The Koolie - Understanding conformation in a breed without a breed standard
One breed I see a lot of is the Koolie, they're a cool dog! The majority of Koolies I see are fair dinkum working dogs as well as performance dogs otherwise known as sporting dogs - these dogs excel at Flyball, agility and the likes!
Once you love a Koolie, it is hard to have anything else and this is why many of my clients ask for my help in choosing their next puppy in terms of functional conformation (the dogs structure and how it relates to what they want to do with the dog). Now, whilst I can look at a dog and say these are all the things I like and these are the things I'd like to be better - I always compare the dog to their breed standard because a breed should be fit for function. A breed standard is blue print of how a dog should look, act & move and without a breed standard it is very hard to create an actual breed as breeders don't have a guide to work from. The Koolie in Australia does not have a breed standard.
The Koolie is not recognised as a breed by the Australian National Kennel Club but that's no real biggie because the Koolie is a true working breed, it doesn't need an organisation to recognise it for it to be a valuable dog to Australian farmers - your average farmer doesn't give a hoot about whether some organisation officially recognises it as a breed or not, it just needs to do the job it was bred to do. But, here lies the problem, the Koolie is no longer just a hard working farm dog, it's now living in suburban backyards participating in dog sports and being bred by not only experienced breeders but also novice breeders alike who don't have a breed standard as a guide, this has lead to a huge variety of 'types' of Koolies and sometimes it's hard to actually tell if a dog is a Koolie or not. To further hinder the process, the Koolie can often be out-crossed to other breeds such as Kelpies and Border Collies which makes creating a 'type' much more difficult. The great thing about a purebred dog is predictability, you know what they look like and generally how they will move and behave etc. There are many breeders in Australia who are breeding "purebred" Koolies and owners and breeders are now able to test the DNA breed heritage of their dog via Embark. So without a breed standard when I'm looking at photos of Dam and Sires of potential litters for clients I could only say "...Well, for the function you're looking for, these are the good things and these the are the things that I'd like to be better". If I were looking at a puppy or an older dog, I would be saying the same thing but adding on that if you were to breed this dog, these are the weaknesses that you don't want to double up on. I've always been the type of person that wants to empower people to understand these things themselves so they don't need me and they can form their own opinions, you know that old saying "give a man a fish and you feed him for a day; teach a man to fish and you feed him for a lifetime". So, in this blog, I'm going to help my clients and anyone else who has an interest in the breed learn about structure and the good news is, whilst we don't have a breed standard we do have something else very similar called “The Koolie Fundamentals” that was put together by Mr Bob Maver who was the past Chairman of the ANKC’s Canine Health Committee and a former ANKC Judge. I would like to say a very big thank you to the Koolie owners who volunteered photos of their dogs that could be used in this article, it is an incredibly brave and gracious thing to do. The main model I am using is a young purebred Koolie called Killarah Hulk. Before I go on, it is important to respect the dogs we look at and critique, it is not our job to fault find, it is our job to compare the dog to the breed standard and understand what strengths and weaknesses a dog has to better understand what offspring they may produce. Anyone can point fingers at an obvious weakness in a dog, not many can point out all its strengths. Whilst I encourage you to look carefully at dam and sires, you must also look at the dogs that came before them as the Dam and Sire may be anomalies and a consistent weakness may be seen in their parents and grandparents and so-forth that is likely to be seen in their offspring so you need to make allowances for this.
Before we get into the actual structure, this paragraph of the Koolie Fundamentals is very important - the very key to the breed is its stamina and effective stamina comes from when the physical structure of the dog is in balance aka sound.
Stamina is the ability to work hard for long, continuous periods. It is predisposed by appropriate conformation, efficient gait, health and fitness. The Koolie is expected to be able to work under all conditions of weather, terrain and difficulty, without fail. Stamina is only possible when the running gear is sound and the whole body is in balance.
GENERAL APPEARANCE The general appearance should be that of a strong, active and athletic dog, well muscled and in hard condition, combined with great suppleness and agility, indicating the likelihood of stamina and the capability of untiring work. Any coarseness or weediness is undesirable.
Given the range of work of the Koolie, e.g. from herding sheep or cattle in the open field to yard work and trucking, there may be slight differences in desirable conformation and various family lines may differ slightly accordingly.
