The Benefit of Hindsight
We talk a lot about proportions in Molossers — and dogs in general. That’s because the relationships between different body parts are crucial in defining breed type — basically, what makes a breed a breed.
Consider head proportions. In many Molosser breeds, the length of the muzzle is noticeably shorter than the length of the skull. The Bullmastiff, for example, has a muzzle that is half the length of the skull. If you had a Bullmastiff with equal skull and muzzle proportions, would it be identifiable as a Bullmastiff — or at least a good one? Very likely not.
The Bullmastiff at left has a muzzle that is appreciably longer than the one-third muzzle/two-thirds skull proportions described in the standard. Compare it to the much typier Bullmastiff at right, whose distance from the stop to nose is much shorter.
Outline is another area where proportions are fundamental. Returning to the Bullmastiff, that breed is supposed to be square. When a Bullmastiff’s profile is elongated — when the dog is longer than it is tall — it begins to veer in the direction of one of its foundation breeds, the Mastiff. And that is not a good thing, as the whole point in purebred dogs is to be able to tell breeds apart.
But not all proportions are as obvious — or well described in standards — as these two examples. This article is about a little-discussed proportion in Molossers — the relationship between the long bones of the rear assembly. And more than just a single aspect of conformation, the rear assembly of a Molosser has more of an impact on breed type than you might imagine.
But before we go any further, let’s go over some basic terminology:
Upper thigh (first thigh): This is 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. In dogs, this bone is sometimes called the first thigh. When a standard refers to just a “thigh,” it usually means the upper thigh.
Lower thigh (second thigh): This is the bone below the knee, which connects to the hock joint, or ankle. Actually, the lower thigh is two parallel bones, the tibia and the fibula, but for the purposes of this discussion you don’t need to worry about that. The lower thigh is the canine equivalent of the human calf. In some standards, the lower thigh is referred to generally as the “leg.”
Stifle: The knee of the dog. This joint is where the upper and lower thighs meet.
Form Meets Function
In dogs, the relationship between the upper and lower thighs depends on the form and function of the animal.
Breeds with moderate construction — “normal” bone and substance, if you will — typically have upper and lower thighs of the same length. Think of a Dalmatian.
Dalmatian Ch. Roadcoach Roadster, 1950s. For comparison's sake, the red line parallel to the lower thigh is the same length as the yellow line of the upper thigh. In other words, all three lines are equal in length.
But when function becomes more specialized, and the morphology of the dog follows suit, the proportions between the first and second thighs can change.
Let’s look at the two extremes: Sighthounds and Molossers.
In the Sighthound breeds, which are bred for pure speed, the lower thigh is typically longer than the upper thigh. That short upper thigh allows the dog to get its rear legs far under itself — a fundamental advantage at the gallop, which is the working gait for all true Sighthounds.
According to Bedouin tradition, the sign of a good running dog is one that returns from the hunt with bloodied ears, presumably from the rear nails scraping them during the double-suspension gallop: For the rear foot to reach far enough to make that kind of mark, you need a long second thigh to reach the ear, and a short upper thigh so the lower thigh can swing far enough to clear the ground easily.
Greyhound Eng. Am. Ch. Seagift Parcancady Royaltan, 1950s. In Sighthounds built for speed, the lower thigh is longer than the upper. The red line parallel to the lower thigh is the same length as the yellow line of the upper thigh, demonstrating the relatively longer length of the lower thigh.
This construction — shorter upper thigh in comparison to the longer second thigh — creates greater bend of stifle, and more rear angulation, with the hock standing farther behind the dog. The Sighthound’s aerodynamic body can accommodate this construction, which sacrifices some stability in order to attain speed, because it is lighter boned.
Molosser rear construction is the exact opposite. In such heavy-bodied dogs, the upper thigh is typically longer than the lower thigh. This keeps the knee and hock under the dog, lending stability and strength to the rear assembly — absolutely fundamental in guarding dogs of this size and scale. (Of course, length and strength of hock is another important factor in creating stable Molosser rears, a subject we'll tackle another time.)
A longer upper thigh results in less bend of stifle and more restrained rear angulation, which explains why straight rears are a much more common problem than over-angled ones in most Molosser breeds.
The World Show-winning Ch. Caligola di Ponzano demonstrating correct rear proportions for a Molosser: long upper thigh, short lower thigh. The red line parallel to the lower thigh is the same length as the yellow line of the upper thigh.
What Do the Standards Say?
Some Molosser standards are silent on these fundamental proportions between the two thighs. The ones that do address them are in agreement, but use different terminology and points of reference — and don’t offer much explanation. The AKC and FCI Dogue de Bordeaux standards, for example, describe the “second thigh” (lower thigh) in passing as “relatively short.” While perhaps obvious, what is unsaid is “relatively” means in comparison to the upper thigh.
The AKC standard for the Neapolitan Mastiff does compare the two, stating: “Legs – Heavy and thick-boned, well-muscled. Slightly shorter than thigh bones.” But the terminology is confusing. In the Italian-language standard, the word “coscia,” which means “thigh,” is used for the upper thigh, and the word “gamba,” which translates to “leg,” means the lower thigh. So, here, the standard specifically asks for an upper thigh that is slightly longer than the lower thigh.
In the FCI Neapolitan Mastiff standard, the terminology has been changed slightly to make the meaning clearer: “Lower thigh: length is slightly inferior to that of the thigh,” with that last word, “thigh,” referring to the upper thigh.
Similarly, the AKC standard for the Cane Corso asks for a “thigh” (that is, an upper thigh) that is “long,” just as the FCI standard for the Tibetan Mastiff directs that the upper thigh should be "rather long" — again, in both cases presumably in comparison to the “leg,” or lower thigh.
