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Lead Changes in the Dog

Symmetrical Dog Gaits:

Dog gaits can be divided into symmetrical and asymmetrical gaits.  In symmetrical gaits, such as the walk, trot and pace, the left legs move with exactly the same timing and footfall order as do the right legs. To put it another way, in the trot and pace the left legs move and then the right legs move in exactly the same way.  There is no leading leg in symmetrical gaits.

An excellent web page with animations and footfalls of the various dog gaits can be found at the University of Minnesota Veterinary College web site.


Symmetrical Gait:  Janelle Trotting

The position of the left legs in the first photo is the same as the position of the right legs in the second photo.
The position of the right legs in the first photo is the same as the position of  the left legs in the second photo.


Asymmetrical Dog Gaits:

In asymmetrical gaits, which are the canter and gallop, the rear legs move and then the front legs move. The movement and timing patterns of footfalls are different on the left and right.  Dogs can do both a rotary and a transverse gallop, which differ in the pattern of the footfalls.  The rotary gallop is the faster of the two.  Refer back to the University of Minnesota Veterinary College web site for the footfalls and animations of canters and gallops.


Asymmetrical Gait: Galloping

The positions of the left legs will never be repeated in the right legs–until the dog changes leads.
Every gallop in the dog has at least one period of suspension with all four legs off the ground.
This occurs when all four legs are collected under the dog.

Sally demonstrates her first (and possibly only) suspension period in the gallop, while running across the agility dog walk.

Asymmetrical Gait: Double Suspension Gallop

A properly motivated, well-built Sheltie is perfectly capable of a double suspension gallop,
with the second suspension period coming when the dog's legs are in full extension.

Janelle, above, demonstrates proper motivation for the fast-paced double suspension gallop, on her right lead.  The second period of suspension, shown above, occurs when the legs are extended.


Asymmetrical Gait: The Lead Leg

In the canter and gallop, the dog can run with his footfalls in either of two mirror images, referred to as the right and left leads. The leading leg is whichever front leg reaches the farthest forward. The lead leg bears the dog’s weight longer that does the opposite foreleg.


Asymmetrical Gait: Bret On His Left And Right Leads

The two leads have footfall patterns which are mirror images of each other.
Bret is slightly farther along in his stride in the left lead photo than in the right lead photo.

 The Left Lead

When the dog is on the left lead, the right foreleg hits the ground before the left foreleg.  The left foreleg hits the ground in front of the right foreleg.

 The Right Lead

When the dog is on the right lead, the left foreleg hits the ground before the right foreleg.  The right foreleg hits the ground in front of the left foreleg.

Video won't load?  See it on YouTube

Video won't load?  See it on YouTube


When Does Lead Matter?

On a straight run, the dog may use either lead, and may change leads in mid-stride. Many dogs have a preference for one lead over the other. When the dog is running in a curve or circle, it is important that he or she use the correct lead, and most will do so automatically. The inside lead on a curve will be the most effective and balanced way for him or her to run. In general, the dog will run on the right lead when going clockwise, and on the left lead when going counterclockwise.

Lead doesn't matter when the dog is running straight.
The video Slow Motion Dog Run  on YouTube shows a dog running
a double suspension gallop in slow motion on a straight course.
He switches from right to left lead about two thirds of the way through the video.
Can you see the switch?

Clockwise on the Right Lead
Counterclockwise On The Left Lead


Switching Leads:

Dressage horses learn to change leads in response to leg and rein cues from a rider. Dogs learn to change leads in response to verbal cues and the handler’s body language.  Most dogs have a preferred lead, but learn to switch leads on cue.

In sheep herding, the cues will be the “Come by (or “Go by”) and “Away to me” commands.  In agility, the verbal cues will be “Turn” or “Switch”, and more importantly, the body English that tells the dog where the handler is heading next.  The musher uses “Gee” and “Haw”.  In general, commands that signal right or left turns will cue the dog to switch leads if he is not already on the correct lead for the upcoming curve.

Video won't load?  See it on YouTube


When the Left Lead is Right and the Right Lead is Wrong:

A dog who is trying to circling sheep on the wrong lead is likely to spin out away from the stock, a big no-no in sheep herding. An agility dog on the wrong lead is far more likely to knock down a jump bar, to back jump, to spin as she lands after a jump, or to take an incorrect obstacle. An obedience dog who goes over a jump on her right lead for a dumbbell on her left is more likely to spin or curve around before she goes to the dumbbell.

Reasons for the dog being on the wrong lead include:

  • Handler miscue.
  • Inexperienced dog misreads a cue.
  • Distracted dog fails to see the cue.
  • Strongly left or right handed dog fails to respond to the cue.
  • Subtle lameness that makes one of the leads uncomfortable or painful.

Is Dustin On The Wrong Lead?

He certainly appears to be!  He looks like he's trying to head counter-clockwise on that right lead.  He was much younger and less experienced then, and could have been late with a lead switch. This was also his first run after a knee injury several months earlier. And it's possible that I had cued him a switch and he's about to turn to his right (and just happens to be watching the photographer). But if he continues on the counterclockwise curve, he will switch leads in the next stride.


Video won't load?  See it on YouTube


A Bibliography of Dog Movement:



  • Animals In Motion, Eadweard Muybridge, 1957, Dover Publications.  Available from Amazon.  This contains a selection of plates from the eleven volume work, Animal Locomotion, published in 1887.  These were the first rapid series still photographs of moving animals.
  • Dog Locomotion and Gait Analysis, Curtis M Brown, 1986, Hoflin Publishing Company. Available from Dogwise.  A comprehensive and technical look at the gaits of the dog, and their variations among breeds.
  • Dogsteps - A New Look, 3rd Edition, Rachel Page Elliott, 2009, Fancy Publications.  Available from Dogwise. Revised edition of a classic book on the evaluation of movement and gait designed for dog fanciers.
  • How Mammals Run: Anatomical Adaptations, P. P. Gambaryan, Transl. from Russian by Hilary Hardin, 1984, John Wiley & Sons.  Out of print, expensive and near impossible to find, except in a library.


  • Dogsteps - What To Look For In A Dog, DVD, Rachel Page Elliott, 2005, Dogwise Publishing.  Available from Dogwise. The companion to the book, the DVD includes anatomical diagrams and film clips of still and moving x-rays showing bone and joint motion inside the dog. The DVD emphasizes sound structure and shows how serious deviations may affect efficiency and endurance.

Web Sites:

  • Gait Foot-Fall Patterns - University of Minnesota College of Veterinary Medicine. This site has animated gait and footfalls, with a good description of each gait.
  • Normal and Abnormal Gait - University of Pennsylvania School of Veterinary Medicine.  This site has good descriptions of each dog gait along with drawing showing each phase of a particular gait.
  • Eadweard Muybridge’s Canine Locomotion - The Bark.  Photos of dogs moving from Muybridge's 19th century sequential photographs of animal moving.


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