A Guide to Understanding Canine Gaits - PetHelpful - By fellow animal lovers and experts
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A Guide to Understanding Canine Gaits

Adrienne is a certified dog trainer, behavior consultant, former veterinarian assistant, and author of Brain Training for Dogs.

Quick Facts About Dog Gaits

  • Dogs can display 6 different gaits: walk, pace, amble, trot, canter and gallop.
  • Dog gaits are divided into two categories: symmetrical where the movements of the sides mirror each other and asymmetrical where the movements of the sides are not the same.
  • The front of the dog carries 60 percent of his total weight.
  • Dogs change their gait based on a variety of factors such as conformation, experience, training, terrain, health status, emotions, level of fatigue.
  • Certain gaits are required in the standards of certain breeds.

Knowing Your Dog's Gaits Can Be Beneficial

Have you ever thought about your dog's gaits? Most likely, you watch your dog move about during the day, but you've never paid really close attention to his gait. There are many advantages to learning more about your dog's gaits. For instance, familiarizing yourself with the way your dog moves can help you notice quickly when something doesn't look right.

When you exercise your dog, looking at the gait can help you detect the first signs of tiredness and fatigue. It's also helpful if you ever plan to enroll your dog in some doggy sports or if you are a breeder interested in showing, and last but not least, it's just interesting to learn more stuff about your loving companion.

Why Do Dogs Walk and Run the Way They Do?

If you are into horseback riding, you may be quite familiar with gaits. However, comparing horse gaits with dog gaits is like dealing with apples and oranges, as horses and dogs have quite a different structure. For instance, according to veterinarian Christine Zink, dogs have a very flexible back courtesy of having only 13 ribs and a shorter digestive system with lower volume. Horses, on the other hand, are limited in flexing their spines, since they have 17 to 18 ribs and a larger and longer intestinal tract full of hay. Dogs are also built in such a way as to steer better, making sharper, more accurate turns. On top of that, a dog's feet have much more feeling and ability to grip.

In the whole animal kingdom, there is no species with so much genetic variance as in dogs. From the smallest Chihuahua to the largest Irish wolfhound, there's no doubt that you'll end up with quite a variety of gaits due to different sizes and structures. In this article, we will be looking at the standard dog gaits, but also some individual gaits seen exclusively in some breeds.

But what exactly is a dog's gait? In simple words, a dog's gait is the way the dog moves. To get more technical, it's canine locomotion at its best, a pattern of footsteps taking place at various speeds.

Dog Gaits and Photography

Don't feel bad if you aren't too familiar with your dog's gaits. According to a study, you are not alone. A study from Cell Press, published in the January 27th issue of Current Biology, revealed that even anatomists, taxidermists and designers of toys, didn't have much of a clue when it came to gaits and got the walking gaits of quadrupeds wrong about half of the time!

The study of dog gaits started with the advent of photography. Prior to the development of photography, animal gaits were often portrayed in paintings and drawing of artists, but these often weren't accurate. The first real studies were conducted by Eadweard Muybridge in 1888, who played a very important role courtesy of his photographic studies of motion. His photographic portrays of the strides of racehorses and greyhounds are still quite popular.

The Walk

The walk is the less tiring gait of all gaits. It's the only gait where 3 legs can be found on the ground at the same time. It's a four-beat gait where each leg is lifted sequentially. The pattern is the following: the dog steps with his left hind leg followed by his left foreleg. Afterward, the dog steps with the right hind leg followed by the right foreleg, and so forth. The dog's head and neck lower when the forelimb swings and are kept raised when it's put down.

When dogs are pulling a load, you'll see them power walk. The steps will be shorter and slower and their head is lowered so to shift the center of gravity forward and to allow the forelimbs to contribute in propulsion.

Walk, Pace, Amble and Trot

The Amble

In dogs, this is a symmetrical gait mostly used when the dog is transitioning from a walk to a trot. It's somewhat similar to the pace, only that it is slower. It's otherwise rarely used in dogs; whereas, it's much more common in other animals such as elephants, camels and horses. It's faster than a walk and slower than a canter and a gallop and overall relaxing.

It's characterized by the alternate use of opposite legs with the left front and left back leg moving as a pair, and the right front and right back leg moving as a pair, according to Gilberts' K-9 Seminars. The two legs on the same side are always on the ground.