Bullmastiff Am/Can Ch. Bramstoke's Carved in Stone, 2015. Correct rear proportions, anchored by a short lower thigh, are essential in supporting a dog of this substance and power. Photo: Phyllis Ensley.
Interesting, not one of the various standards for the Bullmastiff, Mastiff or Boerboel touch on these important rearquarter proportions. But given the size, substance and function of these three related breeds, one can reasonably conclude that the proportions of their upper and lower thighs should conform to the rest of the Molossers.
(A point of clarification: All the Bullmastiff and Mastiff standards specify that the lower/second thigh should be “well developed.” However, that refers to its breadth — not length. Having breadth in the lower thigh “denotes power,” the Bullmastiff standards note: A wide lower thigh allows for more muscle attachment, particularly important in a body part that in Molossers is already foreshortened. Skinny, noodle-like lower thighs are unfortunately a common fault across many breeds today.)
When they do mention the length of upper and lower thighs, Molosser standards are straightforward about the relationship between the two. Until, that is, we arrive at the Dogo Argentino.
The FCI standard for this Argentinian breed advocates for these classically Molosser rear proportions, saying very clearly that the lower thigh is “slightly shorter than upper thigh.” And on the FCI website, the standard is preceded by a photo of a Dogo Argentino (below) whose lower thigh is clearly shorter than the upper. So far, so good.
But at first glance, the Dogo Argentino’s AKC standard seems to contradict the FCI standard — or at the very least have a different emphasis.
In the AKC standard for the Dogo, the relative proportions between the upper and lower thighs are not mentioned. But in its description of the hindquarters, the American standard says, “Moderate angulation in balance with the forequarters,” the latter being described as “laid back,” which means relatively well angled.
Additionally, the opening paragraph of the AKC Dogo standard includes the phrase: “Medium-angulated hindquarters.” It’s curious that rear angulation is considered significant enough to be included in the “General Appearance” portion of the standard, which typically highlights the most important aspects of breed type. We might extrapolate from this that the mention exists precisely because the Dogo’s angulation is more than is seen in a conventional Molosser — especially considering there is a tendency among Molosser types to have under-angled rears. In the Dogo, an under-angled rear would impede rear drive, which both standards agree needs to be “powerful.”
But does the American standard mean to say that in order to achieve this “medium angulation,” the Dogo Argentino should have upper and lower thighs that are equal in length, which would be a departure from its fellow Molossers?
It’s a fair question: Because these Argentine big-game hunters need to trot over long distances to pursue their game, their body styles are more mesomorphic, or moderate, than all the other Molossers. Given the wide spectrum of rear angulation in dog breeds — from the well-angled rear of a Sighthound to the only slightly angled rear of the Mastiff — this might seem to put the “medium” rear angulation of the Dogo in the middle, more similar to the angles of another endurance-trotting big-game hunter: the Rhodesian Ridgeback.
But unlike the Ridgeback, which is a bay dog built to be agile enough to avoid contact with the game, the Dogo Argentino is a catch dog, require to bite and hold its prey. For this part of its function, the Dogo must brace itself against its rear to further secure its hold. In this scenario, a shorter lower thigh adds stability, so critical at that stage of the hunt. A Dogo with the equal thigh proportions of a Ridgeback might be swift enough to catch up to its prey, but that longer lower thigh will impede its ability to gain enough purchase on the ground to hold it for any length of time.
Photo of a Dogo owned by breed creator Dr. Antonio Nores Martinez battling a puma in the courtyard of the hospital where he was a surgeon. (Nores Martinez travelled with the two and occasionally set them on each other to show off the breed to others, a barbaric idea today, but normal even among Argentina's upper classes of the period.) Obvious are the correct proportions of long upper thigh and shorter lower thigher. Also notable are the tremendous bone and great width of lower thigh, a virtue that is near impossible to find today in almost any breed.
While it is helpful to compare standards, in the end, each standard is relative to its own breed, and that breed-specific nuance matters. So the “slightly shorter” length of the upper thigh in a Neapolitan Mastiff is different than the “slightly shorter” of a Dogo. The lower thigh on a Dogo might be proportionally longer than that of a Neo — which is a heavier-bodied dog and so needs more support. Indeed, as its AKC standard strongly hints, the Dogo’s rear angulation is the most generous of all the Molossers. But while its angulation may approach equal lengths between the upper and lower thighs, attention must be paid to keep the lower thigh in check, so that it always falls slightly short of the length of the upper thigh — and never exceeds it.
While this may seem like a minor point, when it comes to breed type, it most decidedly is not: Everything in dog anatomy is connected, and the length of bones correlates to body style and substance. In a multi-function breed such as the Dogo, true type is more easily lost, as small shifts in details such as hindquarter proportions threaten the delicate balance between sometimes opposing functions — in this case, endurance trotting and holding.
And the proof is in the pudding: It’s no coincidence that overly long lower thighs — and by extension, overangled rears — are seen more frequently in the Dogo Argentino than other Molossers. And these overangled rears are usually accompanied by lighter, rangier bodies that lack bone and substance, resulting in Dogos that would look more at home in a line-up of Pointers.
The same also can be said, to a lesser degree, of Cane Corsos, except perhaps sending them to the Boxer ring would be more apt.
Nature, in her deep-rooted wisdom, does not give dogs one trait without counterbalancing it with another. Dogs with stronger, heavier, more substantial bodies tend to have shorter second thighs because that is what is needed to support them. The inverse is true, too: Dogs with long second thighs lose mass and bone because that rear structure cannot manage the weight stress placed on it and stay functional.
In this way, a seemingly small detail can transform overall type in a breed. It only makes sense to play close attention to it.