Necessity or Trauma: Why Are Dog’s Tails Docked?
The other day, a friend asked me, “Why are dog's tails docked?” This is a subject that has perplexed me for years, so her question inspired me to dig in and do some serious research. What I learned about dog tail docking will surprise you.
What Is Dog Tail Docking?
It’s not pretty. Dog tail docking involves amputating all or part of the distal area of a dog’s spinal column. The person who does it cuts through skin, muscle, bone and cartilage, usually without pain relief.
Dog tails are generally docked using one of two methods: severing the tail with a (hopefully) sharp object, such as a scalpel or snipers, or “banding” the tail with a ligature to cinch the blood flow until the tail eventually falls off.
In the United States, the length to which a dog’s tail is docked varies by breed and is often prescribed by the American Kennel Club’s “breed standard”. Since roughly a third of purebred dogs are categorized by the American Kennel Club (AKC) as traditionally docked breeds, you only have to walk around the block in America to see a stumpy rump.
The Origins of Tail Docking
In addition to creating a holy empire, ancient Romans gave us the unholy practice of tail docking. Romans believed that cutting a dog’s tail and tongue prevented rabies. They also thought that removing the tail would strengthen the dog’s back and increase its speed to make it better at fighting and baiting.
Over time, the practice continued but the reasons changed. In the seventeenth and early eighteenth century, American Puritans believed that dogs’ tails were possessed by demons and cut them off.
In 18th Century England, the aristocracy owned the land and allowed serfs to farm it. The farmers were taxed on what they produced but not what they used to produce it. By herding, protecting and providing other important functions, working dogs were considered part of the production process.
To distinguish working from non-working pups, the tails of the working dogs were removed. Of course, lots of non-working but tax-avoiding dogs ended up docked too. At that time, hunting and gaming dogs retained their tails and were taxed. As a result, it was a symbol of wealth to have a dog with a full tail.
Modern Reasons For Tail Docking
Many trace the modern reasons for tail docking to a book published in 1891. This Victorian Era tome, The American Book of the Dog edited by G. Shields, proclaimed that docking and cropping certain breeds gave them a “proper look.” In addition to entertainment, the book bolstered the social status of aristocratic dog enthusiasts at a time when only the upper class could read.
This ground-breaking publication, which detailed 45 breeds and had 44 contributors, proudly stated that the aggregate salable value of sporting and pet dogs in the United States amounted to several million dollars.—a princely sum in 1891. Addressing the building popularity of dog competitions, the book was published 14 years after Queen Victoria entered two of her deerhounds into The First Annual Bench Show of Dogs (now known as the Westminster Dog Show) in 1877.
Myths about Why Are Dog's Tails Docked Today
In the 21st century, the primary proponent of tail docking in the United States is the American Kennel Club. Dogs shown in AKC competitions are judged, in part, on how well they conform to the AKC-defined “breed standard.” Docking is included in the standard for more than 60 breeds.
Because breeders anticipate that consumers will want dogs that look like those they see in shows, they dock puppies’ tails when the little guys are 5-12 days old.
More than 750,000 puppies—the population of Alaska—have their tails docked in the United States each year.
While the American Veterinary Medicine Association and the American Animal Hospital Association both strongly oppose tail docking, the practice continues in the United States for a number of reasons…
A key reason given for dog tail docking is that it prevents a dog’s tail from being injured. While amputation to prevent injury is clearly illogical, this is backed up by scientific research confirming that it is, indeed, a regrettable veterinary choice.
A 2010 survey of almost 140,000 dogs in Great Britain (where dog tail docking is illegal), revealed that the risk that a dog would injure its tail in its lifetime was only 0.23 percent. That means 500 dogs would need to be docked to prevent one injury.
And, far more would be required to prevent an injury serious enough to require amputation. This was equally true whether or not the animal was a traditionally docked breed.
Historical Function for the Breed
The American Kennel Club defends tail docking by stating that “tail docking and ear cropping, as prescribed in certain breed standards, are acceptable practices integral to defining and preserving breed character, enhancing good health, and preventing injuries.” While it may make sense to the AKC, many feel that physically altering a purebred dog from its natural state to preserve the breed’s character is faulty logic.
The AKC’s position statement goes on to say that “These breed characteristics are procedures performed to insure the safety of dogs that on a daily basis perform heroic roles with Homeland Security, serve in the U.S. Military and at Police Departments protecting tens of thousands of communities throughout our nation as well as competing in the field.”