Whilst some dogs can be genetically blessed with good muscle tone, the vast majority of dogs condition will come from physical activity. A dog not in working/sporting condition is at higher risk of injury especially when their brains want to do more than their bodies can. Good muscle tone protect bones and joints and flexibility ensures joints move with ease and are less likely to strain.
GAIT/MOVEMENT To produce the almost limitless stamina demanded of a herding dog the Koolie must be perfectly sound, both in construction and movement.
The perfect dog does not exist and even close to perfect is a big call, this is where understanding the breed standard/fundamentals helps breeders breed dogs more capable of safely carrying out their function i.e. breed as close to the breed standard/fundamentals as possible.
Any tendency to cow hocks (turned in when viewed from behind), bow hocks (turned out when viewed from behind), loose shoulders, stilted or restricted movement is a serious fault.
Terminology in breed standards / fundamentals can cause a lot of confusion and where it is left up to the readers interpretation, misunderstandings can occur.
Cow hocks and bowed hocks are easily shown in diagrams however loose shoulders, stilted or restricted movement really requires an eye of movement and video explanation showing these different gaits should be made available.
Movement should be free and tireless and the dog must have the ability to turn suddenly at speed.
Again terminology without video examples can mean the reader doesn't necessarily understand what is required. All readers should however be able to watch a dog trot, canter and gallop and notice if it looks like it is doing it with ease and if it has the ability to suddenly turn or instead, does it take a corner like a Mac truck which is not the type of efficiency you would be looking for in a working breed.
When trotting, the feet tend to come closer together at ground level (towards single tracking) as speed increases.
See the below video and see if you think the dog is moving as per the Koolie Fundamentals. I would say it is.
At a fast trot, the front foot leaves the ground just before the hind foot is placed on the ground in almost the same spot – otherwise the height-to-length ratio of the dog is not ideal for sustained work.
See this slow motion video and see what you think, is the dog moving as per the Koolie Fundamentals or is it over reaching or something else? I would say it is or pretty close to correct.
At the gallop, the main drive comes from the hind quarters, with hind feet coming well forward, and the centre of gravity should remain steady in one horizontal plane for energy conservation and stamina. I think the terminology here could be confusing when talking about the horizontal plane, I would imagine what they mean is that when you watch the dogs topline (their back) when the dog is on the move (trotting) that it remains pretty steady like a table top and doesn't bounce around which can happen when a dog isn't physically balanced. I'm not sure how this relates to a gallop. BODY SHAPE The chest should be deep – right down to the elbow for heart room. This dogs front end assembly i.e. its front legs/shoulders are positioned more forward (towards the head) than ideal which I'll explain later but what it means is that if the front end assembly was in the correct place then the deepest part of the dogs chest (where the arrow is pointing to) would be inline with its elbows which is the ideal.
– with a good spring of rib for lung expansion. Spring of ribs is the ideal width of the rib cage, where there isn't a nice roundness/curve to the rib cage to allow for lung expansion this would be called slab sided but there can be too much as well which would be referred to as barrel ribbed.
For optimum height to length ratio, length of the body from the point of the shoulder (the bony protrusion in front of the chest) to tip of buttocks should be slightly longer than the height at the withers (the top of the shoulder blades behind the neck) – a longer length will give a weaker back, a shorter length will produce a shorter stride and a less efficient action.
I have a terminology difference here. The point of the shoulder to me is actually the point on the shoulder where the upper arm meets the scapula not the sternum of the dog. The green line is the length of the dog and the orange line that green line flipped vertically to compare length to height. The height of the dog is the ground to the highest point of the wither not including any tufts of hair making it higher - the pink horizontal line represents this.
We now need to interpret the Koolie Fundamentals in relation to the image of the dog to decide whether this dog falls within that ideal or is it too long? I believe it fits within the Koolie Fundamentals.
Height at the withers should equal height at the hip for optimum balance in length of forelegs/hind legs and a smooth, efficient action. This dog fits this guideline if we find the wither under that tuft of hair.
There should be strong muscling of the loin (the area of the back between the last ribs and the hips) to provide power and extension in the drive by flexing of the back in the gallop. There may be a slight rise over the loins due to muscling in fast-running dogs.
