Evaluating Puppies For Soundness

By Vivian Flynt © 2008

The English Shepherd owner’s litany of her sheppy’s afflictions were heart wrenching – a severe overbite, torn cruciate ligaments and a failed surgery to fix them, bilateral hip dysplasia, and patellar dislocation. Like this lady, the vast majority of English Shepherd owners prefer to get a puppy with a “clean slate” and shape it as it grows. And, just like this lady, since most people cannot predict what sort of adult that baby will develop into, they simply take a leap of faith and choose whatever cutie-pie puppy appeals to them at the moment.

But it doesn’t have to be this way. Finding an English Shepherd whose structure will allow it to reach its full potential does not involve trusting in blind luck. Rather, it involves the application of some basic principles about assessing puppy structure and visualizing how that puppy will mature. You do this by teaching yourself to “be observant of small things,” as the great houndsman Guy Gregory Ormiston put it. (1)

All puppy searches should start with you. Honestly determining what you want in a dog and knowing your goals helps determine exactly what to look for. The more strenuous your dog’s activities the more crucial soundness is in your puppy buying decision.

Then find knowledgeable breeders who will be frank in answering your questions. Choosing a breeder is critical. The best breeders carry a mental template that clearly defines the ideal English Shepherd. The interplay of form and function and how that ties to anatomy and, ultimately, soundness is always a consideration when they plan a litter. The good ones know there’s no use putting can do spirit in a can’t do body.


When evaluating puppies, I’ve found there are two times to look closely: At birth and again at eight weeks. Most English Shepherd lines generally take two years to reach physical maturity. Between three months and two years you will see a lot of changes – some of which can be downright distressing. After three months until one year of age it seems like puppies change daily. But by applying these principles you won’t need to second guess yourself. You’ll have the luxury to be patient and allow your little one to develop, safe in the knowledge that all will end well.

The best time to evaluate body shape is when a puppy is newborn, right after it’s come out of the birth sac and while it’s still wet. Since the only person privy to this information is the breeder, now you see why choosing a knowledgeable breeder is so important. English Shepherds’ body length (+) should be rectangular, meaning they are slightly longer than tall. Body length is easy to observe in newborns and breeders can easily discern cobby, short-backed or long, weak-backed pups from those whose length of back is just right.

Day Old Puppies

Depth of brisket (++)and width of chest are also apparent, as is the ratio of hip width to chest spring. I call this last item the “hourglass figure” and it was my way of separating the good from the truly great. Poorly proportioned pups have wide chests and narrow hips. Well proportioned pups have chests slightly wider than their hips. The truly greats have a 1:1 chest-to-hip ratio.

Breeders are urged to jot this information down when they note each pup’s sex, color and markings. Because once this wee bairn window of opportunity closes, these facts won’t be accessible again for a couple of months.

When the growing puppies go to the veterinarian for their puppy vaccinations, there are several wellness checks the vet can perform that will help predict how sound that pup will be at maturity. According to Elizabeth Dible, DVM, of Oakside Animal Clinic in Delaware, Ohio, a skilled veterinarian checks the stifles (knees) and makes sure the patellas are in place. The vet then checks hip joint structure by extending and flexing the hips, feeling for a good range of motion with no clicking. Lastly, the vet examines for hip joint laxity by checking for an Ortolani sign. Absence of the Ortolani sign [OS-] indicates a normal hip. There is no need to sedate the puppies to perform these exams. They can be done whenever the young pups are taken to the vet and are excellent for the early detection of knee and hip problems.


Watch for length of back & whether it is level

Eight weeks of age is the next magic number when it comes to evaluating puppy structure. Puppies at eight weeks old are miniatures of their adult selves. Everything about how that puppy will look as an adult is there to see. While it appears you’re not doing much – just sitting and watching puppies play – actually you’re applying the observation of small things.

Look for a nice length of back – not too short and not too long. The back should be level and wide. The topline should remain level when the puppy moves. The tail-set should come off the croup and not off the back. The ideal chest is Hshaped with the legs set to the sides. (Contrast that with an A chest where both front legs seem to come out of the same hole.) The pup should stand square and move square – no east-west fronts with toes pointing off to the sides, no knit-and-purl movement where feet weave in and out, and no cow-hocked, close-set rears.

H shaped chest

Now take the puppies for a walk around the yard. Ideally, these walks should be long enough that the puppies start to exert themselves physically. Make mental notes of which puppies tire first and those who have staying power.

Focusing on those pups who exhibit staying power, let the puppies walk ahead of you and watch how they move. Every time a puppy strides forward you want to see the entire underside of the rear foot – bottom pad and all the toe pads – thrust back at you. This shows that a puppy has a lot of kick, and kick equates with a nice, strong rear. Watch for the puppy who trots everywhere it goes – this pup will mature into a great mover.

Puppies who bunny hop, lope, pace, or exhibit any weakness in their rears should be avoided. A steady, balanced gait indicates correct structure. According to dogman Harold Spira, “Anatomically incorrect specimens are rarely, if ever, capable of sound movement.” (2)

Watch for trotting & back feet for kick

Standing over the puppies and looking straight down, once again look for the hourglass figure. Puppies with hips as wide as their chest are few and far between. In all the English Shepherd litters I bred, I could count the number of 1:1 hourglass figures on one hand. But in my experience I found those who came closest to this ratio were highly unlikely to develop hip dysplasia as adults, while those who met the 1:1 ratio never had hip problems when they matured.

All these things can be seen at eight weeks. Then the window closes. After eight weeks and until one year, you probably won’t see any of these hints of future soundness. More than likely you’ll see the growing pup lose the very qualities you selected for at eight weeks. Front feet may go east-west, the chest may narrow, the topline may droop, or the pup may not be able to take two steps without tripping over its own feet.

Don’t despair – the puppy will eventually come together and mature into the nicely structured adult you anticipated. Rely on your partnership with the breeder and veterinarian, put trust in your observations, and just be patient.