Cropping Ears and Docking Tails — Reasons and Controversy


December 2011.

The modern dog is to a great extent a manufactured product. That is, most breeds had been developed originally for specific purposes, but more recently have been changed via selective breeding to suit personal ideas of aesthetics (beauty). Utility has largely taken a back seat, but even in those circles where certain job functions are the breeders’ primary concerns, physical characteristics are often a result of breeders wanting the extreme rather than overall balance. This has led, over the last couple of centuries, to more differences between breeds than Nature might have developed on its own.

Selection for these desired characteristics have given us such widely diverse body types as the ponderous avalanche dogs, the robust flock guardians, the no-fat coursing hounds, all-weather herding breeds, doggedly-determined rabbit chasers, pointer-setters, and other specialists. If we had continued to let geography, trade caravans, and climate be the determining factors, we would have fewer breeds and less distinction between most of them.

At one time, there were good reasons to further modify dogs surgically. That is, to do things to them that could not be done genetically. At least, not without losing other, desirable features. To minimize the copious amounts of blood that seemed to flow when a tail or ear was lacerated, breeders of fighting dogs trimmed off as much as possible and as early as they could. Later, when some of these breeds became used more for purposes other than fighting wild game or each other, ear and tail “trimming” (partial removal) was done to suit someone’s idea of beauty. As a pseudo-Freudian and a true German Shepherd breeder, I might be tempted to accuse early Great Dane and Boxer owners of having had “erectile tissue envy” (I refer to ears, silly!).

Since Rottweilers and Dobermans were destined from almost the beginning to have docked tails, it is no wonder that once people started letting the tails remain with the dogs, these breeds suddenly were seen to have a wide variety of tail-carriage styles. There are many other breed examples, of course. Now, there is a danger that judges and writers of breed standards will be too hasty in defining what is “proper” tail carriage for breeds that had been exhibited for a couple hundred years with very little attention paid to tail stumps. I suggest judges place minimal emphasis on how a natural tail looks until the dust clears several decades from now. The same would hold for ears, although from what I’ve seen so far, there is less difference in natural ear carriage from one dog to the next within any breed. Perhaps it’s because I saw so many natural ears in Boxers etc. back in the 1960s when I started handling in Canada.

As was included in a position paper by the Utah VMA(Resolution 4, reported in JAVMA News, June 15, 2009), “Cosmetic ear cropping and tail docking of dogs has little or no therapeutic basis.” The truth of that statement will sooner or later be universally accepted, whether reluctantly or not, but until it is, I will oppose forced adherence to someone else’s time schedule; compliance should be voluntary. We should keep the HSUS and PeTa types of monsters out of our hobbies, homes, and kennels. That will not be easy, as opponents of breed-specific legislation have found: you stomp out one little fire someplace, and half a dozen are lit in other communities where some idiot racist politician thinks that one breed (race) is automatically inferior and should be eliminated. (The Civil War never ended; it just changed focus and targets.)

For another example of fires that will keep popping up, this one Ohio Senate Bill 95 introduced a few years ago, stated: “No person shall... dock a dog’s tail, crop a dog’s ear, remove a dog’s claws, or debark a dog. [These] shall only be conducted by a licensed veterinarian. No person shall... permit a dog to have more than one litter per calendar year…” You see that the “Buckeyes” (one definition being “a type of useless nut”) are attacking several things that take away liberty while not improving or assuring humane practices. They just assume that voters and representatives will unthinkingly accept the notion that what freedoms they are trying to take away will not arouse enough voters to hurt their future gorging at the public trough.

One common result of passing unjust laws is that the legislators make citizens into criminals (by definition, not by any change in dog folks’ morality or nature). I can almost picture one future scenario: Maybe people will do their own surgery, and say that the dog was born with a short tail, or it never had those rear dewclaws.

