When Bobbe Carney holds an 8-week-old Small Munsterlander puppy in her hands, much of what she sees and feels in the young dog's body can reveal most of the major physical conformation features the pup will have as an adult.
"By carefully examining an 8-week-old puppy's body structure, a trained evaluator can predict a wide variety of physical traits that will consistently develop as the dog grows and matures," Carney says.
The consequences of this physical evaluation for gun dogs can be far-reaching. "The conformation of any breed of dog will have a direct influence on that animal's ability to perform in the field during training and exercise sessions and, of course, on a hunt," Carney says.
The old adage of form following function is given direct application as Carney continues to evaluate all eight pups in the litter of Small Munsterlanders belonging to Jim Julson, owner and operator of Julson's Small Munsterlander Kennels in Colman, S.D. "This is the third litter Bobbe has evaluated according to a system developed by Pat Hastings, an AKC show dog judge," Julson explained. "Hastings has taken the conformation evaluation procedure used to judge show dogs for appearance and adapted it to judge the practical significance of conformation in sport dogs — gun dogs in particular."
Though Hastings in the past focused mainly on AKC show dog conformation, her emphasis has shifted from conformation evaluation to enhance cosmetic appearance to evaluating conformation as a key factor in establishing, maintaining and improving a gun dog's physical performance in the field during actual hunting experiences.
At the heart of the Hastings method of evaluating gun dog puppy structure is the theory that most hunting breeds have a general conformation standard that is used to measure and judge as well as guide the physical structure of individual dogs. "Most sporting dog conformation standards have been established through many years of breeding for physical structure designed for practical purposes — not just for cosmetic reasons to please judges in a show ring," she says.
Hastings is the woman Carney credits for compiling and organizing her own version of the gun dog puppy conformation evaluation system. "Hastings used her experiences as an AKC dog show judge to develop her ideas on the relationship between canine form and function," Carney says. "Where canine structure in dog shows tends to be focused on conformation for appearance's sake, Hastings concentrated on conformation as a key to understanding, improving, and promoting the physical components of hunting dogs on a practical level."
As a long-time AKC dog show judge, Hastings has seen up close the consequences of using canine conformation mainly as a way to develop dogs for dog show purposes. "The 'old' news is that the emphasis in many breeds is on physical structure as a way to produce fashionable, in-style, and judge-pleasing appearances," she says. "And while this approach results in prize-winning pretty dogs, this has also created dogs with body structures that are no longer very functional in the active physical sense. This is particularly a problem in many of the sporting breeds where form is vital to how a dog performs in the field on an actual hunt.
"The 'new' news is that what AKC show people know about show dog conformation, and we do know a lot about canine physiology, can be used to judge and improve the sporting breeds outside the show ring. That's where my system of puppy evaluation comes into play," Hastings says.
Structure in Action: The Makings of a Durable Dog, written by Hastings and Dr. Wendy Wallace, DVM, applies to all breeds of dogs that have physically active lives in such events as agility, herding, coursing and hunting. The theme of the book is that any dog breed with an active lifestyle can be a better performer if bred according to a well-planned and effectively administered concern for fully-functional physical structure.
The Puppy Puzzle is a DVD in which Hastings offers hands-on illustrations of her method for evaluating the conformation features of 8-week-old puppies. Every aspect of physical structure is considered from a puppy's head to tail with emphasis on predicting a young dog's future as a physically active adult.
Why eight weeks?
"This timeline offers a brief glimpse into any pup's physical development," Hastings says. "Why eight weeks? Though there have been no extensive or conclusive scientific studies on this question, our anecdotal experiences have indicated the eight-week period is the best time to accurately evaluate a puppy's physical development and to meaningfully predict its future conformation as an adult dog."
In the past 20 years, Hastings has evaluated 38,000 puppies according to her methods. "Though we can't follow up on the development of each pup, those we have kept track of indicate an 85-90 percent record of accuracy in the predictions made at eight weeks," Hastings says.
When an 8-week-old gun dog puppy is carefully examined according to the Hasting's method, much of the youngster's final physical development can be predicted with a high degree of accuracy. "Take a pup's rib cage, for example," Carney says. "Any rib cage on an 8-week-old pup that is too narrow, too deep, or too long can create physical problems in adulthood.
"The ideal rib cage will leave ample space for the heart and lungs to naturally operate without being squeezed, dropped, or juggled. An adult dog with any one or all of these forms or conditions will not necessarily be crippled, but most likely will be physically handicapped during highly active field or water work in training or on a hunt," Carneys warns.
