Canine Anatomy

January 21, 2023

We all love to know everything we can about our dogs, what they like, why they behave in certain ways and what they understand. Basic knowledge of their anatomy as a dog owner is also valuable. The easiest way to start learning is to take photos of your dog in a neutral standing posture, as you can spend as much time as you need getting to know what to look at. Once you are confident doing this, assessing your dog walking can be very interesting. You can do this by taking a video of them walking. When you look at a video, pick one area to watch at a time, for example, the movement of the head so that you can focus. Once you have watched each area, rewatch again, looking at the overall motion and observing the activity as a whole.

"They have legs and arms just like us but can walk on their arms"

In many ways, a dog's anatomy is very similar to a human's. However, the body has a different orientation so it can move on all four limbs; therefore, they will have some small anatomical and functional variations.

Interestingly they aren't four-legged. They have legs and arms just like us but can walk on their arms. They also walk on four tip toes and fingertips whilst the fifth digit is higher as a residual claw called the dew claw. You must be careful, as it can get caught and ripped. In some sporting breeds, these are removed as their activity highly increases the risks of this injury occurring.

Get to know your own dog

Starting with observation, have your dog standing with all paws on the ground, looking forward. It may be easier to take photos from the front, both sides and the back as you can zoom in and take your time, as getting your dog to stand still for long periods is often challenging. To get an accurate idea of any posture abnormalities, it's good to assess your dog a few times to check it's not just a momentary posture or the way the photo was taken. If you notice posture imbalances, it could be helpful for a trained canine therapist to assess them.

Looking at your dog from the front, you will see the head, front of shoulders, chest, elbows, wrists and paws. You can see if the shoulders are at a varying level, do the elbows or paws flare in or out? Does one side of the body flare out to the side more than the other? When you look at your dog from the side, look at both sides. This can show you if there is a difference, indicating postural imbalances. From the side, you can see the head, neck, shoulders, elbows, wrists, spine and top line, chest and ribs, abdomen, hips and pelvis, tail position, stifle (knee), hock (ankle) and paws. What's great about looking at your dog from the side is seeing so much about its posture and identifying its anatomical landmarks. You can see if their body weight is shifted too far forward or if their back or tummy drops down too much.

From the back, you can see the back of the side of the ribs, the hips, pelvis and glutes, hamstrings, back of the stifle (knee), hocks (ankles) and paws. You can also see the tail's position, whether one side of the body is more visible than the other and the back of the skull.

Feeling anatomical landmarks

Always keep your hands soft and gentle when trying to find anatomical landmarks on your dog. Your nerves are more sensitive and can pick more stuff up than when your hands are hard, and you use force. Additionally, it becomes stressful and uncomfortable for your doggy too. The easiest parts to feel are the bony parts, so here are some significant areas to start with.


Like us, your dog has bony protuberances on the back of its spine called spinous processes. You can feel these little bony points if you use your fingers to gently feel along the midline of their back.


On a dog who is a healthy weight, you should be able to feel the ribs relatively easily. When you have found a spinous process using the instructions above, if you drop your hand to the side and onto the chest, you will feel the ribs. In between the ribs, you can feel the muscles in between called the external intercostal muscles. These muscles are used to move the ribs during heavier breathing.


At the back end of the spine, you come to the pelvis. It can be challenging to feel the bony points on the pelvis, as many dogs have a lot of muscle sitting over it. If you travel your hands up the bones of the top of the leg (femur), you come to the hip joint. Above this, there are big muscles called the Gluteal muscles. These cover the hip joint itself, so you won't feel it unless the leg moves. As you reach the top of these muscles, you reach the flattened area that connects the pelvis. The bone here is the sacrum, a triangular bone that is actually three spinal bones that are fused together and the pelvic ring is attached to this to form the two sacroiliac joints.


The dog's hock is the same as our ankle. You can easily see the strong tendons at the back, similar to our Achilles tendon. You will notice that their 'foot' does not flatten on the floor but looks like part of the leg. The bony part at the back of the hock is the heel or Calcaneus bone, which can be easily felt.


Still, on the front leg, slide your hand down from the shoulder blade so you are on the arm and keep sliding down the bone (this is the humerus) until you come to the next joint. This is the elbow; you can gently flex and extend it to feel the movement. It flexes (folds) fully but only extends (straightens) until the arm is straight. As you bend the elbow slightly, you can feel the hard pointy bone at the back. This is an area called the olecranon. It is the same as our funny bone. Muscles such as the triceps attach to it and help with joint movement. At the front of the elbow is where the biceps attach. Interestingly, in anatomical terms, the dog's elbow is called its knee!

Shoulder blade

If you run your hand up the front leg to the top and onto your dog's body, you should feel the shoulder blade under your hand. It is on the body at an angle and has a bony line (called the spine of scapula) down the middle. The bone is oval and is held onto the ribs by muscles and ligaments. It has powerful muscles attached to it for support and movement. If you can feel the spine of the scapula, then let your fingers drop forward towards the dog's head, and you will be on a muscle called the Supraspinatus. If you drift your fingers back to the spine and drop off the other side, you are on the Infraspinatus. These muscles are also attached to the upper part of the limb and are used in limb movement.


The stifle is the name given to the joint that corresponds to the human knee. It is where the femur (upper leg), the tibia, and the fibula (lower leg) meet. Movement of this joint is powered by the incredibly strong hamstrings and quadriceps muscle groups that sit on either side of the upper leg and attach from the pelvis to below the stifle on the lower leg. You can feel these muscles on the back and front of the upper leg, respectively.

The Patella

The patella (knee cap) is a bone that helps reduce friction during muscle movement and improves the function of the quadriceps muscles of the front of the upper leg. It sits in the tendon of the muscles (the tendon is the bit of the muscle that doesn't contract and attaches to the bone) to keep the tendon gliding across the bone correctly. The patella can be felt in the muscle just above the front of the stifle joint.

So as you can see, there is a lot you can see or feel in your dog! If you feel any part and it hurts or your dog looks asymmetrical, I recommend speaking to your vet, and I am sure they will be impressed by all your anatomical knowledge.

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