This dog looks in good condition but for me personally I would like to see more muscling of the loin - this is a young dog so it is not fair to judge him quite yet as he isn't working or being conditioned due to his age.
The shoulders should be clean, muscular and sloping, with the shoulder blades close set at the withers.
Terminology can be a problem again in relation to the interpretation of what "clean" means. Muscular is an obvious term, this dog is lacking, he is also young so I can't quite judge him yet. Sloping - yes, we draw a line from the joint of the upper arm and scapula and take it to the highest point of the shoulder. Dogs with well sloped shoulders also known as an open shoulder or well angulated can cover ground with less steps which means they won't tire as easily. Shoulder blades close together is something you have to touch to interpret if there is much space between them.
The length of shoulder blade should be approximately equal to that of the upper arm. You can see the blue line (humerus to point of shoulder) is shorter than the orange line (point of shoulder to highest point of wither being the point of the scapula), we would say that this dog is short in upper arm. Short in upper arm is becoming very common in working breeds and is something that i.m.o breeders need to watch out for when choosing Dam and Sires to ensure they're not doubling up on structural weaknesses.
The angulation between should be 90 degrees or slightly less to be in balance and provide good reach in front and extension behind for free movement and therefore stamina at all gaits, and to provide cushioning for a quick stop.
Because this dogs front assembly is placed too far forward (more on that soon), the triangle we're trying to draw gets a wee bit bent out of shape, however this dog sits at around 80 degrees. See the graphic under this photo for the landmarks we're using. A 90 degree shoulder in the real world is thought to be unrealistic.
It's important to understand in the dog world there are augments how to measure different things such as angulation and length of back for example so when I show you these things, these are just 1 way and you may have been taught another way.
The landmarks we are using to draw out triangle is the point of the humerus, the point of the shoulder and then the highest part of the scapula. Where the 2 lines intersect at the point of scapula define the angulation degree.
An alternative way to measure that also delivers a different result is as per below.
Which is right? eeek, well that's the argument - in the end, you're not going to sit there with a protractor, you're trying to develop an eye for a dog and what could be lacking etc. so when you're looking at Dam and Sire you can see if there is a double up of weaknesses.
Elbows neither in nor out. When a dog is elbowing in, its feet point out like a seal which is commonly referred to as 'East-West'. When the dogs elbows are 'out' the feet point towards each other. Whilst this can be seen when standing, it's quite obvious when a dog is trotting as you'll very clearly see the dogs elbows pointing out for instance. The reason for elbows being in and out can occur for a range of reasons, most relating to structural faults.
The forelegs should be muscular with strong but refined bone, straight and parallel when viewed from the front, and neither too wide apart nor too narrow.
In my opinion, this dogs width of front & heaviness of bone is inline with the Koolie fundamentals. He is a little east west, however because he is young, we need to come back at look at him when he is matured as his chest is yet to drop which will likely push the elbows out a bit more.
When viewed from the side, the pasterns should show a slight slope to ensure flexibility in movement, ability to turn quickly, and cushioning to take the weight when the front feet hit the ground, especially in the gallop.
Let us have a look at the pasterns of 3 Koolies. #1 shows a slope, is it a little too much slope? Maybe, I would like to see the dog have shorter nails and then see how it stands as nail length does change posture. #2, I think this is a good example of a slight slope. #3 (a little hard to see with the lighting of the photo) is what I would call 'upright', there's not really a slope there at all and given the pasterns are the dogs suspension system, a lack of slope can cause the rest of the dogs body to take the brunt of its activity, particularly the shoulders.
For ideal balance in the front assembly, when viewed in profile with the legs vertical, the elbow should be directly under the point of the withers. Now, I've mentioned on 2 occasions that the model dogs front assembly is placed too far forward, this is where this becomes relevant. In the below example, I have drawn a blue line from the elbow as a landmark, now the Koolie Fundamentals state that elbow should be directly under the point of the withers. The point of the withers is in the red box so you can now see that this dogs front is placed too far forward than ideal.
HINDQUARTERS The hindquarters provide most of the drive. The hips must be sound. The only way to know if the hips are sound are to take x-rays and send them away to be scored either via the AVA (traditional hip scoring scheme) or the more recent American PennHip scheme.
