By C. Patrick Ormos (1998)

In 1997, Jon Kimes (Pluperfect Cardigans), then chair of the Breeders Education Committee of the CWCCA, asked me to write an article on topline and its underlying structures for Breeders Education.  Foolishly, I agreed.  As I began writing this article I discovered just how complex this issue really is.  Rather than write a book-length article in great detail, I will attempt to discuss this from a breeder’s general view point, and hope that this will spark others to do their own investigation.   Let me recommend Ed Gilbert and Thelma Brown’s book: K-9 Structure and Terminology (Howell Book House) as an excellent starting point.  If you can find any of Casey Gardiner’s books (School for Canine Science), grab them.  She died recently and so most of her stuff is no longer published.

What is the topline?  To me this describes the vertebral column from the back of the skull to the tip of the tail.  Its importance lies in its contribution to the larger concept: outline.  Outline is a major constituent of the concept: breed type.  In other words, topline is a major part of breed type.  There are few variations which give the correct aesthetic look to the topline, and many variations which throw that look off. It is a combination of functionalism and aesthetics which dictates the topline, and most other issues in dogs.   Rarely do we have an issue decided on aesthetics alone or functionalism alone.  It is the interplay which motivates us as breeders and exhibitors.

The vertebral column (backbone) is made up of 7 cervical [neck], 13 thoracic [ribs] (the first 9 are the withers, and the next 4 are the true back or mid-back), 7 lumbar [loin], 3 sacral [pelvis area] and up to 20 coccygeal [tail] vertebrae. Obviously the coccygeal vertebrae may be artificially shortened by accident or purpose.  Various inherited spinal problems may also shorten the tail.

"Despite the obvious double curve in the thoracic and lumbar areas, we still speak of a ‘straight’ top line of the dog, although there is likely no such thing.  The illusion of straightness of the vertebral column is due first to the varying lengths of the spinous processes, the spinous processes in the cervical portion of the vertebral column are relatively short, then at the first thoracic vertebrae, become very long.  These spines then gradually shorten and in fact, change direction.   The spinous process of the lumbar spine are relatively short.

A well-muscled mid-back will also help give the appearance of a straighter top line.  Certain positions will also tend to ‘straighten’ the back, i.e. stretching the hind limbs well back, as in the Doberman stance; or a combination of extending the hind limbs and lowering the rear, as in the German Shepherd stance.

Because of the sudden change in height of the spinous processes at the junction of the cervical and thoracic spines, it is relatively easy to palpate the end of the neck and the beginning of the chest.“  [Casey Gardiner: Dogs: A Guide to Measuring].

In trying to understand the topline, we can imagine a suspension bridge where the two support points are the shoulder assembly and the pelvis.  Like any suspension bridge the „wires“ need to be tight to keep the bridge level.  In this case, those „wires“ are the soft tissues which attach the shoulder assembly to the rib cage and vertebrae.

A natural topline—on almost every breed—is a very flattened „S“ lying on its side.  As Casey Gardiner suggested above, a straight topline is practically impossible without some changes to the underlying structures.  In fact, our Standard does not call for a straight topline.

Back to our suspension bridge.  Obviously there are three key elements here: the column itself, and the two supports (shoulders and rear).

„NECK, TOPLINE, BODY—Neck moderately long and muscular without throatiness.  Well developed, especially in males, and in proportion to the dog’s  build. Neck well set on; fits into strong, well-shaped shoulders.   Topline level. Body long and strong.“ (AKC standard).

Please note that this describes a series of curves with one portion (between the curves) being level.  The topline curves over the neck and curves down to blend into the shoulders with high withers, then comes the level back [note that level means parallel to the horizon, not straight], and the very, very slight rise (almost imperceptible) over the loin which is a sign of a strong loin.

Another old wive’s tale is that it is somehow possible to lengthen the back.  While Casey Gardiner proved that with exercise the intervertebral discs could be thickened, that seems to be the only way to lengthen the topline.  We cannot add any vertebrae, no matter how much we wish we could.  Perhaps we can select for dogs with longer vertebrae, or with different structure to give the appearance of more length.

In her studies, Casey Gardiner noted that the ratios of withers:mid-back:lumbar are different in breeds which hold their tails up or down.  In breeds which normally hold their tails up you get a ratio of 40:20:40 percent.  In other words, the loin (lumbar) is the same length as the withers.  In breeds which normally hold their tails down the ratio is 35:20:45. In other words, the loin is slightly longer than the withers.  Pembrokes are a „tail-up“ breed, whereas we (Cardigans) are a „tail-down“ breed.  A difference therefore between Pems and Cardis will show up in their topline.  The Pem should have a shorter loin area than the Cardi.  Proportionately, the Cardi’s loin will be longer.  This emphasizes the need for a strong loin so that no sag appears.

