The Pet PT Pit Stop: Top Dogs and their Toplines at the Westminster Kennel Club Dog Show (Part I)

by Susan E. Davis, PT “pull in for a helpful refuel!”  

It’s all about guiding and empowering you to help your pet avoid injury, provide practical solutions and achieve rapid restoration of health and function!   
There is a special reason I look forward to the month of February each year: yes, Valentine’s Day, but it also brings the opportunity to attend the Westminster Kennel Club (WKC) Dog Show as a credentialed member of their Media/Press team.  

I’m always struck by the sheer joy and enthusiasm for dog breeds, seen on the spectator’s faces. 

The show is pure happiness and the Westminster staff considers the dogs the true stars of the show.  

At the same time, I struggle with a few of the breed conformation standards and how they may affect dog health. 

The balance between rewards of breeding dogs that have winning conformation and obedience traits verses the long term welfare of the breed’s health and quality of life seems a challenge to maintain. At the “Westminster level”, I believe it is being achieved with very few exceptions. 

The Westminster Kennel Club promotes responsible breeding with concern for soundness and temperament, beyond basic conformation standards. Beyond this, WKC values the long-term welfare of dogs, starting with their successful adoption and extending through a permanent home life.

In my quest to help dog enthusiasts learn about issues relating to animal PT, I chose the upper posture or “topline”, as my WKC Show media focus.  

The topline means exactly as it reads: it is a dog’s profile along their spine horizontally from behind the base of their neck and withers, to the top of the tail. 

Though variations in contour of toplines exist, their common denominator is smoothness, evenness. 

The ideal topline is flexible and flowing, both essential ingredients for balance and proportionality.  

The same applies to mixed breed dogs. A smooth topline is of benefit to every dog as it indicates structural symmetry and core muscle stability.  

Can toplines by affected by handler technique in posing a dog during a judging show? 

Sure, this occurs in the static standing phase of showing both in the ring and at the judge’s table. Handlers use a skill called ‘stacking’, where they place the dog’s limbs, tail, chest, head and neck in position to mimic ideal breed conformity.  It isn’t cheating, merely a way to bring out the best pose for visual presentation to the judge, similar to a model posing for the camera or runway. 

If a dog has a particular glitch in their posture, the handler might artificially stack them in a way to hide or minimize it. 

This is often achieved by elongating the dog’s stance. Interestingly, I noticed many judges giving a firm yet gentle backward push to the dog’s chest after stacking by the handler.  I presume this to be a test to see if the topline ‘holds’.  

The topline may also be controlled by handler technique during gaiting: moving in the ring on a lead

The true topline may be seen when the dog stands naturally in the ring (which hardly occurs as handlers constantly adjust the dog’s position). Hence, I took most of the photos for this article in the pre-ring area (which has limited access so I’m grateful to WKC for approving my media application!).

In next part we'll examine various categories of toplines, described by their contour, through the breeds.

Before we do that, let’s examine the topline of a non-Westminster canine, namely Miss Cookie Rade as an example.

Cookie is a Rottweiler, and the topline AKC standard for this breed is considered to be “level”, with the withers and croup on the same straight horizontal plane. Rotties are trotters and part of the working group of canine breeds. A level topline is an asset for the Rottweiler during livestock herding (especially with larger livestock such as cattle) as they need to stay well balanced with their heads up high as they trot and circle. One variation of the Rottweiler topline posted by AKC is a slight rear sloping near the rump, often seen in dogs that guard and protect.

Looking closely at Cookie, I notice that her croup is slightly higher than the withers, resulting in a topline that is slightly off the AKC level standard.  There is no rear sloping either, in fact the opposite appears in Cookie. As your eye travels along the topline starting at the neck moving left, you will see slight sag or dip occurring just behind her harness strap, at the lower ribcage.

So, what‘s going on with Cookie? She might need a bit of targeted core strengthening via “belly tickle” right under the area of the dip in topline, to help fully level it. This would be a quick exercise I’d do with her 3-4 reps, once per day initially, then every few days, just to fine-tune her posture. Let’s be honest, Cookie is a beautiful specimen, finely formed, and fit!

