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.