Let’s return to the frontal support structure, the shoulder assembly.  This support structure has no bones or joints to attach it to the ribcage and vertebrae.  It is held in place ONLY by soft tissues; muscles and ligaments.   Obviously then, the state of these soft tissues will reflect on the topline. Very loose ligamentation will result in shoulders with a lot of give, more than the normal 30 degrees of rotation (cf. Ed Gilbert).  This is often confused with good reach in front. The topline may sag slightly between the shoulder blades, giving a strange appearance.  If the shoulders are loaded, we will get a muscular, bulldog look to the front, and once again the topline will be affected.  The high withers which constitute the flow of neck into shoulders come from the long spinous processes of the first few thoracic vertebrae.  These are long so that they provide a strong attachment point for muscles.  In fact, the spinous process of the first two or three vertebrae should project slightly higher than the top of the shoulder blade when the dog is stacked properly.  Note that when the dog moves its head up or down there is a corresponding effect on the withers and shoulder blades, and therefore the appearance of the topline.   Some dogs may look as if they are running downhill if they are allowed to run around with their nose constantly plastered to the ground.

Shoulder blade layback (angulation) will affect topline, especially in „changing“ the length of the neck.  Obviously, we cannot make a neck either shorter or longer. The number of vertebrae are fixed.  One of the key issues in neck length is understanding what happens with the shoulder blades. When the shoulders are very steep, and therefore up on the neck, they will have „disappeared“ from obvious sight - and the neck will appear longer because there is nothing there to cover the actual point where the neck vertebrae change into the withers!  When the shoulders are well laid back, the shoulder blade will once again be out of the way, but this time in the opposite direction, i.e. back along the ribcage, rather than the neck. Obviously this is preferable. An interesting problem is that in between these two extremes will be moderate shoulder angulation which actually covers the junction between neck and withers, and which therefore gives an appearance of a shorter neck. Do not be fooled by this!  Do not breed to a dog with a long neck because its shoulders are too far forward!

Ribbing plays an important part in the visual impression of topline. There is very little room for forgiveness of bad ribbing in this breed.  Barrel ribs will actually push the shoulder blades forward - and affect the neck and topline. Slab-sidedness seems to give the impression of long, elegant necks - perhaps out of balance for this breed. Short ribbing, i.e. not extending well back will unbalance the topline by giving an impression of a loin area which is too long.  The ribs need to come out well from the vertebrae and arch over, down and back to give the necessary room and length of the ribbing.

Most dogs with strong loins will have a very, very slight arch over the loins. „The Saluki Standard (1927) is probably worded better than other Standards. It calls for ‘muscles slightly arched over the loin,’ thus stating what is the cause of the arch.“ (Gilbert, pg. 112)  With an endurance breed, this longish, strong and flexible arch is necessary for full use of both trot and gallop.  It can be affected by muscling and condition.  Please note that this is not a roach.

Complications set in when we look at the rear assembly. It is here that many topline problems both originate and show.

Croups that are too steep will reflect backwards on the loin, often causing the appearance of a noticeable arch (almost a roach).  There will be an arch followed by a precipitous drop-off down to the tail. Many Cardigans exhibit this problem. While tailset will also affect topline through the consequent visual effects on the croup, more often than not, this is not a real structural problem but rather an aesthetic one in terms of topline.  The underlying issue is really the angle of the pelvis.  A steep pelvis will result in extreme under-reach and shallow follow-through.  A flat pelvis will result in poor under-reach and high follow-through (kick-up behind.)  For endurance dogs we look for a moderate pelvic angle to allow for a balanced under-reach and follow-through. 

A very high tailset and tail carriage will result in tightened rear movement, so that the dogs often mince along.

Angulation and hock length again affect topline. It seems to me that we often speak of angulation at the stifle joint, when what we should be thinking of as breeders is bone length, muscling and ligamentation. Is it reasonable to suppose that the dogs inherit angles? I don’t think so. Rather they inherit bone lengths and the resultant ratios - bone lengths, muscling and ligamentation which will mean tight junctions or very loose junctions. A dog with equal length femur and fib/tib will show more moderate angulation than one where the fib/tib is considerably longer than the femur.  [Go look at GSD pictures to see this clearly!]  A dog with a prominent hock joint, and a short ‘hock’ will have cleaner, more powerful movement than one who is missing these things.   As angulation (bone lengths) change, so does the topline.  We have all seen dogs who are high in the rear, and upon inspection, are discovered to also be long in hock.  We have also seen dogs who seem extremely angulated and where the topline is beginning to slope backwards towards the tail.  Over-angulation tends to drop the rears, under-angulation tends to lift the rears; short hocks tend to give power to the rear, and when combined with lots of angles, to drop the rear, long hocks tend to weaken the rear and lift it.

This is by no means an exhaustive explanation of topline.  It is merely a beginning discussion of some of the issues which affect how topline is perceived, in just one person’s opinion.

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