The Pace

This gait is considered a fault in the show ring. Only three breeds are allowed to pace by the American Kennel Club: the old English sheepdog can pace, the Polish lowland sheepdog is allowed to pace or amble, and the Neapolitan mastiff is not penalized for pacing. It's a relaxed gait that is shock absorbing. You tend to see it in large breeds, obese dogs, fatigued dogs or in puppies until they develop. Once developed, puppies start to trot. In the pace, two right feet are on the ground and two left feet in the air, afterward, two left feet are on the ground and two right feet in the air.

What's the difference between the pace and the amble? According to the Weirmaraner Page " The amble is similar to the pace in all respects except that it is slower, and, while in the pace both feet on the same side hit the ground simultaneously, in the amble the rear foot of the pair is raised off the ground just a fraction sooner than the front foot, and the rear foot is also brought into ground contact a little earlier. The amble can also be described as a fast rocking walk which is often seen as a transition movement between the walk and faster gaits. As a transition movement it should not be confused with pacing. "

Yorkie Trotting

Yorkie Trotting

The Trot

The trot is faster than the walk, but not fast enough as the gallop. It's the most efficient gait; indeed, according to Chrstine Zink wolves were capable of covering 100 miles a day mainly using this gait. It's a two-beat sequence where right and left legs are lifted in a diagonal fashion. In this gait, you'll see the right front leg and the left rear leg move forward followed by the left front leg and the right rear leg.In between, there's a short period of suspension where all legs are up in the air, but its hardly noticeable. This is the most popular gait seen in the show ring. When the judge asks the handler to make the dog trot, he or she will say "gait your dog."

Canter Versus Gallop

The Canter

Used mostly in the horse world, you can occasionally see a dog canter either on the left lead or the right lead. The canter is a 3-beat gait that is used for long distances as it's smooth and helps the dog conserve energy. The rear leg replaces the front legs as shown in the video by Care Animal Clinic Brookfield.

The exact pattern according to Wikipedia is as follows: hind foot, the opposite hind foot and its front diagonal, and afterward, the other front foot and possible suspension. There are two forms of canter, the classical canter and the rotary canter. According to Christine Zink, dogs use the classical canter only 10 percent of the time; whereas, rotary canter is used when dogs engage in sharp turns.

The Gallop

This is the fastest gait and it is classified as asymmetrical. It's a four-time gait with suspension where all the legs are lifted off the ground. There are two types of gallop: the single suspension gallop and the double suspension gallop.

The single suspension gallop in dogs is a four-time gait. It's an asymmetrical sequence where the dog achieves suspension.

The double suspension gait is a four-time, asymmetrical gait seen only in sight hound breeds such as the greyhound and whippet. This is the only gait where the dog achieves full extension with the front legs extended forward and the rear legs are extended rearward. The back flexes and arches with the rear feet extending in front of the front feet and the front feet extending behind the rear feet. Despite the speed, this gait doesn't offer much endurance.

Watch the Min Pin Gait!

The Unique Gaits of Certain Dog Breeds

  • As seen, greyhounds, whippets and other sight hounds boast a unique gait with a double suspension. Their backs arch and extend to attain speed.
  • The min pin, also known as the "king of toys" has a typical hackney gait characterized by the extra high action of the forelimbs.
  • The only breeds allowed to pace in the AKC show ring are the old English sheepdogs, lowland Polish sheepdog and the Neapolitan mastiff.
  • The chow chow exhibits a typical stilted gait unique to the breed.
  • The Havanese have a springy gait due to their conformation and overall spirited demeanor.
  • The English bulldog has a peculiar gait characterized by a shuffling, side-wise motion, giving the characteristic "roll."

Unsual Gaits Are Often a Sign of Problems

By getting acquainted with your dog's normal gaits, you may be able to recognize early signs of trouble. The trot gait is one of the best for recognizing the faults and virtues of the dog, and this explains why the trot is the most requested gait in the show ring by judges. There are several signs of trouble you can tell by simply looking at the dog's gait. For instance, arching of the back causing an overall hunched posture, knuckling over” when walking, lowering the head and extending the neck are warning signs of intervertebral disc disease.