However, the vast majority of U.S. military working dogs are German Shepherds, Dutch Shepherds and Belgian Malinois, none of which are docked breeds.  In addition, most American police dogs are German Shepherds.
Some claim that docking a dog’s tail keeps the fringe and poop loop clean. While there is no argument that something that doesn’t exist can’t get dirty, the tail actually provides protection for the pup’s privates.
As a simple alternative, some owners of long-haired dogs, choose to trim or shave the area to keep it clean of fecal material. In a casual poll, 100 out of 100 dogs said they’d prefer to have someone cut their hair rather than their tail.
What one person thinks is beautiful is another person’s horror. Grooming a poodle into a topiary is aesthetic entertainment. However, cutting off an animal’s spinal cord may go far beyond bad taste and well into bad behavior.
Franklin P. Adams, a journalist and member of the Algonquin Round Table once said, “There is no accounting for tastes, as the woman said when someone told her that her son was wanted by the police.”
I recently struck up a conversation with a stranger on a hiking trail. He had a Boxer with a docked tail. Knowing that the man probably didn’t have a say in it because pups are docked so young and, generally, by the breeder, I asked if he would have had the dog’s tail docked if he had had the option. He thought for half a second and replied, “Maybe so,” waving his hand right and left, “it’s just at table height.”
Because this form of amputation has become so normalized, this man and many others give almost no thought to the fact that docking is surgically and permanently removing an essential part of their furry friend.
Since Roman times, dogs have been abused for sport. When the animal is fighting or baiting, a dog’s tail can be a potentially fatal liability. In many countries around the world, including the United States, dog fighting and baiting are illegal. Yet, the American tradition of altering dogs to compete in blood sports continues.
Does Tail Docking Hurt The Dog?
Absolutely! Dog tail docking can cause both short-term and long-term clinical complications.
IMAGE CREDIT: http://www.clarechampion.ie - Getting ready to dock pup's tail,
Ouch!—Acute Physical Pain
Common sense suggests that cutting off a dog’s spinal cord would hurt…and every bit of research conducted on docking proves this true. Some think that docking a puppy when it is just a few days old means that the puppy hardly feels it and that the pain is quickly forgotten. Not so.
Research suggests that because the inhibitory nerve pathways and sheaths around their little nerves are not fully developed, the pain that a puppy feels may actually be more intense than that of an adult dog.
This is increased because puppies’ tails are removed with no anesthetic and usually not by a veterinarian. Although the tiny fur balls stop yelping soon after they’re docked, that doesn’t mean the pain has stopped. As a survival instinct, dogs are inherently more stoic than humans.
No Surgery is Without Risk
Shortly after the puppy’s spine is cut, infection is the major possible complication. Other physical dangers include nerve tumors (neuromas), infected or leaking spinal fluid and death. Additional complications associated with banding include prolonged pain. The pain is even more intense and prolonged if the band is incorrectly placed on the vertebrae instead of in-between.
A Pain in the Pants…Chronic Medical Complications
Having a docked tail can subject a dog to a lifetime of suffering. In addition to possible nerve damage, docking may negatively affect, a dog’s back, anal glands pelvic muscles and other areas. There is even evidence that this traumatic event in the puppy’s perinatal period may affect the development of the dog’s entire central nervous system.
Humans Don’t Have Tails. Why Do Dogs Need Them?
VIDEO: 10 Things You Didn't Know About Dogs' Tails
Healthy Tail, Healthy Dog
Simply put, a dog’s wagger fuels its swagger. A dog’s tail supports his perineal region (back end) and helps him relieve himself. When this important appendage is removed, it can lead to hernias, incontinence and other problems with evacuation. There may even be a connection between tail docking and submissive urination, as well as other behavioral issues.
Look Mom, No Hands
This phrase strikes terror in the hearts of every mother because kids use their hands to steer and maintain balance. A tail is what performs these functions for a dog. In addition to the biological functions of spinal and perineal health, a dog’s tail provides a counter-weight to help them maintain steady footing.
Puppygators also use their tails as rudders to help them steer in the water.
