Tail docking is the amputation of all or part of an animal’s tail. But a dog’s tail is an integral part of their body, so why on earth would we do it? Well, it turns out that this practice is steeped in history, superstition, tradition and tax evasion! Let’s take a look at the reasons behind the docking of dog’s tails through history and up to the present day.

The practice of tail docking seems to go far back in history at least to the Ancient Greeks

A Greek aristocrat named Alcibiades may have been the first person to cut off a dog’s tail. The story goes that he had an extremely handsome dog which everyone talked about. When people became accustomed to the good looks of his dog and the discussions started to move on to other topics, Alcibiades cut off his dog’s tail in order to draw the conversation and gossip back to himself, as everyone wondered why he would do such a thing!

We also know that the ancient Romans docked their dogs’ tails 

The Romans seem to have believed that if they cut off a dog’s tail and clipped their tongues it would help to prevent rabies. Rabies would have been a terrifying disease and the transmission of rabies would not have been understood at the time. It is likely that any practice believed to reduce this fatal disease would have been readily adopted; even though, of course, it would not have been effective.

Later on, in 17th and 18th century America, superstition was the reason for tail docking in dogs 

The early Puritans believed that dog’s tails were possessed by demons and should  therefore be cut off. Other early Americans thought that if they cut off a dog’s tail and buried it in the yard, the dog would not roam away as it would wish to stay close to its missing body part!

Around the same time in England, a 17th century tax was the main cause

A specific tax on companion dogs (or those kept purely for pleasure) seems to have encouraged the practice of tail docking. Dogs which were not classed as working dogs were considered a luxury subject to tax. So people docked their dogs’ tails to indicate that they were working dogs and therefore not subject to taxation. In this way terriers used for ratting and rabbiting, herding dogs used on farms, and some hunting dogs were docked routinely. Funnily enough, some of the English hunting dogs owned by the rich landowners were not docked. This was a sign of the wealth of their owners as they could afford to pay the extra tax.

It’s the look of the thing…

Hence, over the centuries certain types of dogs were traditionally docked. People came to appreciate the looks of these docked breeds and consider a docked tail to give the “right” appearance. “Breed standards” for many of these working dogs put pressure on breeders and exhibitors at shows to dock their dog’s tails. So the practice continued with the influence of the kennel clubs both here and abroad. And the belief that the practice of tail docking helps to prevent injury when a dog is working. 

As far as the justification of tail docking for working dogs in order to prevent injury we must remember that a “working dog” may have historically been involved in activities such as bear baiting, bull baiting and fighting. The chance of a tail injury during these types of activities may have been quite high. So the docking of the tail perhaps a more reasonable precaution to take. Obviously these illegal activities either no longer, or in the case of dog fighting, should no longer take place.

In present times there are few justifications for the docking of a dog’s tail

The practice is considered generally to be a mutilation and deprives a dog of an integral part of his anatomy. Dogs need their tails for communication, balance and perhaps as a rudder when swimming. The use of the tail for communication seems to be particularly significant.

For example an assertive dog will hold his tail high; a happy dog wishing to play and interact will wag his tail furiously; a frightened submissive dog will tuck his tail between his legs. How can a dog effectively convey this information using only a stump? Due to this inability to communicate properly it seems that some dogs with docked tails may become aggressive because they cannot signal their intent and are misunderstood by other canines.

Tail docking also causes pain and distress when carried out without anaesthesia in young puppies

The procedure is usually carried out surgically using scissors to cut through the skin, muscles, tendons, ligaments, nerves and bone while the poor puppy is fully conscious and aware. Following the procedure there is obviously a risk of infection and complications with wound healing. Some vets may decline to carry out the procedure, even for working dogs, as they have ethical concerns.

So what may be the reasonable justifications for docking a dog’s tail? 

If a young puppy is definitely going to be a working dog and not a pet, the docking of the tail may help to prevent injury in the future. Dogs regularly working through dense undergrowth for example, may be more susceptible to tail injuries which would cause pain, distress and potentially lead to infection and other complications. A breeder wishing to have a puppy’s tail docked should be able to provide strong evidence that the young dog is destined for an active working life.

The only other valid reason for the amputation of a tail is when injury has occurred and the tail is so badly damaged that amputation is necessary in the opinion of a veterinary surgeon. Technically we should really consider this to be a clinical reason. We should call it tail amputation rather than tail docking; since the procedure on an older dog would always take place under general anaesthesia with due consideration for pain relief and the dog’s welfare peri-operatively.

Tail docking should never ever be carried out purely for cosmetic reasons. If you are buying a puppy and will keep it purely as a pet you should try to avoid purchasing a pup with a docked tail. Let those glorious long tails wag on our canine friends!

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