Also, an unfortunate by-product of these crazy laws is that some of them rile a certain segment of our dog fraternity, but do not arouse others. We really need to close ranks and help each other. It is depressing to see lack of unity among dog people when we face a common enemy, the denial of our basic rights. The same thing happens with conservatives in national politics, Baptist churches, etc…. they split, argue with each other, and become ineffective when attacked by the true “outsider.” I hope that all who want to preserve our liberties as dog fanciers can call a truce and unite against the common enemies.

Summary, Part One re Tails:

Reasons to allow tail docking to continue:

  1. Above all, the right to private property should be respected and protected, as all other God-given and Constitutional rights. As long as what we do does not cause unreasonable amount of needless pain, or does not foster cruelty or take away anybody else’s property or other rights. Motives should be weighed as much as perceived effects.
  2. It is nearly a completely painless operation. A quick snip, a momentary sharp discomfort that the pup immediately forgets about.
  3. Perhaps an excuse more than a reason, but some might prefer the uniformity in appearance of docked dogs, over a wide variance in tail carriage (from ring to hanging), and too-rapid change in potential to win at dog shows.

Reasons to encourage (not enforce) a voluntary cessation of tail docking:

  1. Cost. If you do not snip them off yourself, a trip to the (licensed) vet is expensive.
  2. Less fighting with know-nothing governmental officials and radical anti-dog groups.
  3. It is needless. There is no modern advantage in this age of no dog-fighting “sports.”

Reasons to allow ear cropping to continue:

  1. The right to private property (as above).
  2. More of an excuse than reason, it helps reduce mis-identification of similar breeds.

Reasons to encourage (not enforce) a voluntary cessation of ear trimming (cropping):

  1. Absent the so-called sport of dog-fighting, there is no longer any need to crop. Even those who claim that running through brambles can tear up ears forget that bird dogs do this all the time, and keep their ears.
  2. Cosmetics (what you are used to seeing as beauty or breed identification) is a temporary matter of mere preference—you can change attitude easily in a short time.
  3. Cost, risk of surgery and anesthetics, and risk of aesthetic failure are all high.*
  4. Give politicians and PeTa types less excuse to attack dog owners. Fight them with more allies and on different battlefields.

* Peggy Doster, VP of ADOA, took her pup to the vet for a $550.00 ear crop. Typical.

Part Two of Fred Lanting on Tail and Ear Cosmetic Surgery.

The following is a discussion piece I had prepared for a chat group in Pakistan, where I had judged a couple of times, and made new friends. The requested subject was “Fact vs. fancy in re to tail docking.” As a judge and former breeder of a docked-tail breed, I felt I must reply to several misconceptions about the practice. I will put the complaints or myths in italics and my replies in bold type, and hope you can distinguish who said what. Various posts to the  chat list stimulated this response:

Myth #1:    Some of the advantages/qualities of uncropped tail mentioned in the Rottweiler bible, 'The Rottweiler' by Adolf Pienkoss (3rd Edition) are: Dog can move better due to a better balance;

That is pure fiction. I have competed in, judged, and carefully observed many Schutzhund trials, water trials, conformation shows, bird-dog events, and other competitions, and state flatly that “balance” is a myth. The misconception comes from seeing a dog hold its tail in a certain way when he turns quickly or does something else, but this is only a RESULT, not an AID or necessity in balance. Docked dogs and naturally tailless breeds such as Corgis and Australian Shepherds do just as well as dogs with tails.

Myth #2:    There is strong evidence that tail docking is painful for the puppy. The puppy has a fully developed nervous system and a well-developed sense of pain. Puppies scream during the procedure and they whimper, whine and cry for 2-3 days following docking. During the recovery stage they do not eat well and tend to gain weight at a slower rate.