Can You Hear Me Now?...Tail Talk
A crucial function of a dog’s tail is signaling. Tail talk is how dogs communicate not only with humans but with other dogs too. Height, wag speed, flexibility and other factors tell another dog whether the pup is friend or foe, happy or sad. Without a full tail, it’s tough for a dog to gauge whether it is safe to approach a potential fur friend. As a result, an unsuspecting pooch may bounce right into a docked lion’s mouth.
My Dog, Myself…What Your Dog’s Docked Tail Says about You
According to a 2016 study detailed in Psychology Today, “Overall, participants perceived owners of modified dogs as being more aggressive, more narcissistic, less playful, less talkative and less warm than owners of natural dogs.”
They also noted that gender made a difference. “The female owner of a modified dog was perceived by participants as being more aggressive, more dominant, more narcissistic and more competent than the female owner of a natural dog; whereas the male owner of a modified dog was perceived to be more narcissistic, less warm and less competent than the male owner of a natural dog.”,
People assume that your dog’s looks reflect your personality!
Where Is Dog Tail Docking Illegal?
Tail docking is illegal in more than 40 countries worldwide. Including the European Union and the United Kingdom, where many of today’s docked breeds were established.
Why Is Dog Tail Docking Still Legal in The U.S.?
While the United States currently has laws prohibiting docking organic pigs, dog tail docking is completely unrestricted in every American state. It can be performed by anyone and does not require a veterinarian or pain relief.
The tradition is promoted by the American Kennel Club. The club esteems docked tails and determines the breed standards. Those who want to successfully compete in an AKC-affiliated contest conform their animals to AKC standards. With $73 million in revenues in 2016, the American Kennel Club maintains both a Political Action Committee (PAC) and Legislative Affairs Committee and wields this clout to maintain their position of dominance. Because a winning dog can be worth thousands, or even millions, of dollars, breeders and other competitors do not question the AKC and strive to alter their animals to suit the club’s defined standard of perfection.
Many breeders recognize that a nationwide ban on dog tail docking would benefit their businesses by lowering procedure costs and risks to their animals.
However, a primary source of clients is through the American Kennel Club website listings and accolades. So, while some breeders have stopped docking their puppies, most are not inclined to make waves.
Also, breeders assume that consumers want pups that look like the ones they see in magazines and dog shows. Many consumers, on the other hand, don’t know whether a breed’s tail is docked or naturally bobbed (born that way).
One study revealed that only 58% of 469 participants knew that “some dog breeds have part of their ears and tails surgically removed after they are born.”
VIDEO: Should The Practice of Cutting Dogs' Tails and Cropping Ears End?
There have been a number of failed efforts to have dog tail docking banned in specific U.S. states. Both the AKC and breeders fought these challenges and won. Breeders objected because, if only their state outlawed the practice, they would be at a significant disadvantage in national competitions.
In recent times, there has been no coordinated American effort to end this practice nationwide. But a movement is building. Research conducted by The Harris Poll calculated that 95% of pet owners consider their pets members of the family.
And, an American Animal Hospital Association survey of pet owners in the U.S. and Canada, revealed that 93% of pet owners would risk their own life to save their pet. With so much love, compassion can’t be too far behind.
The Tail End of This Tail Tale
As a journalist, I know I’m supposed to end with a noncommittal unbiased conclusion about why are dog's tails docked. But sometimes an avalanche of rational facts can weigh the scales so heavily that it looks like bias.
Over the centuries, tail docking has evolved into a form of normalized cruelty. While it may have been acceptable before there were multitudes of studies proving it otherwise, there is simply no defensible reason for it today.
 This figure was generated using the following sources.
- 1-Number of dogs in U.S.: Number of pets in the United States in 2015/2016, by species (in millions),” Statista, 2015/2016. https://www.statista.com/statistics/198095/pets-in-the-united-states-by-type-in-2008/
- 2-Percentage of dogs from breeders: “Pet Statistics,” ASPCA (APPA) 2015-2016. http://www.aspca.org/animal-homelessness/shelter-intake-and-surrender/pet-statistics
- 3-Popularity of breed: “Breaking News: The Labrador Retriever Wins Top Breed for the 26th Year In a Row,” AKC, Mar. 2017. http://www.akc.org/content/news/articles/the-labrador-retriever-wins-top-breed-for-the-26th-year-in-a-row/
- 4-Docked and cropped breeds: Council of Docked Breeds, 2010. http://www.cdb.org/list.htm