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Evaluating a Litter (Conformation)

The Chinook is a rare breed and its future is still uncertain. Thus, it's very important for breeders to evaluate their litters and place the best quality puppies in homes that will keep them intact until their breeding potential can be determined. As a general rule, Chinook breeders will place half a litter in breeding homes and the other half in pet homes that agree to spay or neuter the puppies.

With a rare breed, it is critical to evaluate the puppies for both conformation and temperament to make sure that the best quality pups are placed in breeding homes. This pictorial article will demonstrate how the Chinook breed standard is used to evaluate puppies for conformation purposes. We are not experts on litter evaluation, but have learned to look at our puppies with a critical eye and would like to share our experience with you. We continue to rely on experts for final litter evaluations but have found that our evaluations are generally consistent with the experts.

Different breeders do conformation litter evaluations at different times. Some wait until the litter is seven weeks old before conducting an evaluation. Others, like us, evaluate the pups several times over the course of eight weeks, starting at three days, again at two weeks and finally at five or six weeks. The puppies are evaluated against each other, using the Chinook breed standard as the guide. By viewing the puppies against each other, subtle, and sometimes substantial, variations in quality can be seen. This helps the breeder identify the overall best pups in the litter. Puppies with multiple or serious conformatin faults will be placed in pet homes. These faults are often undetectable to the untrained eye, but nonetheless enough to keep a dog out of a breeding program.

When evaluating newborn puppies, it doesn't matter where you start. You're primarily looking at the head (including skull, muzzle, bite and neck), forequarters (front), hindquarters (rear), body, color and coat. You need three people to conduct a litter evaluation, two to hold puppies and one to conduct the evaluation. Your puppy holders have to be patient and not afraid to wrestle with a struggling puppy until the puppy settles down. The evaluator should have a pad of paper to record his/her observations. You choose two puppies and get started. You fully evaluate each pup, bringing back the best pups to evaluate against each other. With a large litter, this means some of the pups will be evaluated several times against different siblings as the pup moves up in the evaluation process.

Here's a sample evaluation of two puppies - the puppies are not identified to protect the future owners from any bad feelings! Overall, the puppies seen below have super conformation as based on the first evaluation and any faults discussed are in relation to the other puppy. Because a fault is noted, does not mean that the puppy has bad conformation! It is serious faults, like those that would affect the workability of the dog (but in no way the quality of life) or multiple faults that would not easily be corrected through selective breeding, that would eliminate a dog from a breeding program. This article will deal with only parts of the Chinook breed standard. To view the entire Official U.K.C. Breed Standard for the Chinook Breed, Northern Group, go to

Head: The head is judged from two positions. First, the puppies are held nose-to-nose to view the length of muzzle, the plains of the skull and muzzle, the stop (this is the slight rise in elevation from the muzzle to the skull), the quality of the muzzle and the arch of the neck. Next, the puppies are held ear-to-ear, with their heads toward the evaluator to view the skull, cheeks and muzzle.

What does the breed standard require?

(1) The length of muzzle should be slightly shorter than the length of skull;|
(2) The skull and muzzle should be parallel to one another when viewed from the side;
(3) The stop should be moderate;
(4) The skull should be broad and slightly domed;
(5) The width of the skull should be approximately equal to the length of the skull from occiput to stop (this means that the skull should form an equilateral triangle);
(6) The cheeks should have a chiseled appearance;
(7) The muzzle should be moderately deep and not pointed, tapering slightly from the base of the nose;
(8) The bridge of the nose should be slightly aquiline (this is what is known as a Roman nose – there should be a slight rise in the muzzle pointing the nose slightly down);
(9) The jaw should not be undershot or have an overbite.


See how the noses appear to taper down at the base? This is the aquiline feature mentioned in the standard, better known as a Roman nose. The pup on the left has the more pronounced Roman nose. Both puppies have muzzles that are shorter than their skulls.These are nice short muzzles that will make a handsome dog. The muzzle on the left is deeper. The pup on the right has a more defined stop, but both are moderate. Both pups have good parallel plains, but the puppy on the left is more parallel.