One more interesting observation: though this photo is taken at an oblique, Cookie’s torso appears slightly longer than the Rottie breed standard.  If so, this could also explain the slight dip in topline. It also justifies why I teasingly refer to her as “Jana’s Rott-Hound”, as she has the heart and soul (and topline!) of a warrior hunting hound! 

Susan E. Davis (Sue) is a licensed Physical Therapist with over 30 years of practice in the human field, who transitioned into the animal world after taking courses at the UT Canine Rehabilitation program.  She is located in Red Bank, New Jersey.

She has been providing PT services to dogs and other animals through her entity Joycare Onsite, LLC in pet’s homes and in vet clinics since 2008.

She also provides pro bono services at the Monmouth County SPCA in Eatontown, NJ.  Sue is the proud “dog mommy” to Penelope, a miniature Dachshund with “attitude”.  For more information see her website , or follow on Twitter @animalPTsue.

Sue is also the author of a fantastic book on physical therapy, Physical Therapy And Rehabilitation For Animals: A Guide For The Consumer.  

Physical therapy can do so many great things for your dog. Understanding all the possibilities physical therapy can offer will change your dog's life. This book definitely belongs on the shelf of every dog lover.

Articles by Susan E. Davis:
Functional Strengthening Exercises: the What, Why and How
One Thing Leads To Another: Why The Second ACL Often Goes Too
Compensation: An Attempt To Restore Harmony
Paring Down to the Canine Core
Canine Massage: Every Dog ‘Kneads’ It”
Photon Power: Can Laser Therapy Help Your Dog?  
Physical Therapy in the Veterinary World  
Reiki: Is it real? 
Dog Lessons: Cooper  
The Essentials Of Canine Injury Prevention: 7 Tips For Keeping Your Dog Safer 
It's Not Just Walking, It's Therapy! 
Treatment And Prevention Of Canine Intervertebral Disc Disease (Part I)
Treatment And Prevention Of Canine Intervertebral Disc Disease (Part II Physical Therapy)
Range Of Motion: It’s A Matter Of Degree…
The Weight Of Water And How It Helps Dogs 
By Land or By Sea? A Comparison of Canine Treadmills 
Unraveling The Mystery Of Fascia And Myofascial Trigger Points (Part I)
Unraveling The Mystery Of Fascia And Myofascial Trigger Points (Part II) 
Scar Tissue: Is it Too Much of a Good Thing? 
Physical Therapy Tip Of The Month: Ramps! 
Physical Therapy Tip Of The Month: Indoor Duo Dog Exercises!
Physical Therapy Tip Of The Month: Best Practices After Your Dog’s Surgery 
Physical Therapy Tip Of The Month: Ideas to Chew on - Can Physical Therapy Help with my Dog’s Digestive Problems?
Wrap It Up: Using Soft Supports For Your Dog
When Do I Use Heat versus Cold? : A Tale (or Tail) Of Two Temps! (Part I) 
When Do I Use Heat versus Cold? : A Tale (or Tail) Of Two Temps! (Part II) 
Physical Therapy Tip Of The Month: Safe Summer Boating Tips for your Dog 
Physical Therapy Tip Of The Month: Hip Dysplasia - What’s a Dawg Mama to Do?
PT Pit Stop: Wheeled Carts Keep Them Doggies Rollin' (Part I)
PT Pit Stop: Wheeled Carts Keep Them Doggies Rollin' (Part II)
Staying in the Loop with Targeted Pulsed Electromagnetic Field Therapy
Addressing Frailty Syndrome in Geriatric Dogs 
The Pet PT Pit Stop: "Where's The Evidence?"
Physical Therapy is Great, Except When It Isn’t 


  1. Interesting - you know we are concerned about the various standards and what's going on in the show ring. Cookie looks very fit - certainly more fit than many of the Rotties we see in shows. I really wish they would add some fitness testing to the show ring.

    1. Yes, very interesting, isn't it? Cookie is certainly a Rottie sports edition :-)


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