We are all aware that some breeds, like the Australian shepherd, Rottweiler, Doberman, and the Viszla, have a tradition and/or standard of either a docked tail, cropped ears, or both. Recently, as more and more pet parents have begun to question whether we should do these alterations. And, in some places, such as many countries in Europe, they have already banned the procedures.
But there are those who say the alterations serve a purpose other than looks, and that they are thinking of the welfare of the dog by doing them. This article is here to educate our readers on both sides of this emotionally charged debate.
History of Alteration
Like most things that are controversial, the history on docking and cropping has become almost myth. If you ask any dog owner you meet on the street, you will hear things like people crop ears to make them appear “mean,” “to show they are a fighting dog,” or they dock tails because it enhances the “look” of the dog.
However, regardless of whether you agree with it or not, tail docking and ear cropping actually have their roots in ancient times and in function, not fashion.
The docking of tails began because working dogs (sporting or herding) where found to have an unusually high rate of injuries to this appendage in their daily lives. For example, Australian shepherds oftentimes suffered broken tails because they would be steps on by cows. Sporting dogs with tails often ended up with injuries from getting caught in thickets and underbrush while chasing game.
Ear cropping is a bit more of an enigma. Certainly the argument that it’s just for making the dog look more scary and intimating sounds legit. After all, the breeds that have this done are usually used for guarding or, in ancient times, games such as bear baiting. However, there is more to it than that. Traditionally, ears were cropped on dogs that were going to be used for a type of sport (like bear baiting or dog fighting) where their ears may have been bitten by the other animal.
Most dogs today, regardless of breed, are not being used for work. Whether they were bred for herding cattle or sheep, flushing fowls, or fighting off predators, most of them live in warm houses and spend their days at the park or doggy daycare.
Does that mean docking and cropping no longer have any place in our society?
On the one side, let’s look at the Hungarian Vizsla as an example. They are a hunter, pointer and retriever which traditionally has 1/3 of the tail docked. While the remaining 2/3 is strong, the part that is docked is thin and whip-like and is open to damage in the field. The Vizsla holds its tail horizontal to the ground and wags it forcefully while charging through rough scrub and undergrowth.
Elizabeth Vagnoni, owner of Vagnoni Vizslas explains that, “The unprotected tip is docked to keep it from splitting and bleeding. Once damaged, the tail is extremely difficult to heal, sometimes requiring amputation later in life when the dog must be placed under general anesthetic causing undue stress and pain.”
Even if your dog is not being used for sport, Vagnoni’s vet has told her stories about how breeds with this type of tail often wag them so hard that they spilt them on a corner or furniture and they develop something called “Happy Tail.”
“The tail doesn’t have a lot of blood circulation and will often develop an infection and must be amputated,” Vagnoni said, “My vet says it’s awful when the dog splits their tail and wags it forcefully — blood flies all over the place.” She adds that she does not believe in cosmetic docking, but that some breeds need it to avoid an even more painful problem later on.
It is for this very reason, in fact, that gamekeepers in Scotland are asking for a LIFT on the ban of tail docking, due to the large number of injuries being sustained by sporting dogs with intact tails. However, they are asking that the ban only be lifted for dogs that are actually being used for a sport, and not just family pets. England, Northern Ireland, and Wales have similar exemptions in their alteration laws.
Ear cropping is done on breeds that are prone to infections in the ears, because it allows more air to get into the ear canal and makes cleaning them easier, thus saving the dog from painful ear problems and possible surgical procedures later on.
And, what could be considered the weakest argument, many believe the traditions should be kept up because they are the breed standard and part of what makes that breed that breed.
On the other side, let’s look at the bully breeds, commonly clumped together and referred to as “pit bulls.” The illegal dog fighting rings have made ear cropping a sign of their trade. While there is an underlying function (it does save these poor animals the risk of having an ear bitten off), they tend to crop ears because it makes the dog look “meaner” not because they really care about the dog. We know this because not only are the dogs treated poorly otherwise, but because of how they crop them. Most fighting dogs have their ears cropped by their owner or the owner’s friend, not a vet, in their house, with ordinary household scissors. Not only is this cruel, but it can cause all kinds of complications that far outweigh any benefit the poor dog might get in the ring. This alone is a good reason to make cropping illegal.
And because most of our sporting and herding dogs are not out doing those things, it is easy to see why tail docking should just be abolished. After all, if your Aussie is not out chasing cattle, he is at no greater risk of breaking his tail than any other dog with a tail. Is it really necessary to do a procedure because of the “chance” of complication later one, such as the aforementioned “happy tail”? Humans do not take tonsils out of babies in the off chance they will become painful and inflamed later on, so why do the same thing to our dogs?
Aside from being an “unnecessary” procedure, many against alterations cite the methods used as part of the problem. Puppies have alternations done when they are really young, just 2-5 days old, without anesthesia.
This is not an issue that is going to go away quietly. When emotions and traditions are involved, there is always heated arguments and staunch support. We need to look at the other person’s side, however, and try to come up with the solution that is not best for us, but best for our canine partners who trust us to do what’s best for them.
About the Author
Based in Tustin, Calif., animal lover Kristina N. Lotz is a Certified Professional Dog Trainer – Knowledge Assessed (CPDT-KA) and works as a full time trainer. She also owns her own custom pet products company, A Fairytail House