E265: Dr. Chris Zink - Evaluating Puppy Structure

Your dog's structure factors largely into how long they can compete in dog sports — this week Dr. Chris Zink and I talk about how to judge structure in a puppy when choosing your next sports partner! 


Melissa Breau: This is Melissa Breau and you're listening to the Fenzi Dog Sports Podcast brought to you by the Fenzi Dog Sports Academy, an online school dedicated to providing high-quality instruction for competitive dog sports using only the most current and progressive training methods.

Today I have Dr. Chris Zink here with me to talk about her training journey and evaluating puppy structure when choosing your next sports puppy.

Hi Chris, welcome to the podcast!

Dr. Chris Zink: Hello Melissa. Thank you very much for having me, and thank you very much to the Fenzi Dog Training Academy as well. Thank you everyone who is listening.

Melissa Breau: Thank you. I'm excited to chat, get to know you a little bit today. To start us out, do you want to share a little about you, your current pets, and what you're working on with them?

Dr. Chris Zink: I have two wonderful boy dogs. I've got Hobby, who just turned 10 years old. He's a Golden Retriever. And I have Helix, who is a Norwich Terrier, and he's just about to turn 6. It's like going from the sublime to the ridiculous.

Melissa Breau: Fair enough. How did you originally get into the dog world?

Dr. Chris Zink: It's really interesting, because in veterinary school, in a decade long, long ago, the school had open house. What they did was they would have vet students who wanted to do this borrow dogs from the neighborhood and train them in obedience, and then have a demonstrational obedience trial. I decided to do that, and I borrowed a Poodle from some neighbor and trained it and did the obedience. At that point, I was completely stuck. I wanted to do this.

I didn't have a dog when I was in vet school because I didn't believe I could take the time. However, I wanted a dog so badly that I had ordered an Irish Wolfhound to be ready for me for when I graduated from vet school. That was my first competition dog, and she was wonderful. We had a good time together. So I've been doing all kinds of sporting events since 1978.

Melissa Breau: Awesome. Over that period of time, I'm sure things have changed a lot. How would you describe your training philosophy today?

Dr. Chris Zink: There's of course been many evolutions in my training philosophy, just as there has been in training in general, but the one think that I guess I've learned the most is that every single dog is an individual. They come to you with all kinds of behaviors, some of which are trained, some of which are innate and genetic. They've got their instincts and they've got their own little personalities. I've learned that just like every single person is individual, every single dog is individual, and I need to learn what their own needs are and how they express themselves, and modify my training so that I can communicate with them for the best that suits them.

I had my very first Border Collie. I mistook drive, which she came with lots of, for toughness. I realized very, very quickly that she was a very sensitive dog and that there was no relationship between the amount of drive a dog has and how sensitive they are.

So things like that. Every dog is an individual, and I want to have a relationship journey with every one of my dogs that suits them.

Melissa Breau: It evolves as you train with them.

Dr. Chris Zink: Yes, it does. That's true.

Melissa Breau: You mentioned about school, you mentioned how you got into obedience. But you specialized specifically in sports medicine and rehabilitation. What led you to become a vet in the first place and then to choose that as your specialty?

Dr. Chris Zink: I don't know. I'm one of those kids that always wanted to be a vet since they were the littlest, or at least work with animals since they were the littlest, and veterinary medicine seemed like an obviously good way to do that.

What was really interesting is I started competing … at that time there was only obedience and a few other things that were specific to breeds, like hunting tests, etc. So I started in obedience and what started to happen was people would come up to me, they knew I was a vet, they were asking me questions. I thought I learned everything in vet school, but I didn't, because I had no answers for them. They were all oftentimes musculoskeletal injuries, and I realized how little the field of veterinary medicine knew. From that time, I started reading all I could about human sports medicine and equine sports medicine, and gathering as many answers as I could.

Over time, myself and twelve other veterinarians decided to develop this into a specialty. Because it's a specialty, what that means is that the people who are specialists have to have done a three-year residency specializing either in horse or canine sports medicine, and then they have to pass an exam. So it's a pretty big deal. We had to design all of the requirements for the residency, and then we had to put it through the American Veterinary Medical Association. That whole process took about ten years, so it became a specialty in 2010 officially.

Melissa Breau: That's so impressive. You mentioned something in there that surprised me. Was the horse field that far ahead of us that there was lots of information on that?

