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Border Terrier anatomy from the  ”essentially a working Terrier” viewpoint, interpreted by Åsa Sandberg
This article has been published in breed club newsletters of Sweden, Denmark, Holland and the USA.


    Border Terrier conformation
from the viewpoint of being “essentially a working Terrier”


In Scandinavia, many Borders are still used to bolt foxes, and even more are being used for hunting above ground. The breed attracts more fans every year, many switching over from breeds where the split between “show” and “work” lines is profound. For the sake of the overall quality of all Borders, and also the size of the gene pool, I hope that this split will not arise in our breed, especially since I find it a very unnecessary development in Borders. We are lucky enough to have a  breed standard which is 100% describing a dog built to work well. We don’t have to choose between beauty and function, since the correct looks in a Border Terrier also provide the best possible construction for work. This article describes my thoughts on some aspects of a functional conformation, and I hope for it to be the start of  a fruitful debate.

The special, breed typical construction, different from many other long-legged Terriers, is as I understand it the consequence of what Borders are required to be good at: following a horse and going to ground. In most areas these two demands push toward the same construction, since both parts of the job require a strong, supple and fast dog with great jumping ability.  This influences among other things proportions and angulation. In other areas the two demands are partly in anatomical conflict. The shape of the ribcage is dictated by the fine balance between these two requirements.


Fig 1 Normal-proportioned dog

This dog is, although not perfect, in my opinion nicely proportioned and angulated. He is a good mover and he doesn’t have to re-organize his body balance from comfortable standstill to full speed. He is also more or less in his natural coat – show grooming is a science in itself so I will leave the optical illusions of this to the experts.

Fig 2  Longish bitch  

In bitches my personal preference is a little more length than in dogs although the Border Terrier Standard, contrary to that of some other breeds, does not mention a sex difference in proportions. To me it is part of a feminine appearance, allowing space for puppies. Another is my impression that allowing more length in bitches might make it easier to produce good proportions in both genders of a bloodline.

A long Border with normal length of leg can move just as well as a normal-proportioned one as long as the body length is in the rib rather than in the loin.

 A bitch with proportions like in figure 2 will at times be criticized for being short in leg although she is not. Her legs are the  same length as in the male, the difference is in the length of body only.

Fooling the eye

Fig 3 X  Fault:  Fox Terrier front and over-angulated rear

The eye can be deceived in many different ways when subjectively assessing proportions: shoulder angle, neck inset, tail carriage, even the colour markings of a dark grizzle or a blue and tan (especially in “saddled” dogs). In this case the source of illusion is angulation. This dog looks almost as long as the bitch, but in fact he has exactly the same proportions as the dog in fig 1, only two faults are introduced: a “Fox Terrier front” with a short upright upper arm, and also over-exaggerated rear angulation which looks flashy when stacked but may affect movement adversely.

Fig 4 Proportions marked in dog 1 and X 3

In the FCI system, proportions are measured shoulder to ground compared to point of sternum to back of pelvis. Unless otherwise stated in the Standard, the desired proportions are 9:10 like in the dog to the left, i e the dog should be slightly longer than tall. In the dog to the right, the upper arm is so badly placed that the point of shoulder is hiding the point of sternum when viewed from the side. This will seem to add a little length when measured in a photo. However, if the dogs are compared in real life, the measurement may be made from the correct points showing that these two dogs have exactly the same proportions.

The American BT Standard calls for the distance shoulder to tail to be slightly less than shoulder to ground, which is true for the dog in figure 1. Measuring this way also clearly shows that the two dogs in figure 1 and 3 have the same proportions although optically different.


Fig 5 Left to right correct croup, X too flat (fault) and X too sloping (fault)

A correct Border tailset is “in the rear corner” rather than chimney-like. This tailset often indicates that the croup has the correct length and slope, like in the far left dog in figure 5. He is able to move immediately from a comfortable standing position. This croup is also necessary for harmonizing movement in a dog with a correct front assembly. A dog required to run all day needs “four wheel drive”, he can’t afford to let either front or rear just ride along not providing full propelling power.

All three dogs in figure 5 have the same proportions, in spite of looking different because of different croups. To achieve the same proportions, the middle dog had to be drawn as short coupled. His croup angle will cause less rear angulation unless his rear legs are longer than normal, both alternatives most likely meaning less harmonic movements than the dog to the left. Most of his weight is on the forelegs when stacked. In some of these dogs the rearward shift of weight from standstill to movement is visible, especially when not on a tight show lead.

The croup angle of the dog to the far right will force him to exaggerate rear angulation, perhaps even to the point of sickle hocks as in the picture. Most probably his loin will be arched when moving.


