The Physiology and Morphology of a Breed Standard

To better understand breed standards, let's take the Portuguese Water Dog standard and apply simple physiological knowledge to it.

By Angela Kalmanash | Posted: June 9, 2014, 3 p.m. PST

Portuguese Water Dog Standard
When you review a breed standard (in this case, the standard of the Portuguese Water Dog), think about the functionality of the dog. Think about its original purpose and why the breed standard says what it says. Photo by Silke Hollje-Schumacher.
 

Physiology is the study of function, and morphology (anatomy) is the study of form. The beginning of physiology was marked by Aristotle and his emphasis on the relationship between structure and function. The biological concept of morphology was developed by Johann Wolfgang von Goethe in the  late 1700s. Historically, much of the knowledge in physiology was provided via work with animals. So how would a breed standard, if written correctly, be correlated with the physiology and morphology of that breed?

We have heard the phrase "form follows function” or its twin "function follows form” many times in explaining a breed standard to judges and dog fanciers. Oftentimes, trying to understand a canine’s raison d’être, and applying that knowledge in a physically static analysis is confusing. So let’s take a standard and apply simple physiological knowledge to it. I guarantee that this will make reading breed standards easier in the future.

The Portuguese Water Dog (PWD) is a breed whose function is to swim. I want you to visualize the physique of Michael Phelps or fellow dog lover Greg Louganis as we continue. Both were at the top of their aquatic game at their respective Olympics. Remember what their anatomy looked like? They were defined by their high level of muscle tone with a lack of bulk. Their body style was V-shaped. A swimmer’s physique is "cut” or "ripped,” which means the muscle tone is clearly visible over the entire body, and the calves usually are prominent. At the same time, the muscle mass is not coarse. Unlike bodybuilders, football players or many other athletes who rely on strength, swimmers’ bodies are fairly streamlined. Remember function; coarse muscle mass would create resistance in the water.

So let’s look at the Portuguese Water Dog breed standard, which is available to view at the Portuguese Water Dog Club of America website. When you review it and understand the functionality of the dog, you’ll see that it is pretty well written.

Substance: The standard states that the PWD’s substance is "strong, [with] substantial bone; well developed, not refined and not coarse, and a solidly built muscular body,” a physiological need for the breed’s function. The standard clearly does not reference a bodybuilder. That function would correlate better with dogs bred to guard or pull loads like a Greater Swiss Mountain Dog. It also does not reference a function like that of a dog bred to course and bring down game like an Afghan Hound or Greyhound.

Head: Large, well proportioned, and with breadth of topskull. Let’s compare this description to an Afghan and then a Rottweiler. The Afghan’s skull is of good length, showing much refinement, and has a punishing jaw. As the Afghan chases prey, the longer, narrower head allows it to have a wider field of view, enabling it to see prey as it dashes and darts in front of it. The Rottweiler, on the other hand, has a head that is broad between the ears and has strong, broad upper and lower jaws. So, for a guard dog, would you want the anatomy of an Afghan or a Rottweiler? For a PWD, a correct head is balanced by its swimmer’s body. It is not as refined as an Afghan’s head and is more substantial, but not as massive as the Rottweiler’s. Think of the cutwater of a boat and why a barge needs a tugboat. A barge cannot navigate and needs the water-cutting ability (streamlined shape) of a tugboat, which has the appropriate functional shape.

Jaws: Neither overshot nor undershot. This is a major fault in our breed. Why? Easy. What happens when you swim with your mouth open? Why did the USS Stark seek immediate repairs in Bahrain after the attack in 1987 and not set immediate course for the naval dry dock in Florida?

Body: Chest is broad and deep, and ribs are well sprung to provide optimum lung capacity. Back is broad and well-muscled. The tail is thick at base, which is of great help when swimming and diving. These are all logical descriptions of the dog based on its swimming function.

Forequarters: "Shoulders are well inclined and very strongly muscled. Upper arms are strong. Forelegs are strong and straight with long, well-muscled forearms.”

Hindquarters: "Powerful; well balanced with the front assembly. Legs, viewed from the rear, are parallel to each other; straight and very strongly muscled in upper and lower thighs ... Tendons and hocks are strong. Metatarsus long.” Remember our description of Olympians Phelps and Louganis; doesn’t all of this make logical sense to you?

See how easy it is? So, next time you happen to see PWDs in the ring, please stop and watch. Think about the function and anatomy of the breed. Unfortunately, when a breed becomes too popular or newbies socially breed, morphology gets lost. Just because some of the entries at a show look the same does not mean they are correct. Watch the dogs, and don’t let the color or type of coat fool you; it does not matter. Just form and function or function and form. And please, major faults are written into a breed standard for a reason.  PWDs are not Rottweilers nor Afghans, and, not unlike the USS Stark, will sink if their mouths don’t close.

From the June 2014 issue of Dogs in Review magazine. Subscribe to receive 12 months of Dogs in Review magazine, or call 1-888-738-2665 to purchase a single copy.


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kari   nowhere, Armed Forces Americas

8/24/2015 7:38:30 PM

The Afghan Hound head is designed to be aerodynamic, to cut through the air smoothly. This is why sighthounds are built in this manner. It has nothing to do with field of vision as a hunting dog with forward set eyes can hunt as well as a hound with oblique eyes. Oblique is preferred but the forward facing eyes are found on whippets. Very nice article to explain why the standards call for certain attributes and how some flaws are more fatal than others.

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patricia   cashmere, Washington

6/27/2014 10:39:50 PM

that was great. You explained things in plain English and your references to other breeds so interesting. I now know what to look for in this breed.

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