Not So Glad to See the Back of You
Let’s be honest about it: Molossers are not known for their spectacular rearquarters.
Heads, yes. Fronts, often. But rears? Hold the phone.
Stick-straight stifles, impossibly skinny second thighs, weak and wonky hocks: These faults are regularly seen in Molossers (and many other breeds as well).
But there is a conformational deficiency that seems to occur more often in Molossers than more “normally” structured breeds: rears that when seen in profile are higher than the withers, or top of the shoulder blades.
In trying to pinpoint the cause of such wince-worthy posteriors across so many Molosser breeds, one reflexive place to start is with breeders. With such an emphasis placed on heads in all these breeds, one could argue that bad rears are simply the result of inattention. But if that were the case, why are there so many good fronts, easily the most difficult trait to not only attain but to retain in most breeds?
In truth, the “high in the rear” phenomenon in Molossers — which, by the way, involves more than just the rear — is the drag of another breed. (A “drag,” for those unfamiliar with the term, is an undesirable trait from a previous ancestor that persistently recurs within a given breed.)
High rears have plagued Molossers for centuries, and are evident in these two British champions: Ch. Beaufort (above) and Ch. Minting by Maximillian (below). Beaufort was "reputed to be the most perfect Mastiff of the past twenty years," according to "The New Book of the Dog," published in 1912. Minting was exported to the U.S. in 1888, where, the same book reports, "he was regarded as second only to Ch. Beaufort." Certainly, Minting's topline is the worse of the two, though he does have a spectacular front assembly.
But before we identify the canine culprit responsible for those high rears, let’s go over some basic terms we’ll use in this article.
Stifle: The knee of the dog.
Upper thigh: The bone above the knee, formally called the femur. Think about it just as you would your own thigh, which is also located above your knee. It’s sometimes also called the first thigh, to distinguish it from the next definition below.
Lower thigh: Also called the second thigh, this is the bone below the knee, which connects it to the hock, or ankle. Actually, the second thigh is two bones, the tibia and the fibula, but for simplicity’s sake we’ll just call it the lower thigh. This is the canine equivalent of the human calf.
Croup: The area between the hipbones and the base of the tail.
Loin: The muscular area behind the ribcage and in front of the croup that transmits energy between the rear and front assemblies.
Now that we have our anatomy down, let’s explore “high rears” in Molossers.
In a previous article, we discussed the signature rearquarter proportions found in all Molosser breeds: an upper thigh (or femur) that is longer than the lower thigh (or fibula-tibula).
At first glance, this might seem to be the cause of the “high rear”: An elongated upper-thigh bone — especially if it is accompanied by a straight stifle, or knee — creates an open angle between the two thighs. Couldn’t this simply be pushing the hipbones upward — and, by extension, the rear upward, too?
Sounds logical, but a closer look shows that there is much more going on than that.
An exceedingly straight stifle (and hock joint). Mastiff, 1880s.
As we mentioned earlier, these high rears are often found on beautifully boned, deep-bodied dogs with good fronts.
What other breed fits this description? How about the Bulldog?
Because of their wide jaws and gripping power, Bulldogs were involved in the development many Molosser breeds. In the Dogue de Bordeaux and the Boerboel, the Bulldog influence is hard to miss. But in more mesomorphic Molossers, such as the Dogo Argentino and Cane Corso — which received bullie blood more indirectly via the Bull Terrier and Bullmastiff, respectively — the influence is seen in subtly (and sometimes not too subtly!) bowed front legs and hammock-like toplines.
Anna Lee Sanders of the Canine Conditioning Coach in Park City, Utah, has written an excellent blog post on the subject of “high in the rear.” She puts the blame on a curved spinal alignment, noting that there is one family of dogs in which this is prevalent.
You guessed it: Bulldogs.
Form Following Function
The Bulldog was bred for centuries for a very specific function: excelling at the then-popular, if equally inhumane sport of bull baiting, in which the dog latched onto the enraged bull’s nose or ears, and hung on for dear life. Obviously, the best dog for this work was one with a low center of gravity, so breeders began to select for “low-slung” fronts.
Seen from the side, going from head to tail, a Bulldog topline is at first concave, or depressed, with a dip behind the withers. Since in conformation every action has a reaction, the Bulldog topline then becomes convex, rising over the loin to make what is referred to in the breed as a “wheelback.”
Circa 1880 sketch by J.H. Walsh of two Bulldogs, Smasher and the young Sugar. Note the distinctive concave/convex topline on both dogs, highlighted here in red. While modern Bulldogs have considerably less length of leg, this topline has persisted generation after generation.
In a low-stationed breed such as the Bulldog, these concave and convex spinal changes — Sanders notes that the anatomical terms are lordosis and kyphosis, respectively — make sense from a functional point of view: The low-slung (concave) front makes the Bulldog more difficult to topple and lift off the ground. And the rise over the loin (convex) gives the dog the ability to contract those powerful back muscles so he can brace against his rear legs and gain further vantage against his bovine opponent.
