Sound in Wind and Limb – my September 2022 “Best of Health” article in Our Dogs

Recently, I’ve been having conversations with a range of people about what is meant by “soundness” in dogs. These were prompted by an invitation I received to make a presentation on achievements in soundness in various breeds over the last 10 years.

For many dog show exhibitors and judges, there is a narrow definition of soundness which refers to movement. For example; “Even movement with a regular cadence or footfall, not favouring one limb”. That’s certainly the way I originally thought about soundness when I started judging. A paper I found from 1983 says “the soundest dog is the one that moves with the least amount of effort”.

The American Kennel Club (AKC) provides a glossary of canine terms which defines soundness as “The state of mental and physical health when all organs and faculties are complete and functioning normally, each in its rightful relation to the other”. They have a slightly different definition in an article on judging which says “soundness must include having in good working order all the parts that are needed for that particular breed’s function”. This clearly links soundness to the dog’s function. The article also says that soundness is breed-specific and related to breed type. 

In his presentation to the 2015 International Dog Health Workshop, Göran Bodegård (SKK) discussed the Nordic Countries’ “Breed Specific Instructions” and said BSI was “aimed at increasing judges’ (and breeders’!) awareness of breed specific anatomical “areas of risks” which can cause unsoundness and deterioration of function and health”. He further said: “The new perspective is to primarily focus the breed specific anatomical characteristics which in themselves contain a potential risk for unsoundness and lack of health if exaggerated”. The introduction to the 2018 edition of the Nordic Kennel Union’s BSI document, states: “The dog show judge has an excellent opportunity to prevent unsound breeding by avoiding giving high awards, and instead merit the specimen with the optimal combination of breed type and soundness”. “The primary task of a dog show judge is to preserve the characteristics of each breed within the frames of the approved breed standard. This must, however, never be done at the expense of soundness”.

Here, in the UK, the introductory paragraph to every Breed Standard says “Absolute soundness is essential” but there is no definition of “soundness” and the introduction goes on to state: “Breeders and judges should at all times be careful to avoid obvious conditions or exaggerations which would be detrimental in any way to the health, welfare or soundness of this breed”. Judges awarding Challenge Certificates have to sign the CC to confirm that “Having assessed the dogs and penalised any features or exaggerations which I consider detrimental to their soundness, health or welfare, I am clearly of the opinion that (name of dog) is of such outstanding merit as to be worthy of the title of champion”. You could be forgiven for concluding from this that soundness is something different from health or welfare. I think it’s probably simpler to remember that a dog that has obvious (visible or audible) health or welfare issues cannot be considered to be sound. The horse world talks about animals that are in good physical condition being “sound in wind and limb”.

The challenge for judges

The challenge for judges is to find and award dogs that are both sound and typical. This, of course, means there are 3 other possible situations that judges may come across and therefore penalise: sound but untypical, unsound but typical, and if you’re really unlucky: unsound and untypical.

We actually have a well-established system for defining risks that might adversely impact a dog’s soundness. It’s the Breed Watch system with the 3 categories and clear criteria for visible points of concern. The KC isn’t asking judges to act as veterinary surgeons or to make a diagnosis of a dog’s health. The KC has highlighted a number of breeds as Category 3 breeds on Breed Watch, as these breeds have been considered to be more susceptible to developing specific health conditions associated with exaggerated conformation; in particular problems that involve the eyes, skin, dentition, movement and breathing. Since 2014, all judges at championship shows have had the opportunity to report on any visible conditions or exaggerations that they consider to be detrimental to the health and welfare of dogs.

Interestingly, the points of concern listed in Breed Watch go beyond pure matters of health. For some breeds, they include aspects of the Breed Standard such as excessive hind angulation, incorrect coat texture, and inappropriate temperament  These points are, I suspect, partly to do with recognising dogs that aren’t typical but also potential early warnings about future health issues. The concept of Tipping Points is one I have written about previously. There comes a point where an exaggeration moves from being a feature that has appeared in a breed to one where there are genuine health issues and a dog could then be described as being unsound.

The 5 Freedoms help define soundness

Many Kennel Clubs use phrases like “Fit for function” and “Form follows function”. However, there are breeds where their original function is either no longer allowed or it is no longer relevant. The function of the vast majority of dogs today is to be a companion. Should we therefore define soundness as meaning fit for life? If we do, then the 5 Freedoms from the Animal Welfare act 2006 would be a good starting point for a clear definition of the criteria against which we judge soundness. In particular, the 5th Freedom is an animal’s need to be protected from pain, suffering, injury and disease.

If judges and breeders started from the perspective of that 5th Freedom, they would recognise that it has to be a dog first, then considered as a member of its breed. In some cases, being “typical” of its breed might actually be an indication that a dog is inherently unsound (not fit for life). That’s the issue I discussed previously on the conclusions being drawn in the various VetCompass papers on brachycephalic breeds. If a dog isn’t sound, it then doesn’t matter how typical it is of its breed.  

I’ll end with a quote from one of David Cavill’s blogs on soundness: “none of this is rocket science once one’s head has been raised from the sand”.

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