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Helen King on Structure Evaluation

Posted on 10/30/09 18 Comments

When Susan asked me to write about what kind of structure to look for in performance puppies, I thought, sure but how do I give them the meaning of life in a few paragraphs? OK, that is a bit of an exaggeration but it is not something you learn in one blog entry. It has taken me decades to see what I see and I am still learning every day!

The best advice I can give is to look, listen and learn. Sounds simple but it is true. If you think you know it all, you will never advance your understanding. That holds true for all things in life. Seeing structure is like painting or sculpting. Somebody can tell you how to do it, but it takes hands on experience to really get a feel for it.

Skeleton Drawing of a dog from Rachel Page Elliot's book "Dogsteps"
Skeleton drawing of a dog. Reprinted from the book "Dog Steps" used with permission from Rachel Page Elliott.

Dogs that aren’t put together well can excel in agility but how long will they hold up? Some faults are worse than others for longevity in dog sports. It is the things we can’t see on the outside rather than those we can that usually limit a dog’s agility or other sport career.

Before buying a puppy, do as much health research possible on the dogs behind your potential agility partner. In my breed of choice, standard Poodles, there is the Poodle Health Registry (PHR) database that lists health issues REPORTED (and the key word here is REPORTED!) by the owners of dogs with issues. The unfortunate thing is that the reputable people list the health issues and the not so forthcoming people do not and that is a HUGE problem for the future of the breed.

Just because something is not listed, don’t assume the line is 100% clean. There is no such thing as a perfectly clean line! If somebody breeds long enough, problems are bound to show up. It is not that a breeder may have health problems that make them a good or bad breeder; it is what they choose to do with that information that defines them in my book. Try as hard as you can to educate yourself! Ask other breeders about lines. IF you keep getting the same answers, chances are they are correct.

When I look at a puppy for evaluation, the first thing I look for is a long and well sloped pelvis. Then I look at the croup. Is there a lot of room from the top of the pelvic bones to the root of the tail? A great performance dog needs lots of strength and power in their rear ends. That is their engine! A weak rear in a dog with a great front is like putting a go cart engine in a Lamborghini. In agility, the ability to stop quickly and effortlessly, accelerate with power and turn on a dime will serve the dog well.

A comparison of a standard Poodle and a wolf. The Poodle measures square but
A comparison of a standard Poodle and a wolf. The Poodle measures square but has an extremely long loin and back in general. The wolf measures longer in body yet she is shorter in her back and her loin is very short. Just saying a dog is squarely built tells you nothing. You must look to see how all the parts fit together.

A good sloping shoulder will allow the dog to reach and accept the power from behind. If the dog has good rear angulation and power from behind, it needs a well angulated shoulder to balance that drive. If the shoulder angle is lacking, the dog will tend to move up and down rather than forward but that doesn’t mean it still can’t be a great agility dog!

Our 10 year old great standard Poodle, Josephine, is very straight in her shoulder and very powerful behind. She is lacking in ground speed but her rear construction is such that she can turn as sharply as any large dog of any breed in agility and power out of her turns but if she has a course that is wide open, she is in trouble in the speed department. Most of her front movement is up and down, not forward. Luckily, in the venues we choose, agility is mostly a sport of turning and powering. (editors note:  Hey guys, Susan here, I just had to jump in and say that Josephine is not your average Standard Poodle, I remember a few years ago at an AKC trial she was consistently within 0.5 seconds of Encore’s times in Jumpers all weekend long!)

Many breed folks like a “shelf” out behind the dog. In other words, they want to see the ischium bones protrude behind the dog. This usually makes for a flatter pelvis which causes the rear legs to be too far out behind the dog. I like to see the pelvis sloped so that there is plenty of muscle covering the ischium bones to power that dog! A flat pelvis may look pretty in the show ring but it is not a good thing for performance dogs.

A sloping upper arm gives dogs the ability to lower themselves on contacts and in the weaves. Think Border Collie and that typical low stance they have when herding sheep. Not all BCs have well sloping upper arms, especially those bred for cattle as those dogs are more upright in their herding style. The negative of a well sloping upper arm is the possibility of the dog being heavy on the front end, consequently, they tend to flatten out more over jumps and that can mean more dropped bars.

Everything is a trade off. Dogs with well sloping upper arms may tend to hit more bars without jumping education but the good news is that they can be taught to jump correctly!

