“Spanning” a chest. Do you know what that means?

Most dog owners who aren’t terrier fanciers haven’t a clue what “spanning” is, let along how to do it – or why.

Even if you don’t show your terrier, you should know why terriers who “go to ground” are “spanned” by a dog show judge.

At least three terrier breeds we can think of (the Jack Russell Terrier, Parson Russell Terrier and Border Terrier) have to be able to function as a working terrier in order to meet their breed standards. This means being able to work within the tight fit of a tunnel. There was a time when terriers who couldn’t work were useless to their owners.

Old terrier men used to put their hands around a dog’s chest not only to determine their dog’s chest shape, but to see whether or not their terrier could squeeze through a fox hole (see photo). This is called “spanning,” and show judges are still expected to know how to “span” certain terriers today. Why?

Because a terrier’s chest is the determining factor as to whether she can follow her quarry underground or not. We may no longer depend upon terriers to control vermin on our farms, but purebred dogs should still be able to do the job for which they were bred. All the heart and determination in the world won’t enable a terrier to go after vermin in a tight burrow if her chest is too big or the wrong shape.

Put simplistically (very simplistically), a round chested (or barrel ribbed) dog won’t fit in a tunnel. A dog with a flatter rib cage (or “slab sided) has a chest that’s more flexible and compressible, but the increased distance from the point of her withers to the middle of her chest makes it hard to maneuver in the tunnel which will seriously impact where she can go underground; it will decide if she can reach the vermin, or even if she can get back out of the hole again.

We defer to terrier experts on the intricacies of “spanning” a dog, but the “See Spot Run” explanation follows:

Put your hands around your terrier’s chest just behind his elbows (the dog is facing away from you) and gently lift his front feet making sure his back feet are still on the ground. Confirm that your middle fingers are just touching, and test to see whether or not your thumbs meet. You should also be in a good position to feel the chest’s shape and “give” (flexibility). And yes, the size of your hand makes a difference. Terrier people, you want to take this one?

There’s a very nice diagram at which is also where we also found this photograph.

11 thoughts on “Spanning”

  1. I wear an 8 1/2″ glove. If my thumbs do not overlap to some degree when spanning a terrier, I would consider that chest to be too large.

    • Well said Yvonne. Most of our conformation judges may follow the correct procedure but have no clue as to the result and meaning of their effort. You’ve added another method of gauging suitability along with the DVD and soda bottle. Thanks for the education!

    • And you raise an excellent point, Yvonne. We all have different sized hands, of course, but we can determine how our hands “fit” when we’ve found a dog that we believe is appropriate. From there, it’s easy.

  2. Yes, spanned by a man’s hand not a woman. Plus 99.9% of the show dogs never ever work and will never work. Where as 99% of terriers originally worked.

    • Are you saying that 99% of terriers originally worked even if they are show dogs, Charmaine? Or that regardless of breed, 99.9% of show dogs never work (and never did?). We’re a little confused – not hard to be before finishing that first cup of morning coffee….

  3. I disagree Charmaine. In the Jack Russell Terrier Club of America our dogs go from the confirmation ring to the Hunt field and vice versa. They do it all-no table top Terriers in our club. Our dogs work….and love every second of it!

  4. I show and breed Silky Terriers. One show my bitch won a 4 point major and went straight to Earthdog competition an received a leg towards her title. I was more proud of the leg than the major.

    • It’s understandable why you are more proud of the performance leg, Kathy, but to us, it’s not a surprise that a dog who has the conformation needed to earn a 4 point major would go on to earn an earthdog leg. A well built dog can do both! Well done to both of you!

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