Dr. Chris Zink: Oh yes, and you know why? Because horses are worth a lot of money. Racehorses and the whole horse breeding field and everything, they have much more money than the dog world, and so they could put that money into training veterinarians and also to pay for all the equipment. So yeah, they were way ahead of us, surprisingly.

Melissa Breau: That's so interesting. We touched on the obedience piece. We didn't touch on all the other titling stuff that you've done. I know that you've done agility, obviously obedience; you mentioned that, rally, conformation, tracking, hunt tests, barn hunt, lure coursing, Fast CAT, nosework, really all the things. As somebody who specializes in sports medicine, which comes first? Do you choose dogs based on the sports you want to do, or sports based on the dogs that you have?

Dr. Chris Zink: I always pick the best-structured dog. Now there's other things to consider — temperament, health, and all that. But if I'm just talking about structure, which I'll be talking about in my webinar, then I'm going to pick the dog with the best overall structure that I know is best designed to reduce the risk of injuries. I'll be talking about that in the webinar, what constitutes best overall structure, but that's really what I'm looking for, because then my dog can do any of the things that I want to do. And of course we want the dog to have really good longevity, so we want them to stay health and injury-free, if at all possible, and that best overall structure leads to that, because then you don't have one part of the body that's working harder and the other part that's compensating. So I want that best overall structure.

Melissa Breau: You want best overall structure, and then you can pick whatever sports you want.

Dr. Chris Zink: Exactly. I have everything open to me, and I don't have to just one.

Melissa Breau: You mentioned best structure. What factors do you consider to be important when we're looking at a dog's structure specifically because we want to do dog sports?

Dr. Chris Zink: I'm looking at the overall balance of the dog. I want a certain thing in terms of length of body, length of neck, ribcage, how much ribcage, so the whole look of the dog. And then I look specifically at certain structures. We look at angulation of the front. That's probably the most important thing. We see so many dogs with front limb injuries. And then we want a rear that balances that. Of course we're going to look at gait, because gait reflects structure as well, so we also look at the gait of the dog. Even these little tiny puppies at 8 weeks of age can tell us so much. So overall picture of balance and then front and rear, and other little things that we might see.

Melissa Breau: Whatever pops out at you.

Dr. Chris Zink: Yes.

Melissa Breau: If you're looking at a specific breed, how do you weigh that "ideal" picture versus the breed standard, which may or may not necessarily conform?

Dr. Chris Zink: That's actually a really big problem. I call that going beyond conformation. I'll talk about that in the webinar as well.

Most of the time, I pick a puppy, a breed, because I like the characteristics of that breed. I love the feistiness of a terrier. I love their bold outlook at life. That may not be ideal for some of the performance events. For example, my little Norwich Terrier is like a flying brick. He's 9 inches, but he weighs 15 pounds. Another dog that's 9 inches tall might weigh 3 pounds, if it was a Chihuahua or a Papillion or whatever.

So I'm usually choosing a breed because I love who they are, who they're likely to be. For example, I might pick a puppy with longer legs out of all the Norwich Terriers. I might want a little bit longer legs because they'll be able to run in agility better and do some of the things that I want to do.

Or a more extreme example, if I really loved a brachycephalic breed, for example, like Boston Terriers, where I know that they struggle with breathing sometimes, and that they don't do well in the heat, I might pick the one that has the longest muzzle in the litter, or I might check their nostrils to make sure their nostrils are open, because that's not true for all these breeds.

French Bulldogs, very, very popular breed, that's another one where I might pick the one that wouldn't get a championship because of these factors that are so extreme in the breed champions. I would pick for better breathing, let's say.

Melissa Breau: I think it's interesting because you've mentioned you have a Golden, you have a terrier, you mentioned a Border Collie. You've had a lot of different breeds.

Dr. Chris Zink: I have. I've actually put titles on breeds from five of the different groups. I love exploring what dogs are like.

I have had Goldens all my life. After the Irish Wolfhound, I was given a 6-month-old Golden Retriever, that was 1983, and I've had Goldens ever since. They are my favorite dog, and they are so easy and wonderful to live with. But I have explored with other breeds.

Melissa Breau: With almost everything. A little bit of this, a little bit of that. Back to the structure stuff, you decide you want to get a breed, like a terrier. How do you weigh what you want to do versus what they enjoy versus what they want to do temperamentally against that physical structure that indicates that agility is going to be harder for this dog? How do you balance those pieces in your own head and make those decisions?