Placement of shoulders is extremely important in an agility dog if we want them to stay sound. Dogs with shoulders that are too far forward have less support in their shoulder assembly and take a lot of concussion landing over jumps as well as on the A-frame, particularly on the upside. I have heard many agility folks say they want to do a running contact because it is easier on the dogs but, in my mind, the number of reps it takes to train and maintain a good running contact negate the benefits. If they want to train running contacts for speed, then that is another story.

I like my performance dogs to have a short loin. I have yet to see a dog that is too short in the loin. Some standards (the Poodle standard for instance) calls for a “squarely built dog” so, as is the case with most things in life, SOME breeders and judges think if a little is good then a LOT must be better. Squarely built does NOT guaranty a short loin! A long loin with a weak topline can spell disaster with the back of a performance dog. Unfortunately, Poodles have become square by getting straighter in the shoulder and shorter in the pelvis. I would rather the standard say short back than square body. I prefer a dog that is short in the back but a bit longer in body and that length comes from the longer pelvis and sloping shoulder.

I look for all of these things in puppies.

Remember, you can have the best built dog in the world but if you don’t have all the tools to train it, that dog will never reach full potential!

There are so many more things to look for in a performance dog but it is difficult to say it all in a blog. The most important thing of all is to love the dog you get regardless of faults, health issues or any other problems because that is the one that was meant for you!

Helen King


Thanks to Helen for agreeing to help everyone get a handle on what we are seeing. As Helen said this isn’t something you are going to learn overnight but this is a great first step. If you get a chance you just MUST sit in on one of Helen’s seminars, they really are enlightening!  Be sure to check out Helen’s website


Today I am grateful for Helen King and her generosity for sharing her knowledge with us.


  1. Richalene Kelsay says:
    Friday, July 16, 2010 at 5:03pm

    There are a number of folks who believe that the structure of a pup can be successfully evaluated for conformation as early as four days after birth.

    Do you have an opinion about this?


  2. Helen KIng says:
    Monday, November 9, 2009 at 4:56pm

    Thank you to everyone for your kind comments. I will try to answer a few questions but, again, it is like trying to explain how to paint or sculpt by email.
    It is great if you know the lines from which your dog comes. However, that is not always easy. If you have a rescue, for instance, that is nearly impossible so you have to judge the dog on what you see in front of you or get some x-rays done before taking a dog for competition training.
    When I did my research to find a stud dog for my standard Poodle bitch, it was difficult! There were no perfect dogs. The dog I bred to is larger than I like but he had everything (or nearly everything) else I wanted in a dog for my bitch so I settled for too tall. There will always be tradeoffs in everything when it comes to structure.
    I look at movement (gait) and at the dog standing still. If I see the dog move, I know what the conformation is that produces that movement. I can also look at a dog standing still and know how that dog will move and jump. It is just training your eye. Watch dogs at your next trial. Notice how they move and jump and then study their structure. You will see a pattern after a while. That will help you to train your eye.

    Helen King
    Excuses Prevent Advancement


  3. Angela Sutton says:
    Saturday, November 7, 2009 at 4:34pm

    Thanks for this post! This stuff is so important! Can you comment on things that can clue you in to good structure e.g. dog’s gait, free stacks and what you are looking for in the thigh/2nd thigh area.


  4. Melissa Blazak says:
    Monday, November 2, 2009 at 1:51pm

    I have been to 2 of Helen’s structure seminars. The first time without a dog, the second time with my new poodle puppy Rudy. Tons of information from a very knowledgable and super lady. It all makes perfect sense once you hear the lecture and see the examples set forth. Can I remember everything? Nope!! Thank goodness for notes and the fact that Helen’s critique of her 4 poodles keep popping up on the poodle lists for lively debates on structure.

    I second Suzanne W.’s heartfelt thanks to Helen. I too live way across the continent in Southern Ontario, but have stalked Helen through e-mail looking for advice, opinions and sharing a laugh or two. I am very new to all of this performance dog “stuff” and she has been very generous with her tips. It also doesn’t hurt that I have a poodle! A poodle I might add that came to me through a very thoughtful breeder, with input from Helen. I consider Helen Rudy’s honorary “Auntie”.

    If you have an opportunity to go to her seminar do so. I hope to bug Helen for many more years as Rudy and I embark on our journey together.

