The Skeleton in EVERYONES Closet .The Hitcher
(This article was published in the Show Beagle Quarterly June 2006 and reprinted here with permission.Reproduction of any of this article is forbidden without additional permission from the Show Beagle Quarterly)
If you think that you've never had a I hitcher in your back yard, there are four possible explanations: 1) you've not had enough dogs for enough years to have had one turn up, 2) you've not spent enough time out there just watching your Beagles trot around on their own so you've missed it, 3) you simply don't know what hitching is, or 4) you are the luckiest breeder in the history of Beagles.
In other words, it's just a matter of time before you see one of your dogs do the dreaded skippy-hitchie thing!
What is it?
Some people call it skipping, others call it hitching. It's the same thing. There is a skip in the rhythm of the trot in the rear. Sometimes it's only very occasional, sometimes it's almost an integral part of that dog's normal trotting rhythm, and sometimes it's fairly frequent but utterly unpredictable. But, it is a definite skip or hop in the rear on one leg or the other. The dog skips a step, just as a child skips from one foot to the other while singing "a tisket a tasket."
Is it lameness or is it not?
If you define soundness as simply the absence of lameness, and if you define lameness as movement which indicates pain or injury, then technically it's not a form of lameness since hitching does not seem to impede the dog's ability to do anything required in the ordinary course of the day. It doesn't seem to bother the dog one little bit! Most hitchers, run, play, hunt, leap, jump, climb and carry on along with everyone else.
But, it is certainly not a demonstration of utter soundness, either! Some judges will forgive the occasional hitch, others will immediately put a dog at the end of the line for one skip. Some judges will forgive it to a greater extent if they think the dog in question is outstanding otherwise. So, even among judges, the jury is still out on whether hitching is genuine lameness or not.
Only occasionally will a judge excuse a dog for lameness based on hitching. That dog usually hitches frequently and often the judge will work with the handler, give the dog several chances to move properly and very occasionally even take the dog's lead himself before he makes the enormous decision to excuse it.
One form of hitching is so common that it is overlooked almost every time. The transitional hitch occurs when a dog is going from one speed to another; from one rhythm of gait to another. A dog who hitches one step when going from a canter to a trot is adjusting his movement from a three-beat to a two-beat gait. The same can, and often does, apply in the show ring when a dog is moving from a walk - a four-beat gait - to the two-beat trot. This happens when first stepping out or when adjusting his balance having slowed to turn at the end of the down-and-back. Is that lameness? Or is it just a matter of getting organized?
Why do only some dogs do it?
There are actually some similarities between hitchers, but they're varied, and seldom is any one common characteristic found in every hitcher.
One of the popular opinions is that hitching is a symptom of slipping stifles. This is often true in other breeds, but historically, in Beagles, such is not the case. Luxating stifles is fairly easy to diagnose. Upon examination, they either do it or they don't. Either the construction of the stifle is conducive to it, or it isn't. (By the same token, a torn or pulled stifle ligament will certainly result in hitching, so occasionally - and we're talking about Beagles, here - it is a symptom of stifle injury, and hence lameness.) In general, Beagles don't seem to be as given to slipping stifles as some other breeds, and so the automatic assumption that that is the cause of hitching does not usually apply to Beagles.
Does it have to do with rear angulation? Perhaps. But, more likely it has to do with overall rear construction, not just angulation. Many breeds with steep rears are known to easily injure their stifles. Is it a steepness problem, then? Perhaps, but that's not a predictable common denominator since some of the most consistent hitchers seem to be deeply angled in rear. But, dramatic rear angulation doesn't predict a hitcher every time, either.
This problem has haunted our breed for eons. Nobody has really come up with any definitive answers, but some of the old-timers in Beagles have concluded that hitching in Beagles is most often caused by just the opposite of loose, slipping ligaments. It's caused by overtight ligaments. And, if you study the various individual hitchers out there, this hypothesis seems to carry some water. Many of them, particularly when you put hands on them, seem to be physically tightly wound, despite differences in conformation.
Another fairly common feature in a hitcher is being high in rear. But, that doesn't mean that yon have a hitcher coming down the pike every time, either. What it often means is that the dog can't get his rear under himself easily and occasionally has to hitch t0 catch up to his mine forward moving front assembly.
Maybe it's all about balance. Sometimes, when from and rear angles are very poorly matched, the Beagle can simply never get himself on a solid rhythm at the trot. He is constantly compensating for the front working at a different rate than the rear, and he adjusts the synchronization with a hitch.
Can you predict it?
Hitching generally begins to appear at about six months to a year old. Sometimes it turns up much later, and in males, it tends to appear earlier than in females. For the most part it gets worse with age. A young dog who has been regularly hitching in transition from the age of six months, will almost certainly worsen and may be troublesome to show before he's a year old.
Sometimes the overall way of going is a predictor. Some young dogs who move with less freedom than you'll like, become hitchers.
One of the best tools for predicting whether you have a potential hitchers is looking at the pedigree. Hitching is oddly progenic, despite there being so few measurable physical commonalities. If you have several hitchers in the pedigree, you have a much better chance of having a true hitcher in the backyard than if you don't have hitchers in your pedigree. As is true with many genetic problems, an affected bred to an unaffected (and this is assuming there is no genuine "hitching gene") will produce 25 percent affects. This is a grossly simplified observation, but it tends to hold true.
Bear in mind every Beagle hitches once in a while. The occasional skip does not a genuine hitcher make. You need not panic if you see your current special hitch every once in a while out in the back yard. This does not mean he's headed down the road to obscurity.
Can it be corrected?
Some of the very most committed backyard hitchers never take a wrong step in the ring. This is probably because just being organized on the lead makes it easier for them to gait in an efficient, rhythmic fashion.
Some handlers have found tread mill work to be helpful for the same reason. By mechanically forcing the dog into an efficient rhythm, better habits and better use of his body develop and the hitching can sometimes be alleviated.
There are other dogs who hitch only when in the ring or under emotional stress. These are harder to work with, since the environment where you can least tolerate hitching is the very one which causes it. Emotional tension causes the physical tension, so now you're pretty well sunk! You probably don't want to submit such a dog to the show ring, anyway! Right?
Should I breed a hitcher?
Avoiding breeding hitchers altogether is just about impossible. If all hitchers were automatically neutered, in no time at all, the gene pool would be dangerously reduced. And since it doesn't reduce quality of life or overall health much, if at all, overreaction is unnecessary.
The solution lies in communication. If you can't possibly find out how many hitchers are behind the stud dog you're considering for your otherwise lovely bitch who hitches occasionally, then you are almost sure to produce more hitchers than you would like.
And the chances are you will not find out how many hitchers are back there. Because, let's face it, none of us has ever had a hitcher, have we? Not you, not me, not the winningest show breeder of all time, and not the guy down the highway with a pack of FC stock or the gal with the two pets she breeds annually.
Hitching is a problem in our breed. Not in my backyard, not in your backyard, but in everyone's back yard. We need to communicate. We need to do our best to reduce the numbers of hitchers by careful consideration of matings based on facts, not appearances. We need to tell the truth, and we need to ask for the truth. Otherwise, we're all just skipping along singing "a tisket a tasket."