I am lucky enough to live within walking distance of my work, and enjoy walking several times a week. I am especially lucky that J sometimes has time to drive to my work as I am finishing up for the day and deliver a dog to walk home with me. This way, both the dogs and I get some regular exercise as we are coming out of the sledding season. In the last couple of weeks, I have walked home with Frankie, Bolo and, on one special day, J walked both Bolo and Czar up to work, and all four of us walked home together!
As Frankie and I walked along the footpath the other day, I was really struck by his movement. He has a wide stripe of black along his spine, spreading over his shoulders and travelling over his head and ears to form his face mask. When he is standing still, that black stripe forms a straight line. But, as we were walking along, I noticed that as Frankie stepped forward on his right rear leg (and his left front leg), his entire back shifted to the left. His black stripe curved around as his hips twisted. It looked so uncomfortable! The whole thing is pretty subtle until your attention is drawn to it - he walks at normal pace and shows no sign of pain - but once you can see it, it's so clear and obvious. It is probably especially visible at the moment, because Frankie's ill health this winter has made him much skinnier than last summer.
By the time we hit the 3km mark (last few minutes of the walk) Frankie was looking pretty tired and his back curvature was getting more and more pronounced. I tried to take some pics, but they're not fantastic. The first two and the last three are taken as quickly as the iphone will allow.
This is picture 4 again, but this time I've drawn some lines to try and highlight the problem.
My red line is an effort to show what a straight line from tail base to nose should look like.
Clearly, Frankie's spine, as highlighted by his black stripe, does not follow anything like a straight line. He is twisting his back as he steps forward on his right rear leg and prepares to bring his left rear leg forward. This type of motion is NOT DESIRABLE.
Imagine a person with a bad limp, having to swing one leg around, rather than lifting it normally through a step. Anyone who's ever had an injury to their knee or hip will tell you that when you have pain in one of those joints, you move like this to minimise that pain, but it is exhausting. After a very short period of time, your lower back aches and your other leg starts to hurt too, from over compensating. Noone would walk like this consciously or deliberately.
When I got home, I commented to J that Frankie's back looked like it was twisting painfully during our walk. J often comments on Frankie's "bad back" and has for many years sought help from vets, including veterinary chiropractors, to give Frankie relief.
J pointed out that Frankie's hips feel different to our other dogs'. I've drawn a green V on Frankie's hips to show how they are swinging to the side above. (I think I made the lines a little long, sorry.) At this point in his stride, there should be a tiny amount of swing to the left, but not nearly as much as is shown here. J believes that part of the reason Frankie swings his hips like this, putting undue pressure on his back, is because his hips are much narrower and more angular (from a bird's eye view perspective of his pelvis) than the others'.
Here is picture 5, annotated in the same way as picture 4. Unfortunately, its not a true comparison, as Frankie's right rear leg is not fully extended. Interestingly, the overall swing is still to the left, and isn't fully reversed. This may be because he was turning his head as well.
This picture demonstrates clearly that Frankie has very narrow hips and a very broad rib cage and shoulders. J refers to him as barrel chested. Again, this is quite distinct from our other dogs.
What does this mean for Frankie?
I believe (without a veterinary qualification myself) that these are structural features that Frankie has lived with his entire life.
As a running dog, his barrel chest gives him great strength. Frankie's force at the starting chute is enough to snap my head back on my shoulders. However, he has never been able to maintain his speed throughout a race, and this has become more and more pronounced as he has gotten older. Frankie has been wasting a lot of energy, swinging his back around, rather than travelling forward smoothly. I believe this is called crabbing by dog judges.
As the musher, J has compensated for this by holding the rest of the team back, which forces the other dogs to change their stride and risks straining them too.
Where does this come from?
Everyone knows that genetics are vastly important in determining things like bone structure and their connecting ligaments and tendons. Environment is obviously important too, but in any one litter of puppies fed the same diet, and often with a human supplementing the food for the smallest puppies, there is often variation in the size and shape of all the puppies in the litter. This comes down to the genetics of each dog.
A careful breeder needs to understand the structure of the breed of dog they are working with. This is different for each breed, and where that breed is registered with a kennel club, it is detailed in a document called the breed standard. In Siberian huskies, the emphasis is on the best structure for their intended purpose, rather than aesthetics like coat or eye colour. Gait and movement are very important and are detailed as:
The Siberian Husky's characteristic gait is smooth and seemingly effortless. He is quick and light on his feet... Faults: Short, prancing or choppy gait, lumbering or rolling gait; crossing or crabbing.
A careful breeder selects the male and female dog as the best possible examples of the standard from those available. Of course, this is open to interpretation, and each breeder will prioritise different parts of the standard, for example, temperament or structure. But a careful breeder is looking to produce puppies who are going to be happy and healthy. Regardless of whether the puppy grows up to be a racing champion, a show champion or a happy family pet, no careful, ethical breeder wants to produce a puppy whose bone structure makes him walk funny or give him constant back pain. A careful breeder will select parents with great structure, whose own parents had great structure, whose grandparents had great structure... a pedigreed dog will have a family tree stretching back at least ten generations, accompanied by many details about every ancestor.
Because Frankie is a rescue dog, we don't know who bred him. Perhaps they were a careful breeder, and his structure is due to an unlucky draw in the genetic lottery. It happens. But it is also possible that his breeder was careless. Perhaps they didn't educate themselves about husky structure. Perhaps they didn't seek out the best pedigreed dogs, but used the first dogs that came to hand. Perhaps they just wanted their female to have a litter "for the experience" or to give their kids an amazing experience of watching puppies being born at home. Perhaps Frankie was the result of a "whoopsie" pregnancy where no human had a choice. Perhaps Frankie was produced by a puppy farmer that just wanted a litter for the local pet store, and his mother was one of those poor dogs kept in those dark wire cages.
Regardless of where he comes from, or how he moves, Frankie is now in a home where he is deeply loved. As I'm writing this, he's curled up asleep on a dog bed beside me. He gets the best care we can afford, and all the love and attention he needs. He is desexed and will never pass his defective structure on to another generation. I will continue to walk him whenever I can, and he will gleefully pull for peewee races over those short distances before his back hurts. We will carefully monitor him and get him veterinary help whenever his pain levels rise. But it is vastly unfair, that this amazing dog, who has so much love to give, probably lives with a level of back pain every day of his life. If it was possible for his breeder to prevent that poor structure, they should have done so.
I'm not a breeder, nor do I have plans to be. I just believe that breeding dogs (or any other animal) comes with a responsibility to give each dog the best chance in the genetic lottery, the best pre and ante natal care available, and the best home that can be found. What we know about Frankie's history suggests he got none of those things. And that sucks. Because he deserved better.