A lot of us like watching dog shows. It’s a chance to see some breeds that you love, and some that you’ve never seen before, all showing off in style.
The German Shepherd Dog has long been my favorite breed, so I pay attention when these herding dogs take the ring. Having had shepherds as pets my whole life, I did note some differences between my past pets and the dogs in the ring — most notably the hindquarters.
While Gypsy, my dog who mucked about in the yard, isn’t going to compare to a shining example of the breed, why did it seem as though the show dogs had such bent back legs?
The simple answer is, of course, breeding. The dogs in the ring are born and bred to show, and so their bloodlines, traits and history are supposed to be followed rigorously. Many people who have show shepherds can trace their dog’s lineage back several generations and have a specific example in mind when breeding their dogs. Sometimes it gets taken too far.
The American Kennel Club (AKC) has regulations as to what is a breed standard and therefore competitive in the ring. The listing is fairly detailed, so we will just focus on the one portion that pertains to this article — the hindquarters.
According to the AKC’s German Shepherd Dog breed standards: “The whole assembly of the thigh, viewed from the side, is broad, with both upper and lower thigh well-muscled, forming as nearly as possible a right angle.”
So when you see German Shepherds on TV, they’ve been specifically bred so that their rear legs will come as close to that 90-degree angle as possible.
This video shows German Shepherds in the show ring. By watching the close-ups of the rear legs, you can see the angles:
There are other reasons for German Shepherds to have bent legs, and the health problems listed below may be contributing factors.
Hip dysplasia is a genetic disease. While the actual leg length may not be affected, the gait of the dog is changed because it is difficult for him or her to climb stairs or perform much physical activity.
Hip dysplasia affects the bones of the hips and hindquarters and has varying degrees of severity. Some German Shepherds have it but are not much affected by it, while others lose enough function in their “tail end” that they need to have a wheelchair.
Some warning signs of hip dysplasia include unwillingness to jump or stand on hind legs, not wanting to use stairs or steps, difficulty standing up or even seeming lame. This disease can present as early as 2 years old — so if you feel that something is not right, see your vet.
Elbow dysplasia can be another contributing factor. Elbow dysplasia is a complex condition caused by abnormal bone growth of the elbow.
2. Myasthenia Gravis
Myasthenia Gravis is another genetic disease/nerve disorder to which German Shepherds can be susceptible. While it does affect many places in the body, German Shepherds traditionally have hip weakness, and the hindquarters certainly are vulnerable to this disease.
Although every dog is different, my Gypsy had this disease. One of the biggest signs of myasthenia gravis is the rapid depletion of energy. Your pup will get up and start moving about but tire quickly.
Gypsy, for example, would get up and walk outside, but then her back end would start sinking as her legs started to give out. This caused her hind legs to bend more as she “sank” (which never seemed to stop her from desperately trying to catch the rabbits who taunted her from the front yard).
Arthritis could cause inflammation in the hind legs as well. People get arthritis and so do pets, and just like in people the disease has varying degrees of impact on the body. Simple pain in the hips can cause your German Shepherd to change gait and walk lower, making the legs appear more bent.
Gypsy had this as well, and arthritis is very treatable by keeping your dog’s weight within normal levels and using pain medication if warranted.
German Shepherds generally have a history of hip and hindquarter weakness and are susceptible to diseases prevalent to those areas. It’s important to make regular trips to the veterinarian and keep your dog healthy so that excess weight does not put unnecessary stress on your dog’s rear end.
German Shepherds are highly resilient, wonderful dogs who can adapt to almost anything, so do remember that a diagnosis of disease is not often the tolling of the doom bell. As always, a little dedication and a lot of love go a long way.
This pet health content was reviewed by a veterinarian.