Dr. Chris Zink: I think the first thing to do is to give the puppy, during the first two years, all the experiences you can to get to know them, to learn what they like, what they're good at.

It was very interesting, because when I got my current Norwich, Helix, he is an intact male, and I started training him in puppy agility and doing puppy agility with him, and I can't tell you how many times I cried all the way home from the agility class because I though to myself, "He'll never be able to do agility." All he wanted to do was sniff. It was awful.

And then he got his MACH so easily, because he needed time to grow up, he was a young male, and he was my first male terrier and I didn't know how male they really are. We needed that time to balance out his growth and maturity with what I wanted to do. I was fully willing to not do agility with him if that didn't turn out, but in the end it did turn out wonderfully.

So I do think we tend to rush things a little bit sometimes. We're eager to get going, we got this dog for a certain performance event, and there's nothing wrong with doing those things. But we also again have to always be reading our puppy, and as they grow, recognizing that … you know, think about yourself during puberty. If you remember some of those times, you can really relate to your growing puppies.

In the end, once I know what I want to do with the dog, and I know that the dog wants to do that thing, then I'm going to go ahead. But I'm also always going to be cognizant of their structure and what might be easier or more difficult for them.

For example, if I'm in a class and I have a flying brick, and everyone else has Border Collies, I'm going to not compare myself to the others, but have my own goals and my own desires. Even if it's a matter of stopping earlier or making some modification to the training situation, I'm not going to feel embarrassed that I'm doing this and on one else is. I'm gong to direct it the way that I know is best for the dog.

Melissa Breau: I think that's so hard to do sometimes. You have the dog that's a little bit different, or even temperamentally a little bit different, even if they're not a different breed, and they're struggling for one reason or another, and being able to say, "This is just what my dog needs right now."

Dr. Chris Zink: You have to avoid feeling judged. It doesn't matter. It doesn't matter because what's in the end, you have your dog on your bed at night, and you're going to sleep, and your relationship is the thing that is the really big deal there, and you don't want to break that bond.

Melissa Breau: At what age is it possible — you mentioned even 8-week puppies can tell you a lot — at what age is it really possible to get a good sense of what a puppy's structure is going to be when they grow up?

Dr. Chris Zink: In general, everyone says eight weeks, and that's, in general, true, but there are modifications to that. Some breeders of some breeds insist that they wait a little bit longer. I think this is true for some of the toy breeds and also some of the really large breeds. I would always do the 8-week evaluation, but I would also trust the breeder's opinion if they also wanted to do an evaluation at a different age.

The other thing is that many breeders have told me, and I believe them — I'm not a breeder, so I don't know; I don't have this experience — but they will tell you that they can see a lot about the puppy's structure as son as it's born and dried off. I believe them. I've just not been there for that many whelpings, nor have I watched those puppies grow up into adults so that I would know and be able to make a relationship. But I do believe that they see things as well, so I would trust the breeder on that as well. But the main one is 8 weeks, plus or minus half a week.

Melissa Breau: It's so interesting, because all the little baby puppies I've ever seen just look like fuzzy potatoes, so I can't imagine trying to judge anything.

Dr. Chris Zink: I know, but they see things like length of body relative to length of leg and neck, and the overall structural things. They obviously won't be able to evaluate angulation or anything, because the bones are floating in a bunch of tissue. There aren't even any joints yet.

Melissa Breau: Do the things you look for when you're evaluating puppy structure differ at all from what you look at when you have a fully formed adult dog in front of you?

Dr. Chris Zink: Actually no. There are some differences in the sense that puppies have larger heads and bigger feet, relative to the rest of them. But the cool thing is that a puppy at 8 weeks is giving you an idea of what it's going to look like as an adult, so therefore, fi you attend my puppy evaluation webinar, you'll see that there's a lot about adult evaluation in there too, because the two things mirror each other. So actually it covers a lot more than just puppy structure. It will cover a lot about adult structure too, because we want to judge the puppy in a way that will help us assess what it will look like as an adult.

Melissa Breau: So we're still looking at overall body shape, that angulation n the front and the rear, and the puppy moving?

Dr. Chris Zink: Yes.

Melissa Breau: I have to say, it's got to be really cute to evaluate puppy movement when you've got a litter.

Dr. Chris Zink: Oh, it is. It's also interesting to get them to gait.

Melissa Breau: Just use a little bit of cheese.

Dr. Chris Zink: Lots of treats.

