The docking of dogs tails is a practice which has been carried out for centuries in order to avoid tail damage, for hygiene and other reasons. Today there are over fifty traditionally docked breeds which are recognised by various Kennel Clubs.
But docking has, in recent years, come under the scrutiny of the veterinary establishment, which has condemned the practice as an "unjustified mutilation".
Breeders, dog owners and many veterinary surgeons disagree with this view. They believe that if docking ceased, dogs would suffer.
Docking, they say, is a perfectly humane procedure when properly carried out, and one, which prevents far more distress than it causes. It is, like neutering, simply a practical animal management technique which should remain available to dog breeders and owners.
Tail docking has historically been undertaken largely by dog breeders. However, in 1991, the UK government amended the Veterinary Surgeons Act, thereby prohibiting the docking of dog's tails by lay persons from 1 July 1993. Now, only veterinary surgeons are, by law, allowed to dock.
However, following the Government move, the Council of the Royal College of Veterinary Surgeons in November 1992, ruled docking to be unethical, "unless for therapeutic or acceptable prophylactic reasons". Furthermore, the circumstances in which the Royal College considered prophylactic docking to be acceptable were so hedged with conditions as to make the routine docking of puppies by veterinary surgeons extremely difficult.
From April 2007, new Animal Welfare Acts covering the UK, forbid tail docking except for certain working dogs.
There is no European Community Directive or Regulation against docking. The only International Treaty which mentions docking is the 1987 European Convention for the Protection of Pet Animals, established by the advisory grouping of Western European States, the Council of Europe.
Although it calls for the prohibition of docking, it specifically recognises the rights of nations which otherwise accept the Convention, to reserve their position on the issue. The treaty therefore accepts that docking is not a clear cut matter.
After 9 years, only 11 out of the 39 states have signed and ratified the treaty, not including the United Kingdom. Five of those, Belgium, Denmark, Finland, Germany and Portugal have reserved their position on docking. (Correct as at 18 October 1996)
1. To avoid tail damage
A number of working gundog breeds have to hunt game through heavy vegetation and thick brambles, where their fast tail action can easily lead to torn and bleeding tails which are painful and extremely difficult to treat. Docking the end of the tail eliminates the risk of injury.
Working terriers are docked for the same reason. In addition, terriers which are bred to hunt below ground for purposes such as fox control, have their tails docked to a length which is more practical when working in a confined space.
Other non-working breeds which have an enthusiastic tail action, are also liable to damage their tails, even in the home.
Since docking was banned in Sweden in 1989, there has been a massive increase in tail injuries amongst previously docked breeds. Within the 50 undocked Pointer litters registered in that year with the Swedish Kennel Club, 38% of dogs suffered tail injury before they were 18 months old and in 1991, the number of individuals with tail injures had increased to 51% of the group.
2. For reasons of hygiene
Long haired, thick coated breeds like the Yorkshire Terrier and Old English Sheepdog are docked to avoid the hair around the base of the tail becoming fouled by faeces. Even with constant grooming and washing, such fouling is unpleasant. If allowed to get out of hand, it can lead to severe problems of hygiene, or even flystrike and subsequent infestation by maggots.
Hygiene problems can be greatly reduced or eliminated altogether by docking.
3. To maintain breed standards
Breeds which have been docked over many generations have been selected for specific qualities of build and conformation, but not for tail length, shape or carriage.
If left undocked, it is unlikely that the best dogs would carry good tails. In seeking to maintain the quality of the breeds, breeders would therefore be left with a diminished number of suitable sires and dams. The genetic pool would be reduced, greatly increasing the risk of hereditary diseases taking hold. Some breeds could even disappear for ever.
There are two methods of docking. The majority of breeders used the technique known as "banding", in which a ligature, normally an orthodontic band, was placed over the end of the puppies tail at 24-96 hours old. This effectively cuts off the blood supply to the end of the tail, which comes away within 3 days.
Most vets used to cut the tail with surgical scissors. There is generally no need for stitches, but on occasions these can be used, especially with the larger breeds. Nowadays in the UK, vets are more than likely to use the banding method.
Docking is carried out when puppies are tiny. Their eyes are not yet open and long experience indicates that carried out correctly, the procedure causes no pain or discomfort. Indeed, some puppies which are docked whilst they are asleep, do not even wake up. After docking, puppies will immediately return to their dam to feed, and there is no evidence that development or weight gain is in any way arrested by the docking procedure.
Nor does a dog which has been docked as a puppy have any problems with balance or communication.
If, however, tail damage occurs during adulthood and docking has to be carried out for therapeutic reasons, normally under anaesthetic, a dog can be seriously distressed and the healing process can be painful and protracted.