Incorrect in many respects. I have many years of strong, convincing experience including veterinary-science training/study, consulting, and breeding. The nervous system is not “fully developed” in every part at the same time, or pups would be born with their eyes open and fully functioning. I have docked tails, and I have watched tails being docked by a variety of methods, all the way from using local anesthesia before snipping them off with a scissors, to chopping them off with a hatchet they way you would cut a chicken’s head off on a tree stump. First job out of high school was working for a vet who was also a Boxer breeder, so I early got much experience in docking as well as ear trimming. One vet I later worked with was a body-builder (weightlifter) as his hobby, and had strong hands… he would hold the pup in one hand and finding the joint with the thumbnail of the other, he’d pinch-cut through and twist off the unwanted piece in an instant. No knife, no drug, no anesthetic, and in almost no time. In all these cases, the pup typically emits one very short “Yip!” as if it were surprised, and immediately forgets about it. None of my terriers nor any of the dogs I assisted with or watched being docked ever had more than that split-second of discomfort. Certainly their normal life and growth is not affected. Docking is typically done in the first two to four days after birth, when the nervous system is far from developed.

Myth #3:    The tail is an essential part of the body language. 

That is an exaggeration. It may help a little, but is far from essential. I can read the intentions of a docked Rottie or any naturally-tailless breed just as well as those with tails. Far more is obvious from a stiff-legged stance & gait, neck-and-head carriage, ear set, eyes and mouth, all of which combined gives us a picture of “expression.”

Myth #4:    Protection of the genitals against heat, coldness, vermin, etc.

A tail will not stop fleas or ticks. Heat is regulated in canines by panting, and extremely little is lost by radiation from the anus-genitals area. In fact, the reason why dogs usually have less hair around the scrotum, and the fact it hangs down away from the body, is that sperm production requires lower temperature than inside or snug against the body. The tail certainly does not keep the testicles cooler. Tailless breeds and individuals have no more or less problem with these things mentioned. Yes, bushy tails help protect eyes and nose when a Husky or Malamute is curled up to sleep through a blizzard or a cold Arctic night.

Myth #5:     Better development of puppies.

Nonsense. There is no evidence that undocked puppies develop any differently than docked puppies.

(Partial) Myth #6:     There is considerable scientific evidence that docking can lead to complications, including hemorrhage, infection and occasionally death of the puppy.

The word “considerable” is misused. If complications were that common, the practice would have been stopped centuries ago. While these things are possible, they are relatively rare. If you have unhygienic conditions (likelihood of infection) in your whelping box, you should not be breeding dogs! While “The World Small Animal Veterinary Association considers amputation of dogs' tails to be an unnecessary surgical procedure and contrary to the welfare of the dog” (and I agree that in most cases in today’s non-hunting society it is unnecessary), it is a specious argument to say that it adversely affects the welfare of dogs in general.

Myth #7:    “Tails: according to the ADRK, Rottweilers were cattle dogs, they lived with the cattle. The tails would often pick up cattle dung, which would harden, causing injuries to the hocks and flanks, thus the tails were docked.

Sorry, but that old story doesn’t hold water much better than a sieve does. Rotties were developed as much for property guard work and cart-pulling. Tails of other flock-and-herd dogs (Pyrenean Mountain Dogs, as only one example) are not docked. I have seen incredibly filthy cattle-ranch and farm dogs of various breeds and mixes, and never a tail, hock, or flank affected any more than any other part of the dog.

Other comments:

“It was in 1998 that the parent Club ADRK announced the ban on tail docking.”

Yes, docking was outlawed in many countries in recent years. So far, it is still a matter of individual choice and custom in most of America, the land of stubbornly independent and free people, where government intrusion into private lives has still been kept in check to a greater degree than in many other places. There is far more of that interference in Europe, where most breeds originated.

“The Rottweiler must be docked just to restore his beauty and graceful look”

This is a matter of personal preference and aesthetics. Beauty is in the eye of the beholder. I got used to seeing uncropped Boxers, tailed Dobies, etc. far earlier than most Americans and many Europeans.

Additionally, you should realize there is more than one reason to dock. Some bushy-tailed breeds such as Spaniels got tangled in thorny underbrush. The naturally tailless Brittany was developed (selected) partly because of this, and Cockers were docked. “Fighting” breeds, on the other hand, had ears cropped and tails docked because these parts are rich in blood vessels, and injuries there would have caused much blood to be lost and splashed all over the place. Look how close the ears of Ovchartkas, PitBull Terriers, etc. have traditionally been cut.

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