Since Border Terriers are required to be able to run with the hounds during a British fox-hunt we want speed and endurance. To get this, we need efficient movements and plenty of room for heart and lungs. Earthdog work introduces the need for going safely and at high speed into tight fox dens. This means the necessary room can’t be created by  a large spring of ribs, because this will cause the dog to be wide and also not very flexible in back. Instead the ribcage is required to be long and ribs well carried back.  Narrowness should not be exaggerated either, since a too flat ribcage will not provide enough room for long-distance running even if very long. The ideal cross-section is shaped like a long strawberry, just like the measuring loop formed by the hands when spanning the dog, thumbs at the dog’s back and fingers meeting at the lowest point of the chest. This is why I feel that spanning, in spite of the uncertainty of different sizes of hands, provides better information on ribcage size than measuring with a tape which follows any shape closely.


Fig 6 X Fault: Short-chested

The untypical tucked-up, weak loin of this dog indicates that the rib is not well carried back. Proportions are the same as in the dog in fig 1, but the ribcage is too short for a Border and the back ribs are not well developed. This is not an ideal build for a dog that needs to run all day with horses and a pack of much larger dogs.

Fig 7 X Fault:  Quadratic

A quadratic look, like in some other Terrier breeds, is very disturbing to type in a Border. Also, I think being too short is worse than being too long, because while both problems have the same influence on stacked looks a short dog may also experience a negative influence on movement. Using a short step, crabbing, or hackney-stepping are among the compensatory adjustments he may have to make.  

He will most probably also not have the desired flexibility in his back, necessary to negotiate a problematic tunnel.  When I started showing Borders in the seventies, I experienced several times that British judges tried the flexibility by bending the dog in a circle, checking that the nose could easily touch the root of the tail.


Fig 8 Rib cage length in X short-chested and X quadratic dog

When the actual size of the rib cage is marked in the drawing, a surprising result unfolds: the tucked-up dog in figure 6, that has normal overall proportions, is in this case just as short in rib as the obviously untypical, quadratic dog in figure 7. What creates the illusion of the tucked-up dog being sufficiently long is the added fault of being long coupled. This can’t be determined from underline only, the only way to know is to feel along the sides for the position of the last rib.


A correct ribcage shape, both sideways and in cross-section, is also necessary for a correct front. Some forechest is needed for providing a correct front assembly to body attachment, allowing free front movement. An oversprung ribcage will interfere with mobility down a fox den, while a too narrow ribcage will not provide enough room for stamina.

Running with the hounds requires economical movement, where a long front stride is provided by the upper arms moving along the side of the ribcage like in a hound, rather than in front of the ribcage like in a “Fox Terrier front”. The Fox Terrier front causes a pendulum movement where the foreleg swings forward but is never carried very far back, while a hound front provides a smooth long step with drive where the front leg is brought far back under the body as well as reaching far out in front. This means a super-narrow front with no visible point of sternum does not allow breed typical movement. Border Terrier people half a century ago used to ask for four fingers width between the forelegs.

Fig 9 Left to right correct front,  X“Fox Terrier front” (fault) and X oversprung ribs (fault)

In figure 9, the dog at the far left has a correctly shaped ribcage and a good front construction, providing excellent front movement.

The ribcage of the center dog lacks forechest which allows for a very narrow front, looking flashy when stacked but with untypical, restricted front movements. A dog with a sideways view like in fig 3 could have a Fox Terrier front, or else loose elbows as in fig 10, in front view. 

The dog at the right has an oversprung rib, causing a wide front and reduced sideways body flexibility. This dog may also paddle when trotting at high speed, since the rounded shape is often more pronounced mid-rib and will be in the way, pushing the elbow out when the upper arm slides back along the rib in a long stride.

However, there are no ends to the variations in front construction and the ribcage is not responsible for all of them. In fig 10 two dogs with correct spring of rib but incorrect fronts are shown.

Fig 10 Left
X  loose elbows (fault), right X  heavy shoulder (fault)

To the left is a dog with loose elbows. More often than not the upper arms are too short and upright in a front like this. Although stacking can sometimes mask this problem, it will be obvious when the dog is moving.  

To the right is a dog that may move well but is not suitable for earthdog work because of a heavy shoulder, not smoothly blending into the body but rather bulging like in a Staffordshire Bull Terrier. The sheer size of the shoulder is restricting to tunnel work, and worse yet is the fact that this type of musculature is less elastic than the desirable flat, stringy type, reducing flexibility when negotiating tight spots down an earth.

Dual purpose

There are many more examples to be found where the Standard describes the best-functioning working Border Terrier. The only details dealing with beauty only that I can find in the British standard are the V-shape of the ear and the colour of coat, eyes and nose-leather. Every single other detail affects how well the dog is able to work. In several other breeds that are still used for their original purpose, either the show or the working bloodlines have trodden a different path from the other conformationwise. I am glad this is not the case in Borders since the most “beautiful” dog is also the one most well designed to work. I hope that this will stay true in future.