    Karbits TNT Rudolph Valentino


  5. Daniel Beatty, DVM says:
    Sunday, November 1, 2009 at 11:48pm

    Excellent post! I loved how you kept it simple, even though the terminology was difficult for some…lol. Just the basics – you want a sloping pelvis (rump) and a sloping shoulder with a shorter back. This also helps prevent injuries to the back and psoas group. Sending my clients and readers to this post because it is a must read for performance dog owners/teams.


  6. mtrebino says:
    Sunday, November 1, 2009 at 9:42pm

    I will begin my search for an Old English Sheepdog Puppy.. I wanted to try and find a line with OFA excellent hips exrays in the line..Everyone has just laughed at me..Apparently good is as good as it gets..Can you talk a little about that process and is it important to look at past line. margie


  7. Andrea says:
    Saturday, October 31, 2009 at 7:23pm

    Wow Helen – it sounds like you are an endless well of information about structure! I’m VERY interested and the terminology is a bit over my head. Is there a website you recommend where I can define some of what you’ve shared here? I think I need more pictures…

    Do you ever come down to FL for seminars??

    Wonderful to have you as a guest blogger!


  8. Suzanne Wesley says:
    Saturday, October 31, 2009 at 12:36pm

    I’ve now known Helen (and her better half Mel yeah… brownie points) for quite a few years now. In that time I have learned much from her and primarily because Helen has been one of the most generous people I know. She has guided many of us that are willing to listen and learn to be better as trainers and owners of dogs!! For that I have been grateful – more than Helen knows!! We live on opposite sides of the United States but she is always there to help!

    Along with her wealth of knowledge on structure and how it affects performance she and Mel are excellent dog trainers. Mel at 70 odd years of age is someone I watch in awe!! He puts many of us “younger” handlers to shame! Both have learned the art of training a dog to be a GREAT agility dog all through people like Susan Garrett, Greg & Laura Derrett, Stacy Winkler et al.

    Through this shared knowledge we will all learn. Knowledge is empowerment and through this we will evolve as dog trainers and handlers. If you get a chance to go to one of Helen’s structure seminars I would strongly recomend it.

    I start another journey with a litter of poodle pups I’ve just bred and am grateful for what I have learned from Helen about what to look for in a performance poodle or any breed for that matter.

    Once again Helen… thanks!

    Suzanne Wesley


  9. Lynda Orton-Hill says:
    Saturday, October 31, 2009 at 10:41am

    BRAVO! Very cool collaboration during puppy weeks – with Helen as a guest blogger!


  10. Ann Hopp says:
    Saturday, October 31, 2009 at 9:37am

    I can’t say enough about the generosity of two great women! Now I know I have to find a King seminar!


  11. Claire Duder says:
    Saturday, October 31, 2009 at 5:38am

    My puppies are awesome, thanks! Did your girl take?


  12. Theresa Litourneau says:
    Friday, October 30, 2009 at 10:21pm

    Great information !!
    Thanks for the generosity of sharing !!
    I have been to two of Helen’s seminars and so much info is passed along that at each one I have learned more and more !!
    I think if would be invaluable info for EVERY dog owner.
    I have never looked at a dog in the same way again


  13. Helen King says:
    Friday, October 30, 2009 at 10:11pm

    Hi Claire,
    How are your puppies?
    I like to look at puppies from 6 to 8 weeks. I do think you can see structure at most any age (once they are walking). They may go through “awkward” stages but you can still see the basic conformation.

    Helen King
    Excuses Prevent Advancement


  14. Claire Duder says:
    Friday, October 30, 2009 at 9:59pm

    What do you feel is the best time to evaluate puppies? I think Pat Hastings says 7 weeks- do you agree?


  15. Linda says:
    Friday, October 30, 2009 at 8:38pm

    I attended one of Helen’s seminars. It was eye opening.


  16. Andrea says:
    Friday, October 30, 2009 at 7:12pm

    Thanks Helen for the tips on structure and reminding us to love the dogs we have!!! I will definitely be attending your next seminar at Say Yes!


  17. Christine says:
    Friday, October 30, 2009 at 5:52pm

    A special blog treat indeed – coming from the equine world we were always taught the importance of confirmation and of course it would continue with dogs. Thank you Helen & Susan for this post!


  18. Natalia says:
    Friday, October 30, 2009 at 10:42am

    Thanks you very much, really nice



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