In Molosser breeds that are relatively low to the ground — again, those with the most Bulldog influence, such as the Dogue de Bordeaux and Boerboel — this topline is not just tolerated, but pretty much inevitable. But in taller breeds with naturally higher centers of gravity — such as the Mastiff — it is a decided disadvantage.
There is one Molosser, however, for which that is not the case: The Fila Brasiliero is required to have this topline, with withers set lower than the croup. Below is the illustration that accompanies the FCI standard for the breed.
Fila Brasiliero. Courtesy FCI.
In the Fila standard, the description of the topline takes pains to note that the withers are “set well apart from each other due to the distance between the shoulder blades.” As in the Bulldog, these widely set shoulder blades create a low-slung front. If one remembers the Fila’s traditional function — capturing runaway slaves — then this lowered centered of gravity makes sense, as it prevents the dog from being thrown off balance during confrontations with humans who were literally fighting for their lives. Thankfully, that job description is no longer valid today, but its associated conformation remains desirable for the breed.
In the other Molosser breeds, however, it is decidedly not, making the Fila the exception that proves the rule.
In her article, Sanders notes that these spinal changes cannot be altered: This S-shaped topline is orthopedic, and so part of a dog’s structure. But she notes that it can be improved by strengthening three areas of weakness:
It’s an oft-stated fact that a dog’s front carries 60 percent of its body weight. When the dog “runs downhill,” or has a rear that is higher than the withers, that percentage is arguably even higher.
In the low-slung front, the shoulders act like a sling of sorts for the ribcage, allowing it to collapse slightly between the withers.
“If we can work to lift the ribcage upward, we can we help improve shoulder stability for these dogs who are already heavy in the front,” Sanders says. “Just like humans who carry their ribcage too far forward, can we broaden the space between the scapulae, pulling the ribcage up.”
In humans, Sanders notes, the “cat cow” exercise (illustrated in the photos below) does just this, pulling the shoulder blades together and lifting the ribcage upward.
Sanders recommends trying to reduce the severity of the lordosis — or inward curve of the spine — by exercising to strengthen the dog’s core and reduce tension.
“The spine is a shock absorber, and it works best in a straight column format,” she says, likening it to a spring. “If we can make a spine that is more column shaped by strengthening the abdominal and inner hip muscles, we can improve shock absorption.”
A major focus here is the iliopsoas, a large compound muscle of the inner hip that is comparable to the tenderloin in cows. Because “cows don’t do a lot hip flexion,” that muscle isn’t very developed in them, Sanders says — hence the “tender” in “tenderloin.” But strengthening it in dogs contributes greatly to core stabilization, and can even help level out the topline and stop the curve from progressing further.
Active dogs that make quick starts and stops are at particular risk for injury, Sanders adds. “When a dog is slowing down from a faster gait, there is a tendency for the disc at the lowest part of the curve to compress,” she explains. “Over time, this can lead to bone spurs, which in turn can pinch nerves.”
If you’ll pardon the metaphor, straight stifles (knee joints) and high rears go hand in hand, which makes sense: If the rear is higher, then the angle between the first and second thighs must become more obtuse (or less angled) to lengthen the rear assembly. Hyper-extending this joint obviously makes it more susceptible to injury, including torn cranial cruciate ligaments, a common injury in Molossers.
As with the other two areas of weakness in rear-high Molossers, strengthening the muscles around the knee — including the hamstring, which is comparable to the calf in humans — with exercise can help reduce the risk of injury.
“With straighter stifles, the muscles are working less like shock absorbers, and forces are transmitted into cartilage,” creating the potential for damage when the dog is jumping or otherwise active, Sanders explains. “Conditioning can’t give you more stifle angulation. But it can preemptively strengthen the large muscles around the stifle to help promote more even load distribution.”
On her website, Sanders offers tips and instructions on how to perform exercises to strengthen all three of these areas. And she encourages owners not to be intimidated by the thought of embarking on an exercise program for their dog.
“Canine conditioning is just teaching behaviors, and any dog can be taught behaviors,” she reminds. “We’re just trying to integrate these dog behaviors to strengthen muscles that are weak, help reduce risk of injury and support the dog’s structure.”
For those who need some extra help, Sanders can also develop personalized exercise programs.
While conditioning can’t perform miracles — “We’re not trying to take a Molosser and turn into Lab — that would be weird,” she jokes — some of the results her clients have obtained are impressive, such as the before and after photos of a dippy-backed, high-in-the-rear Malinois featured on her website.
In the end, of course, conditioning can only help to improve the symptoms of a structural problem: It doesn’t address the root cause. Focusing on breeding strong front assemblies and level toplines is the only way to keep this unwanted Bulldog influence at bay in the Molosser breeds — a perpetual work in progress.