Dog Body Proportions

Cocker SpanielCocker Spaniel

This section discusses body height and length proportions, spanning a terrier and the effect on short legged dogs when the chest drops below the elbows. For the purposes of this discussion, we shall consider the body in profile to be made up of the topline from where the neck ends to where the tail begins and the underline from the chest to the hind legs.

Height at Shoulder and Topline

The term 'height at shoulder' is the distance from withers to ground as shown.

In profile, what is commonly called the 'topline' also begins at the withers where the neck ends and finishes where the tail begins.

In profile, the underline begins at the prosternum, the most forward projection of the rib cage. It then runs along the sternum underneath the ribcage and ends at belly.

Square, Short or Compact Body

Airedale TerrierAiredale Terrier

At first glance, where the topline ends determines the body length. For example, the topline of a Airedale Terrier with its high set tail as pictured, ends in front of the set-on of the tail. So here the length of the topline and length of body means the same. These dogs' bodies are described as 'short' or 'compact'.


But the Boxer which does not have the high tail set of a terrier, is also described as having a body that is 'short' or 'compact'. Their Breed Standard states that the length of the body from the front of the chest to the rear of the body should equal its height at shoulder. Then the length of its 'short' or compact' body is measured behind the set-on of tail (at the end of the croup) as pictured.

Body Longer than Height at Withers

Australian TerrierAustralian Terrier

On the other hand, the Australian Terrier is described as having a body that is rather long in proportion to its height. That means compared with the 'square' of the Airedale, it has a chest in front of the 'square' and some buttock behind.

There are several breeds that have bodies that are required to be longer than their height at shoulder. Sometimes a proportional ratio is quoted like the 12:11 of the Weimaraner and 10:9 of the Australian Cattle Dog. In other breeds like the Sealyham Terrier it is called oblong or rectangular.

The length of the body is vital to each breed's general balance and outline. With the Breed Standard acting as your guide, once you have developed that elusive 'Eye for a Dog' you will know at a glance whether or not the dog under consideration has a body length that correctly balances its other body proportions.

Cobby, Cloddy and Lumber

A Cob HorseA Cob Horse

A dog that is not only of a square appearance but also thick set throughout like a Pug is also often referred to as cobby, a term derived from the word 'cob' which is the type of horse pictured. A dog which is not only heavily built but also has a clumsy gait is often called cloddy. The old term lumber also describes a dog with a cloddy build and cumbersome or clumsy movement[1]. For example the General Appearance of the Flat Coated Retriever Breed Standard refers to showing 'strength without lumber'.

Spanning a Terrier

Spanning a Terrier Spanning a Terrier

The ability to function as a working terrier is required by the Breed Standards of at least three terrier breeds, the Jack Russell Terrier, Parson Russell Terrier and Border Terrier. These terriers must be capable of working within the confines of a burrow to either bolt or hold the quarry.

Spanning a TerrierSpanning a Terrier

To test whether or not the terrier can squeeze through the fox hole, the old terrier men used to span them. So spanning a terrier with an average sized man's hand became the yardstick with which to measure whether or not the terrier was functional. Today, terrier judges are still expected to know how to correctly span these breeds of terriers in a show ring situation.

This is how to span a terrier:

  1. With the dog facing away from you, place your hands around the dog's chest just behind the elbows, lifting the front feet making sure the dog's back feet are still on the ground (Picture 1).
  2. Confirm your middle fingers are just touching.
  3. Test as to whether or not your thumbs meet (Picture 2).
  4. This is also a good position to feel the flexibility and shape of the ribcage.

References and Further Reading

[1] Harold R Spira "Canine Terminology" Harper & Row Sydney 1982 Page 91