It's pretty obvious that a dog is a quadruped, a sure-footed, four-footed critter with specialized paws that help him get around the block, across the field, and off the sofa. What is not so obvious is just how special those paws really are.
First, a bit of anatomy is in order. A dog walks on his toes like a horse, not the soles of his feet like a bear or a human. The dog's front limb assembly resembles the human arm with shoulder, upper arm, and forearm, but there the direct correlation ends. The human wrist is analogous to the canine pastern joint, the back of the hand is the dog's pastern, and the fingers form the dog's paws.
In back, again the upper part of the dog's body parallels the human leg structure with upper thigh joined to hip at one end and knee at the other and lower thigh leading from knee to heel. The dog's heel doesn't touch the ground, however; it is represented by the hock joint and the human foot becomes the dog's rear pastern, and the human toes are his rear paws.
The dog's paws provide both traction and shock absorption and come in handy for digging. Thick pads absorb more shock and increase endurance. Rough pads allow for better traction for quick turns and effective sprinting.
Each foot has four pads on the ground, each with its own toenail. Some breeds also have dew claws, a fifth toe on the inside of the paw that doesn't touch the ground. Dew claws are generally left on the front feet, but usually removed on the hind feet as they can catch on obstacles and tear. Dew claws are removed when the pup is a few days old, before his nerves are completely active so he feels no pain.
Dog toenails grow as do human fingernails and toenails. The nails should be kept in good trim to avoid scratching when the dog paws at a bare human leg and to keep the dog's structure as sound as possible. Long nails can cause the dog to rock back on his paws, causing strain on his leg assemblies and interfering with his gait.
Sometimes, dog nails grind down if the dog exercises on concrete. Otherwise, the nails should be trimmed regularly. Nail trimmers are available at pet supply stores for the job.
Dog nails have a blood supply or quick but the end of the nails are dead tissue and can be clipped without pain. The trick is to trim as close to the quick as possible without actually cutting it and causing it to bleed. The quick appears as a dark line in white nails but is almost impossible to see in darn nails. The best way to begin trimming is to clip only the sharp, curved portion of the nail and then work back a bit towards the paw. Clip only a small bit at a time to avoid trouble.
The easiest way is to accustom puppies to having their feet handled daily so they'll sit still for this essential part of good grooming. Adult dogs may be more difficult, especially if they hate having their feet handled or have been quicked at some time.
Owners who are willing and able to trim Stranger's nails can get a demonstration of technique from their veterinarian at the puppy check-up visits. Squeamish owners can, of course, make an appointment with the groomer to have Fido's nails clipped.
Although all dog paws are basically the same, some are shaped slightly differently than others. Many breed standards specify "cat feet," which are the result of short third digital bones. These compact feet require less energy to lift, allowing the dog to conserve energy and increase his endurance in the field. Akita, Doberman Pinscher, Giant Schnauzer, Kuvasz, Newfoundland, Airedale Terrier, Bull Terrier, Keeshond, Finnish Spitz, and Old English Sheepdog are among the breeds with catlike, compact feet.
Hare feet are elongated with the two center toes longer than the side toes. Breeds with hare feet include several of the toy breeds, Samoyed, Bedlington Terrier, Skye Terrier, Borzoi, and Greyhound.
Breeds that work in water tend to have webbed feet. Newfoundland, Chesapeake Bay Retriever, Portuguese Water Dog, Field Spaniel, and German Wirehaired Pointer are among the breeds with webbed feet.
Some dogs have lots of hair on their feet and between their toes. Exhibitors usually trim this hair for a neat appearance in the show ring, and pet owners may consider trimming to avoid caking of ice in the hair during the winter months.
The dog's paws and the pasterns work together to absorb the shock of jumping and running and to provide flexibility of movement. However, these body parts are only as good as the dog's total structure, for they bear the burden of poor shoulders and hindquarters as the animal moves. Structural faults such as straight or loose shoulders, straight stifles, loose hips, and lack of balance between the front and rear structure, can all cause gait abnormalities that in turn lead to damage to pasterns and feet.
Purebred dog breeders try to correct poor structure when they breed. Good breeders do not use animals with poor structure in there breeding programs, and they compensate for minor structural faults when choosing a mate for a dog or bitch. Mixed breed dogs are just as susceptible to poor lower limb structure, but there is little chance that such problems can be corrected because mixed breed dogs tend to come from accidental breedings.
Although minor structural problems seldom interfere with enjoyment of a companion dog, understanding the value of tight feet and limber pasterns helps owners understand their pets better. Owners who wish to do some obedience work, hiking, jogging, agility, hunting, or other potentially strenuous activity with their pets should take careful note of limb structure before putting the dog through training.
For more information on paws, pasterns, and structure, dog owners can read:
All are published by Howell Book House. The Complete Dog Book by the American Kennel Club, also published by Howell, contains breed descriptions and standards with descriptions of appropriate foot type for each breed.
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