LEGLESSNESS - a sobering thought
Dogs with short legs have long been a feature of man's association with sporting, working and companion dogs. Breeds with particularly short legs, like the Dachshund, the two corgi breeds and other heelers, the various Basset Hound breeds, a number of terriers and many Toy dog breeds, have been favoured for quite some time by any number of people. There is a worry however that in those breeds the shortness of the legs has been more and more exaggerated and not to the benefit of the dog. Some breeders of such dogs have declared resentment of measures being planned on mainland Europe to counteract extreme shortness in a dog's legs, pleading that their particular breed has 'always looked like that' and is not discomforted in such a way. There is of course a huge difference between small dogs with proportionately short legs and bigger dogs made appreciably shorter by the absence of leg length.
The European Convention for the Protection of Pet Animals (ETS 125), adopted by multilateral consultation on March the 10th 1995, covers two aspects of canine shortleggedness. The resolution sets out guidelines for 'maximum values for the proportion between length and height of short-legged dogs (e.g. Basset Hound and Dachshund) to avoid disorders of the vertebral column' and 'to avoid difficulties in movement and joint deterioration from bowed legs in Basset Hounds, Pekin Palace Dog and the Shih Tzu'. This latter problem is listed under 'abnormal positions of legs'; the breeds identified in both conditions are, it is stressed, only examples not exclusions or inclusions. British breeders are not at present 'guided' by such legislation. To assume however that future immunity is guaranteed is not very wise; the debate needs to be conducted and this 'warning shot across the bows' heeded.
Any debate conducted on this issue would have to address these key questions: Are the legs shorter and the backs longer in some breeds than originally intended when the breed was established? If so, surely breed type is being sacrificed for breeder whim. Are disorders of the vertebral column created by the proportion of back length to leg length? And, finally, do bowed legs create movement difficulty and cause joint deterioration in some breeds bred to perpetuate that feature? Dealing with the first question, there is plenty of pictorial evidence that in some breeds, backs are now longer and legs shorter than in the early specimens in a number of purebred dogs. This has happened over so many years that it has hardly been acknowledged by breed fanciers. But at what stage does this exaggeration have to be halted? Surely when dogs are discomforted by such gradual but still deleterious development.
To plead function as a justification for exaggeration never withstands scrutiny; function alone never demands exaggeration, with the most functional breeds being the least exaggerated, as the pastoral breeds ably demonstrate. Some argue that more than a few breeds originate as 'sports' of a bigger breed, e.g. the possible emergence of the Lancashire Heeler from small Manchies and the Dachshund from the Dachsbracke and that from the German scenthounds. But smaller varieties of a breed are usually proportionately smaller, as the Munsterlanders, the Portuguese Podengo and the Poodle demonstrate. But crooked legs are a different matter.
These words, from veterinary experts, provide all the evidence needed to justify arguments in favour of ETS 125. In their coverage of the Dachshund, these authors state: "Intervertebral disc disease is a particularly dangerous and, unfortunately, common crippler of Dachshunds. The breed is predisposed because of its conformation..." Breeders may wish to dispute such words and refer to their own stock, but at European Convention level, who will the legislators heed? Writing on this breed in his valuable The Conformation of the Dog (Popular Dogs, 1957) RH Smythe states: "...it is evident that the weight of the body, which is considerable, is carried upon spinal bones of more than normal length and that the greater concussion is transmitted to the spine, on occasion, because the Dachshund's legs are short and devoid of flexion or elasticity. This appears to be the reason why individuals of this breed so frequently develop 'slipped discs'."
Words like these are meat and drink to the anti-KC, anti-purebred dog lobby. The wording of the breed standards of the short-legged breeds are promulgated by the KC; the Dachshund is required to be 'long and low'; the Basset Hound is required to be short-legged and long-bodied. Does that not encourage the breeding of dogs which fit those descriptions, which convey an immediate impression of phenotype to any reader. The breed standard of the Dachshund also states that "The Dachshund is a long low dog as befits his purpose in life, entering a badger set..." Yet other breeds specially developed to go underground after vermin do not need to be so 'low and long'. It is not good sense to attempt to justify exaggerations with a false provenance. And, in these days of widespread moral vanity, it is unwise to condone word pictures which encourage conformation which discomforts the dog. Why feed your potential opponents?
When I see the English Basset, the hunting variety, I see a sound symmetrical hound free of any exaggeration. Straight-legged Bassets are not a modern re-creation; both straight and crooked-legged types have been promoted, but the straight-legged type did not survive as a show dog. The Dachshund is favoured here, whereas its sister breed, the more symmetrical Dachsbracke, despite being introduced in the past has never found favour. Do we actually prefer exaggerated dogs and is that preference supported by a supine KC? When I lived in Germany, my German friends regularly accused my countrymen of favouring exaggerated breeds, citing the King Charles Spaniel, the Bulldog, the show Basset and the show Dachshund. They took me to see Teckels hunting, gleefully pointing out the differences between these admirable little hounds and our show dogs, technically of the same breed.