Both puppies have broad skulls and triangular heads. The puppy on the left has the broader skull while the puppy on the right has the better dome. Both have chiseled checks. A physical examination of the mouth shows normal jaws. While in the end, we do have to say which pup has the better head, they both have very nice heads overall and neither demonstrates a conformation fault.


Body: To evaluate the body, the pups are held in profile for the evaluator, although the chest is evaluated with the puppies being held with their heads toward the evaluator. While the body is in profile, the evaluator should also evaluate the shoulder, which is officially addressed in the forequarter section of the standard, and the stifles, which is part of the hindquarter section. You can also evaluate the reach in this position (something covered by the gait portion of the standard) by having the evaluator gently extend the front paw to full extension (both forward and backward). The puppies should be supported from underneath in both the front in the back and the puppies must be fully relaxed.

What does the breed standard require?

(1) The body should be slightly longer than tall;
(2) The topline of the back is straight;
(3) The chest should be moderately broad and deep, extending nearly to the elbow;
(4) Forequarter: Shoulders: The shoulders should be moderately laid back and the scapula and upper arm should form an angle of about 110 degrees. The legs should be directly under the withers. The shoulder blade and the upper arm are roughly equal in length;
(5) Hindquarter: Stifles: The stifles are moderately angulated;
(6) Gait: When the front leg is fully extended, the foot should reach to a perpendicular line drawn from the center of the chin to the ground.



As you can see, both dogs are longer than they are tall. What is not noticeable from the photos is that the pup on the left has longer legs and is longer in the body. It is very hard to measure chests at this age, as the breed is slow maturing and chests seem to develop late. However, you can see that the chests appear normal (you would notice a concave chest or other defect). The legs are appropriately position and you can see that the shoulder blades and upper arm are equal in length. Both pups show appropriate angulation in the front and rear. What cannot be seen in the photos and what is the most significant distinction in conformation between these two pups is their reach. The puppy on the left has greater reach and flexibility than the pup on the right.

Forequarters (front): To evaluate the front, the pups are held with one hand under the puppy totally supporting the body (being careful not to spread the chest in any way) and the other hand under the puppy's head, holding the front weight of the pup carefully by its head. The evaluator must wait until the puppies are fully relaxed, with their front legs hanging limply. This allows the evaluator to judge whether the front legs are straight and the elbows are well positioned on the body.

What does the breed standard require?

(1) The forelegs should be straight, with strong, moderately sloping pasterns and moderate bone;
(2) Elbows are neither close to the body nor out but are set on a plain parallel to the body;
(3) The pastern should rotate slightly, causing the dog to tow out not more than 10 degrees.


  Both pups have straight fronts with great bone. While they both have broad chests, the pup on the left has the broadest chest. Neither pup has elbows that are too close to the body or out. The pup on the right appears to toe in a bit more than the pup on the left, suggesting that his elbows may be a bit close, but this is more pronounced because of how he is being held. This was not noted during evaluation.

If elbows are too close or pushed out, you can see it very clearly by holding the pup in this way. The toes are too close together or are very far apart. This affects the way the dog moves and his efficiency. This would likely be considered a serious fault and the pup would be placed as a pet.

Can you see the 10 degree rotation at the pasterns (bottom part of the foot)?

Hindquarters (rear): Puppies are held with their rears toward the evaluator. The puppies are supported with one hand under the body and the tail should be held up with the other hand. Again, the puppies must be fully relaxed with their legs hanging straight down before the evaluation can move forward. To evaluate length of hocks, the pup's hind lower legs (hocks) should be measured against one another.

What does the breed standard require?

(1) The rear legs should be moderately spaced and parallel;
(2) Hocks are well let down and parallel to each other.


