long bodies and short legs. Breed examples are the Miniature Dachshund, Welsh Corgi and Basset Hound.


These dogs have tall, slender bodies and long legs. Breed examples are the Red Setter, Saluki and Greyhound.


These breeds are of a medium body and good musculature. Breed examples are the German Short Haired Pointer, Golden Retriever and Labrador Retriever.


This descriptor is for breeds that are of a heavy and stocky body. Breed examples are the Bulldog, Shar Pei and English Bull Terrier.


Consider the canine biomechanics of a specific breed body shape and relate this to their gait patterning, as normal for one breed is another breed's abnormal gait sequence. For example, Basset Hounds have a rolling gait as they do not single track due to their body shape compared to a Border Terrier who single tracks as the dog accelerates through their gait patterns.

Breed Differences in Hair Coats

The canine therapist needs to build clinical skills to effectively apply techniques adapting to various hair coats. Appreciating the impact of seasonal changes seen in this species, as well as coat response to emotions like fear or health status changes.


Clinical Tip: Integrate coat type knowledge to inter and intra breed variation in skin movement / looseness and the dog's signalment. Consider the senior dog's coat and skin changes due to ageing as well as in response to a medical condition or problem.

Double Coat

In adult dogs, the majority of breeds have a double coat which consists of:

  • an outer coat providing guard hairs for protection
  • an undercoat consisting of finer wool hairs to support the cover coat

This provides an insulated water resistant coat for the dog. Breed examples are the Siberian Husky (SH), German Shepherd Dog (GSD) and Bernese Mountain Dog.

Variations in double coats

These include;

  • A corded coat, breed examples are a Komondor and Puli
  • A long coat, breed example is a Poodle which has a thick double coat with close curls that form cords if left to grow
  • A broken or wiry coat, breed example is the Wire Fox Terrier with harsh, wiry guards and a soft undercoat
  • A medium coat, breed examples are Setters and Spaniels
  • A curly coat, breed examples include certain sporting dogs such as the Curly Coated Retriever and Irish Water Spaniel

Single Coat

This is where a breed has no undercoat. Breed examples of short haired single coats are Pointers and Italian Greyhounds and long haired single coats are seen on the Papillon and Maltese breeds.

Hairless Dogs

The skin of hairless dogs contains just a few stunted hairs. Breed examples are the Chinese Crested Dog and the Argentine Pila.

Breed Differences in Canine Paws

Forefoot / forepaw / manus is;

  • Carpus (wrist)
  • Metacarpus
  • Digits

Hindfoot / hindpaw / pes is;

  • Tarsus (hock)
  • Metatarsus
  • Digits

The paw includes the distal parts of metacarpus / metatarsus and the digits.

All paws are basically the same, however some are shaped slightly differently. Many breed standards specify a particular shape of paw and the wrong shaped paw in some breeds is regarded as a defect.

Paw Variations

Cat shaped paws

These are round, compact and leave a circular paw print. They have well arched digits close together, where digits 3 and 4 are only slightly longer than digits 2 and 5. These are efficient compact shaped paws requiring less energy to lift.

Breed examples of cat shaped paws are the Akita, Doberman Pinscher, Giant Schnauzer, Boxer, Newfoundland, Airedale Terrier, Bull Terrier, Keeshond, Finnish Spitz and Old English Sheepdog.

Hare shaped paws

These are elongated with the two centre digits (3 and 4) significantly longer than the side digits (2 medially and digit 5 being the most lateral placed digit). The digits are less arched and the paw print is an elongated oval shape.

Breed examples of hare shaped paws are several of the toy breeds, Samoyed, Bedlington Terrier, Skye Terrier and Borzoi.

Flat paw shape is a defect

This paw instead of being arched, is where the digits are straight and the paw print is very elongated.

Splay shaped paws

This a a spread paw shape with the digits set apart from one another and is considered normal in the Irish Water Spaniel but is thought of as a defect in other breeds.

Snowshoe paws

This oval paw has a well developed arch of digits, thick pads and well developed webbing and fur between the digits.

Breed examples of “snowshoe” paws include water retrieving breeds (Newfoundland, Chesapeake Bay Retriever, Portuguese Water Dog), the Field Spaniel, German Wirehaired Pointer, mountain and arctic dogs like the Siberian Husky below.


Dewclaws on the hindpaw

Single or double dewclaws on hind paws are uncommon in most breeds but do occur in a few breeds. Breed examples include the Saint Bernard, Newfoundland and Chesaspeake Bay Retriever.

Breed Differences in Tails

Tails are incredibly important to dogs for expression and communication, balance, steering and braking. Different tail shapes are found across this species and some of these are listed below.

Tail Variations

Curled tail: Breed example is the Pug

Plumed tail: Breed example is the Saluki

Otter tail: Breed example is the Labrador Retriever

Screw tail: Breed example is Bulldog

Gay tail: Breed example is many terrier breeds, but their tail may have been docked

Whip tail: Breed example is the Dachsund

Sickle tail: Breed example is the Otter Hound

Bob tail: Breed example is the Old English Sheepdog

Snap tail: Breed example is the Pekingese

Saber tail: Breed example is the GSD

Breed Differences in Ears

Different ear shapes are seen across breeds and this will impact your choices of Therapeutic Touch and manual techniques you select for your therapy programme.

Ear Variations

Erect ears (pricked): Breed example is the German Shepherd Dog (GSD)

Semi-erect: Breed example is the Labrador Retriever

Pendulous (dropped): Breed example is the Basset Hound

Canine Signalment + Roles

The canine signalment is the dog's breed, age, sex and coat colour.


Clinical Tip: It's important to appreciate the various roles dogs have over their lifetime. The accumulative demands these roles may have will influence the therapy needs of the dog. Consideration of where the dog is on its own breed timeline relates directly to your choices of clinically reasoned assessment and treatment techniques. For example a retired racing greyhound will have specific needs to encompass its extensive athletic history.

Main Roles

Dog roles include;

  • Companion (pets)
  • Retired senior dogs

  • Athletic (sporting)
  • Working
  • Showing

Sporting and working dogs includes;

  • Racing greyhound and whippets
  • Sled dogs
  • Search, rescue and tracking dogs
  • Gundogs
  • Security and detector dogs
  • Sheep and cattle dogs
  • Agility / flyball dogs
  • Obedience dogs
  • Guide dogs



Clinical Tip: Due to these significant variations across the breeds, its important for the canine therapist to have a sound breed knowledge integrated to canine biomechanics, functional anatomy, behaviours in context of clinical practice, signalment and the canine role. This facilitates devising a relevant individual treatment plan using a clinical reasoned pathway for each dog to improve their mobility, functional abilities and quality of life.

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