Melissa Breau: You mentioned the webinar a couple of times. For those listening, Chris is doing a webinar for us on April 14 called "Picking a Puppy: 4 Steps to Evaluate Puppy Structure." Chris, can you tell us a little more about what you're planning to cover?

Dr. Chris Zink: We're going to look at things like what do you need to do to get ready, how do you set up a room where you're going to do this, what do you do to you get it all done in advance, and how do you introduce the puppies in advance to that room, and to make sure that they're comfortable. Then we're going to talk about how exactly you can get a puppy to stand up and stack just like a conformation dog. It's actually quite fun. It's all about food and where you place the food, and where you place the dog's feet and convince them to stay there. That's a lot of fun with puppies.

We're going to talk about what we're looking for specifically in terms of structure. Like I said, we're going to look at the balance, what does the whole picture look like. And then we're going to look at specific things like how much of the dog's body length is occupied by thorax versus the loin end of things. We're going to look at front and rear angulation and some of the things we might want to look at that are a little bit outside of the box for conformation.

Conformation is a really important thing to look at, but there's some things we're going to look at beyond conformation as well that will apply to performance. Some of the things we talked about already, like length of nose for brachycephalic breeds.

Melissa Breau: Excellent. Who is it a good fit for? Who might want to think about signing up?

Dr. Chris Zink: Here's the thing. It is about evaluating puppies, but you can't avoid it being about evaluating adults as well, because we want our puppy structure to reflect what the adult structure is going to be like, so of course they're related. So anyone who is selecting a dog, whether it's a puppy or an adult dog at a shelter or a rescue or whatever, if you're going to want to do some performance with that dog, or even maintain that dog for a healthy lifetime.

It's not necessarily about performance. Performance just is a greater amount of exercise, training, conditioning, and competing than you might do with your best friend. But why not pick a structure for your best friend that's going to be as healthy as possible, even without those stresses of performance.

So, honestly, it's going to be about structure in general too. I think it would be useful to anyone who is ever considering getting another dog, whether it's a puppy or adult, which probably is everyone.

Melissa Breau: Probably pretty close to everybody listening to the podcast. To round out our chat today, I've got one last question. If we were to drill down all the stuff we've been talking about, is there one key piece of information you want people to take away or one key point you want people to remember or understand?

Dr. Chris Zink: I think it would be to take every single dog as an individual, just like every single human is an individual. Maybe you have friends that do something and you're like, "I don't really like that, but whatever. I really like them." We are developing a lifelong relationship, and that relationship is changing and growing and becoming stronger through the things that we do with our dogs in performance.

Why do we do performance events? In the end, I think all of us do it because it changes our relationship. It deepens and strengthens and makes more unique and interesting and fascinating our relationship with dogs. The ribbons and accolades are side effects of that. They might seem more obvious to us, but if we really go deep into our hearts, it's that relationship that it's about.

And just like you wouldn't try to make a friend different … hopefully, you want to let that relationship grow with the dog as an individual and relating to them as an individual. I guess that's the thing that I would emphasize the most.

Melissa Breau: I think most of the people listening to this can probably relate that there's not a better feeling than a really awesome run in whatever sport you do with your dog, where you feel connected and good together. It gets back to that awesome relationship and how well you connect.

Dr. Chris Zink: Yes.

Melissa Breau: Awesome. Thank you so much for coming on the podcast, Chris. This has been great.

Dr. Chris Zink: You're welcome. Thank you for hosting it. Thank you, all of you listeners, for staying on with us, and I hope you'll join us at the webinar, because it's going to be fun.

Melissa Breau: Thank you, like Chris said, to our listeners for tuning in.

We'll be back next week with Stacy Barnett to talk nosework.

If you haven't already, subscribe to our podcast in iTunes or the podcast app of your choice to have our next episode automatically downloaded to your phone as soon as it becomes available.


Today's show is brought to you by the Fenzi Dog Sports Academy. Special thanks to Denise Fenzi for supporting this podcast. Music provided royalty-free by BenSound.com; the track featured here is called "Buddy." Audio editing provided by Chris Lang.

Thanks again for tuning in — and happy training!


Today's show is brought to you by the Fenzi Dog Sports Academy. Special thanks to Denise Fenzi for supporting this podcast. Music provided royalty-free by BenSound.com; the track featured here is called "Buddy." Audio editing provided by Chris Lang.

Thanks again for tuning in -- and happy training! 

E266: Stacy Barnett - Advancing in Nosework
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