  Both pups have straight rears with good spacing. Their hocks are not too long and are parallel. The pup on the left has slightly longer hocks. Hocks that are too long can affect the structure of a dog, so you want to make sure that they are proportional.

If a dog were too close in the rear, in other words did not have adequate spacing, this could result in the rear paws touching when the dog works. This makes the dog compensate for the problem, making them an inefficient worker. Again, a dog with this attribute would be placed as a pet.

Coats and colors: Coats and coloration are hard to evaluate early on and they have less to do with the structure of the dog. Long coats don't appear until the pups are seven or eight weeks old, and even then, it's hard to judge if the coat will be long or just thick. However, simply by feeling a newborn's coat, you can tell if it's double coated and thick. Chinook puppies are born much darker than they will appear at maturity. The only exception to this is buff puppies, which actually seem to darken with age. If puppies are born with very black muzzles, they can lose them entirely by ten weeks. Generally, the color that is on the top of the puppy's head will be the color at maturity. Also, if you can see tawny color under the black mask, the puppy will likely lose the mask. The only color disqualification is white. Any color other than tawny, including black and tan, is a fault. In an otherwise well-conformed litter of puppies, puppies with long coats or faulted coloration might be placed in pet homes, even if they have good conformation.

Conformation is only one aspect of determining a dog's suitability for breeding. Temperament and health are the other two very important parts of the equation. If a puppy is well conformed, good-natured and otherwise healthy, the Chinook puppy will likely be placed in a home that agrees to not spay or neuter the dog until its suitability for breeding can be determined. A final determination on the dog's suitability for breeding cannot be determined before two years of age. This determination will depend upon a successful hip and eye examination of the individual dog, the health and temperament of the individual dog, the dog's conformation at maturity and the overall health and temperament of the litter. Because the overall health and temperament of the litter is a key component to moving a line forward, breeders generally require all owners to evaluate hips and eyes and to report health and temperament issues.  

These pups struggle briefly when turned on their backs, but submit quickly and relax, indicating an even temperament.

While there might be 10,000 available breeding Labrador Retrievers in the U.S., there are only a small number of breeding Chinooks (likely less than 200) in the world. This puts a lot of pressure on breeders to make good placement decisions for their breeding quality pups. Once a breeder determines the quality of a pup, it is critical for new puppy owners to honor their commitment to the breeder, whether they receive a breeding or pet quality pup.

Dogs with conformation defects should not be reproduced and are placed as pets for a reason. No matter how much you love your dog and think s/he's the best Chinook in the world, there is a reason s/he's been placed as a pet and should be spayed or neutered. The new owner should not seek other opinions on the suitability of the pet for breeding, but should trust the decision of breeder. If you ever have questions about this, you should contact the breeder to have a discussion about why your pet shouldn't be bred.

In the same way, if a dog is determined to have breeding potential, the breeder trusts you with a critical component of the future of the Chinook breed. If you have trouble with your intact pet, contact the breeder to discuss options, but never make the decision to spay or neuter on your own. This does irreversible damage to the breed as a whole. Keeping these issues in mind, a Chinook owner should carefully consider what commitment s/he is ready to make in relation to breeding or not breeding prior to obtaining a puppy.

Finally, litter evaluations for conformation are not the end of the story. Before a Chinook is bred, s/he should be evaluated several times by independent sources. While this is most easily done by participation in dog shows, this is not the only way for an owner to secure valuable feedback about the conformation of their mature breedable Chinook. There are U.K.C. Judges and Chinook breeders all over the country. If you're working toward breeding your Chinook, find a few of these recourses and ask them to take a few minutes to evaluate your dog. Information on U.K.C. Judges is published by the U.K.C. in Bloodlines and on its website at and on Chinook breeders at Folks seem genuinely happy to offer advice. Remember, it's ok if your breeding quality Chinook has a fault or two - no dog is perfect! However, you need to know about the fault, so that you can choose a mate who will help correct the faults you see.

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