There’s no better window into a dog’s soul than its tail. Wagging, rigid, quivering, or tucked, each manifestation of this expressive appendage conveys the extensive vocabulary of canine nonverbal communication. Like a hand of cards tipped towards the poker table, there’s no mistaking a dog’s intent when plainly spelled out in a tail’s position or cadence.
For as long as humans have been selectively breeding dogs in our own image, we’ve also been tinkering with aesthetics beyond the low-hanging fruit within the genetic code. Tail length is no exception. The discord between and within breed enthusiast groups about our attempts to shorten or “dock” tails for cosmetics or convenience—while not new—has grown increasingly disharmonious. Before we dive into the drama, I’ll offer up a crash course on its origins.
Why Do We Dock Tails?
With a few notable exceptions, almost all dogs are born with long tails. Naturally bobbed tails are quite rare in canines and effectively non-existent in sporting breeds. The classic silhouettes of the Brittany, Vizsla, or Deutsch Drahthaar take shape with the help of purposeful removal of a segment of the tail at a young age, not through Mother Nature or selective breeding.
Forgive me if this fact is obvious to you, but I’ve met a surprising number of clients who assume their new hunting dog pup was born with a naturally bobbed tail. A subset of them respond with genuine surprise, while others offer a look of disgust when I politely correct their misguided assumptions. Not only did someone trim that tail to its current proportions, I tell them, they likely agonized over the exact spot to chop.
Tail docking has its own extensive chapter in the anthology of human-canine relationships. The first justifications for this practice likely stemmed from the dog’s role as a working animal and the inherent dangers to life and limb in that line of work. A docked tail was deemed less likely to incur traumatic injury from equipment or livestock. In long-haired breeds, a short tail may have promoted better hygiene by reducing soiling and mats that attract debris and parasites.
Tail docking in hunting breeds most likely originated as a way to reduce tail injuries in thick cover, which—speaking from experience here—are better avoided than treated. I’ve seen my share of chronic, poor-healing tail wounds, a few of which required partial surgical amputation to correct. Interestingly, none of those were sporting dogs. Docking also likely provided early breeders with a means of adjusting proportions of tail length as they selected for other traits. For example, the tail of an English pointer is notably shorter in proportion to its frame than that of an undocked German shorthaired pointer.
How Tails are Docked
There’s more than one way to get the job done. The most common approaches are as straightforward and simplistic or as barbaric as you’re inclined to imagine, depending on the biases you brought with you to this article. Veterinarians typically use local nerve blocks and sterile instruments to cut the tail to a desired length, followed by a suture (or two) to close the incision.
Some breeders perform this same technique with a kitchen table substituted for a sterile bench, and I’ve seen a sharpened Old Timer multitool used in place of a scalpel. Other breeders apply a restricting rubber band or employ a stout string to crush nerves and vessels in the tail, causing the tissue to die and fall off in time. All of these techniques seem to work well with minimal issues, although I’ll admit the few complications I’ve addressed resulted from infections caused by breeders using the string or banding method.
Regardless of the approach used, the timing remains the same. Tail docking should be performed on newborn puppies between 2 and 5 days old. This window is not arbitrary, rather it allows the pups to get a small foothold in life while taking advantage of an underdeveloped nervous system that tolerates such an invasive procedure in stride. The same procedure in a 5-month-old dog would be undeniably inhumane (and likely fatal).
Tradeoffs of Docking
So, is the pain worth the gain? It’s difficult to arrive at a definitive answer because we haven’t successfully quantified the pain or demonstrated the extent of the gain.
Let’s be clear: Even in newborn pups, tail docking hurts. The vocal few who argue this point unwittingly deny the sentient nature of these pups. We just don’t know how badly it hurts. The pups squirm and squeal, although these movements and vocalizations—which subside as soon as they’re back snuggling with their littermates—are similar to the ones newborn pups offer freely when circumstances aren’t just exactly as they’d like them. Admittedly, that’s a weak barometer to measure pain, and I don’t necessarily offer this observation as evidence that tail docking is an inconsequential experience for the pup.
The extent of the discomfort and any lasting health or social effects are a subject of heated debate from two factions who—in my opinion—can’t seem to prove their case with the current data published. As a profession, we lack a reliable means of quantifying discomfort in a developing puppy. It’s unfair to view the procedure through an anthropomorphic lens or draw a parallel to what an older pup would experience from a tail amputation.
It’s equally unfair to offer up a justification for tail docking for the sole purpose of preventing a demonstrably rare injury. The peer-reviewed evidence suggests the risk is minimal, which mirrors my experience in the clinic. Many of my Canadian, Australian, and European colleagues agree, and some of their governments have outlawed the practice. Interestingly, other research has shown a significant uptick in tail-related injuries in formerly-docked sporting breeds as a result of this ban.
The issue remains nuanced despite a concerted effort to paint tail docking in black or white. Most of the research fails to account for the notable variation in temperaments, number of hours spent in the field, and type of cover.
As a German shorthaired pointer owner and veterinarian resource for hunting dog enthusiasts, I spend a considerable amount of time observing docked tails and offering my own (often silent) critique of the handiwork of the vet or breeder that performed the procedure. I’m guilty of preferring the look of a docked tail in breeds that have traditionally sported them. I find an undeniable personal satisfaction in seeing done correctly.
As long as it’s legal, I’ll still willingly engage in the act so that breeders have a safe and aesthetically pleasing option. I also refuse to deny the shortcomings of the procedure and won’t shy away from a spirited debate about the merits of cosmetic or functional alterations that are temporarily uncomfortable. Just expect a look of confusion from me if you’re eager to pass judgement but have pierced ears or a tattoo.
Feature image via Tosh Brown.