Dogs who are lame will try their best to put less weight on the affected leg. For instance, according to PetMD, when the front leg is in pain, the head and neck move upward when it's placed on the ground and drop when the healthy limb bears weight. Whereas, when the back leg is pain, the pelvis drops when it bears weight and rises when the weight is lifted. Dogs with hip dysplasia will have a typical wobbly gait with the rear end oscillating when walking. When running, you may notice a typical bunny hop. A dog with luxated patellas will exhibit an intermittent skip in the gait. Dogs with cranial cruciate ligament injuries will move with short strides on the affected limb, and the knee will be positioned in a fixed, almost flexed position.

This article is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge. It is not meant to substitute for diagnosis, prognosis, treatment, prescription, or formal and individualized advice from a veterinary medical professional. Animals exhibiting signs and symptoms of distress should be seen by a veterinarian immediately.

Questions & Answers

Question: What causes a dog to flip their front legs when moving?

Answer: If you are referring to the natural tendency for dogs to flex their paws when walking, this occurs courtesy of proprioception, an awareness of how the legs move to avoid hitting the ground. It's a type of self-awareness.

Question: I’ve heard that trotting is not good for greyhounds, something to do with their hearts: is this true? I run with my greyhound, we have built up to 5ks over time and she seems to enjoy it, but my running speed is her trotting speed. I would like to continue extending her distance over time gradually, but not if it’s bad for her heart!

Answer: I know that greyhounds supposedly have a larger heart than the average dog, along with several other breeds in the sighthound family, of which the greyhound is a member. These larger hearts were necessary because of their history of being selectively bred to chase hare, foxes, and deer over vast desert lands. This task required lots of oxygenated blood to be sent to their muscles in order to be able to run at those fantastic speeds.

A greyhound’s large heart should not to be confused with a medical condition known to cause heart enlargement known as dilated cardiomyopathy. Their larger hearts though may have sometimes have minor heart murmurs, but generally without causing disease.

Now, something to consider is that greyhounds are built more for sprinting rather than endurance, so it would be a good idea to have a vet check to make sure that your dog's joints are in good shape and it doesn't hurt to have the vet check the heart too to play it safe. Also, it may be worthy of discussing this breed's risks for bloat and bone cancer.

With a clean bill of health, I think with proper conditioning it could be possible to run with your companion as long as he appears comfortable with it and not giving signs of tiring, but I am not a veterinarian so please don't take my word for it.

© 2014 Adrienne Farricelli

Comments

Jules on May 12, 2020:

When my Beagle is on a scent trail, I've noticed he paces with both right legs moving at once then both left legs moving at once. He does this when he has his nose to the ground, otherwise his gait is more normal/regular with opposite diagonal legs moving. Is this a hound thing?

Adrienne Farricelli (author) on April 13, 2020:

That's amazing! I am sure it makes a great photo shot!

tonyrwoodphotography on April 12, 2020:

One of our Jack Russells displays a double suspension gait when running .. at full speed his front and back legs are close to 180 degrees !!

Adrienne Farricelli (author) on October 13, 2014:

I know, it's kind of not so popular acknowledging dog gaits, I guess because we don't ride them! I too found it great watching the videos, movement in dogs is very fascinating, and it's hard to really see what is going on because they move so quickly.

Ann1Az2 from Orange, Texas on October 13, 2014:

I never realized that dogs have gaits. I'm familiar with horses because I used to ride them, but when I had dogs, the only time I noticed their gait was when they were running after something or when my German Shepherd jumped to catch a Frisbee. This was an interesting read and the videos were great!

Adrienne Farricelli (author) on September 22, 2014:

LOL, I think I got the picture!

craftybegonia from Southwestern, United States on September 21, 2014:

We have two Australian Shepherds and they don't gallop, they simply fly across the yard in two seconds flat!

Adrienne Farricelli (author) on September 20, 2014:

Sounds like you sure had some wonderful sights today! I often make videos and pause them and take a screen shot which is easier for me than taking pictures.

Randi Simon-Serey from Ohio on September 20, 2014:

Took my dog to the dog park this afternoon and got to see a whippet and min pin in action, among others. It was fun, but not easy to photograph, though! Interesting Hub.

stella vadakin from 3460NW 50 St Bell, Fl32619 on September 20, 2014:

Great review as always, and very interesting to follow. My dog is so lazy its walking for her, and if I speed her up she sits down. Stella