No one has x-ray hands and whilst in 'some' cases, typically more obvious ones, an experienced eye can see dysfunction in the gait - in most cases though, Hip Dysplasia goes unnoticed and hidden by the dog all their life or until a point the pain becomes too much to hide anymore. This day and age there really are no excuses to not x-ray + score a dogs hips and elbows as part of pre-breeding screening. Hip Dysplasia is a poly-genetic disease meaning it is part genetics and part environmental therefore any breeder blaming a puppy owner for bad hips needs a re-education in genetics.
The hindquarters should be broad and strong, with both first and second thighs well muscled.
I am lucky enough to have 2 models showing both a strong and weaker 1st and 2nd thigh areas that I can share with you. This first dog shows a broad and strong first and second thigh area.
Our second dog shows a weakness in this area. This is a young dog and bound to mature and muscle up more but it is unlikely that the dog will develop these attributes in any great amount but let us come back and look at him in 1-2 years.
The stifles well turned for extension of the legs.
When we draw a line from the point of the ilium (hip bone) to the point of buttock (the dogs sit bones) to the stifle and then to the hock, we can see the angulation of the hindquarter. In this instance we're just going to look at the point of buttocks to the stifle and then to the hock.
The drawing below will now help you understand these lines when you're looking at a dog with a lack of hindquarter angulation.
In the below 3 dog example, you will be able to see our last dog has less turn of stifle and our first dog might have a wee bit too much.
The rear pasterns relatively short for good stamina: long pasterns are good for sprinters, but require more energy per stride and therefore reduce stamina. Who defines what is short, what is correct and what is long? This is an example of how a breed standard is up to the individual interpretation of the reader.
I don't personally feel these are short or long hocks. I think it's very hard to find short hocks these days which is a shame because they aid in endurance and in this breed, that is important.
When viewed from the side with the dog standing, if the rear pasterns are placed vertical then the front of the pastern should be directly under the tip of the buttocks: any further back will tend towards ‘sickle hocks’, resulting in inadequate flexing of the hocks and reduction in the power of the drive.
I disagree with this assessment because the general way you look at this is that you drop a plumb line from the point of buttocks down to the floor and if the dog is standing naturally with the pasterns vertical then the toes should fall behind the line with the toes touching the line like in the below example:
What are Sickle Hocks? Sickle Hocks is where the dog moves their foot from beneath the hock to beneath the center of gravity for the hind leg. This posture generally tells us that there is too much angulation. If the dog can hold the pose (standing 4 square like a show dog) with their hind pastern perpendicular/vertical to the ground naturally and comfortably, then the abundance of angulation is not likely to cause problems.
When viewed from behind, the hind legs, from the hock joints to the feet, are straight and parallel, neither close nor too wide apart.
Our model dog is ever so slightly cow hocked, you will find this with many non-show line working breeds, in-fact, very cow hocked and some breeders allow for it even though it is considered a structural weakness.
Angulation of the forequarters and the hindquarters should be in balance to provide a smooth gait, without striking of feet and legs.
When we draw our green line between the front and rear drawn angles, we should see a straight line, this line slopes up slightly - we may forgive this in young dogs who have not finished growing and are still bum high. Whilst we can fault this dog for its slight sloping line, you'll come to realise this is nothing compared to the incredibly unbalanced dogs out there being bred.
FEET The feet should be round, strong, deep in pads with tough, leathery skin, with close knit, well arched toes and strong short nails. Any weakness in the feet will conflict with hard work and stamina.
In the below example, the 'cat foot' example is what you would be looking at when the term "well arched" is used.
In our model dog, I would say these aren't quite well arched but certainly not splayed or flat.
The Koolie Fundamentals does continue beyond the feet to discuss head, tail, ears etc. but for the purpose of educating my clients on the most important structural points (i.m.o), I have covered these above.
I hope this article has provided you with enough information to be able to assess a dog yourself (teach a man to fish) and there will be less messages in my inbox of Dam and Sires haha. Once again, thank you to the model dog owners, you guys are stars for letting me compare your dogs to the Koolie Foundations. Please touch base with the Koolie Club of Australia for more education and information on the breed.