Likewise, the structural condition of a pup's front and hind legs can have a major influence on the way the adult dog moves. "Hind legs that are too long or too out of proportion or front shoulders that are pitched too far back or forward can affect the running stride and trotting gait of the mature dog," Carney notes.
"When evaluating a pup for these basic physical features, the idea is to look for an even balance of all the parts. If one element is out of whack, that imbalance can influence other components, so that a deficiency in the rib cage, shoulder area or hindquarters can result in a lack of endurance, a choppy running style or a predisposition for joint issues such as arthritis or even hip dysplasia in some instances."
Other possible flaws in conformation can also be detected and judged in an 8-week-old puppy.
"When using an evaluation chart, a complete list of important physical components can be followed," Carney says. "This includes such points of consideration as the correct and standard shape of the head, neck, and teeth as well as body parts such as withers, back, and topline, croup design and tail set, loin length, rib shape, pad, toe, and foot placement, and configuration of hocks and thighs.
"All the basic components of the eight-week-old pup can be felt or seen then judged in a composite fashion to predict how the adult dog will likely turn out," Carney says.
The objective in judging the physical structure of 8-week-old pups is to rank each individual according to a conformation standard. This information can then be used to place the pups in their new homes.
"Those pups with the best balance of key physical parts might be the most likely candidate for going to a hunter who will use the adult dog in rigorous training and regular hunting trips on the water and in the field," Carney says. "Of course, other important hunting qualities enter in the final placement decision with a good conformation rating as one of many criteria for what makes an exceptional hunting dog."
Other pups with lower conformation ratings could go to homes where pet quality is equally significant to hunting ability. "That's not to say these pups won't grow up to be good gun dogs," Carney says. "But the point is that the pup with the best balance in conformation will most likely be the most durable dog when experiencing extreme and prolonged exertion."
Of course, some breeders remain skeptical of the validity of Hastings' method. "I took a look at the Hastings DVD and read through some of her books but I have to say, much of this stuff is just too complicated to follow and too theoretical to put into practice," an old-time Labrador breeder admitted after skimming the material. "Besides, I've been told by some of my customers and some other Lab breeders that our dogs meet the AKC standards for Labradors in general."
This Labrador breeder's reaction to the Hastings method of evaluating gun dog puppy body structure is fairly typical of many dog breeders when they first encounter her theories and practices. "Many gun dog breeders are only vaguely aware of conformation as a major element in a gun dog's ability to be a fully functional and durable performer over a lifetime of hard hunting," Hastings says.
"Part of the reason for the low level of concern for conformation in some breeds of hunting dogs is that other easier-to-see hunting qualities such as nose, prey drive, cooperation and other factors get a higher level of consideration," Hastings believes."The structural elements in any dog breed, however, are often more difficult to detect, can be more subtle in their influence and might be harder to promote as important in the breed's development.
"Take a hard look at any of the sporting dog breeds and the need for improving structural integrity and the relationship of form to function are almost always apparent in varying degrees. So, evaluating the structural features of every litter of any breed sure isn't going to hurt anything and should help all breeds in producing healthier and more functional dogs," Hastings concludes.
"We have been using many of the puppy evaluating principles in Pat Hastings' program for predicting, judging and improving the conformation of our line of Large Munsterlanders," says Curt Shreve, who has been breeding, training and hunting Large Munsterlanders for nearly 30 years at Snowy Oaks Large Munsterlander Kennels in Prior Lake, Minn.
"A few other Large Munsterlander breeders and several producers of other gun dog breeds we know also apply many of the conformation standards that Hastings has emphasized in her seminars, DVDs and books. So in this limited respect, Hastings has not come up with anything totally original," Shreve continues.
"What Hastings has done, however, is to take popular and common conformation standards and testing methods and put them into a methodical and practical format that any experienced gun dog breeder can understand and use to make better final canine products."
A German shorthair breeder recently commented, "I wish I had never read the books or watched the DVDs by Pat Hastings on the subject of canine conformation. Now every time I look at my own dogs or anyone else's I tend to see the weak spots and the serious flaws in their physical structure.
"Maybe ignorance was bliss," he added. "But by knowing what I know now, I will be more careful in selecting any new puppy and more informed about using any adult dogs in a breeding program."
"Anyone selling a litter of gun dogs at eight weeks of age or anyone purchasing a pup from that litter would do well to understand the purposes and conclusions of the Hastings program," Jim Julson says.
"I have found that my whole breeding philosophy and application have gone through some major changes, and I have seen some major improvements in my breeding program since I started using the Hastings evaluation method. I am already seeing more satisfied buyers and better dogs."