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 Fundamentalsthat 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.