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When it comes to working dogs, sometimes tail docking is the kindest option

4 March 2014

Imagine you’re a dog with a long, silky tail that you like to wag. The problem is, you spend your days running across moorland, through prickly undergrowth, which makes your tail hurt and bleed. Might you wish that someone had made it a little bit shorter when you were a puppy?

Many people – and especially those with working dogs – argue that docking is by far the kindest option. This is why it is odd that Scotland is the only country in the UK with a complete ban on tail docking. England, Wales and Northern Ireland all have exemptions for working dogs, as long as they are docked when very young. But not in Scotland. This is why the Scottish Gamekeepers Association has presented their Environment Secretary, Richard Lochhead, with a petition to reverse the ban.

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Lopping off a puppy’s tail might sound cruel – and if not done properly, it certainly can be. But for working dogs, the alternative can be much crueler. As vet Neil McIntosh has said, ‘I would rather dock 100 working puppies’ tails at three days old than one adult working dog’s.’ And a recent piece of research from Glasgow University showed that during the 2010-2011 shooting season, almost 57% of working spaniels suffered a tail injury of some sort; injuries that often require surgery or partial docking to repair.

The SGA claim that five years ago, Alex Salmond promised a reversal of the ban if evidence showed that it would be beneficial. So will he deliver on his promise? Cosmetic tail docking is one thing. But when it’s a matter of animal welfare, surely matters are different?

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  • ADA

    LG -Your/our dogs came to be what they are over generations of breeding for those certain desirable characteristics required by humans. I am sure that in every litter there will be reason to exclude dogs that are deemed not “suitable” for “training” for work. I presume that your youngster which lacks trainability came itself from working parents so why would there be reason to believe that if it’s bred from that subsequent offspring would also be untrainable (presuming that 2 distinct gene pools would also be involved)? As I mentioned previously there are Springer Spaniels being bred from which have a good tail set, length and carriage without the excitable rotational movement (and have good conformation). I believe there was/is a breeder of undocked working Spaniels in Scotland who has demonstrated their working dogs’ abilities at Crufts.

    • LG

      My youngsters 8 siblings are all very similar to mine and the breeder told me that himself. He was disappointed with what he bred and is now in danger of losing his line of springers as he will not use that litter to continue it. He’s had that line for ~25 years so not a decision taken lightly.

      Crufts… really! A dog that has been shown quartering a carpet for a few minutes and then retrieved a couple of dummies has not demonstrated the working ability required of a gundog. Mary Rae could teach her border collies to do that, it wouldn’t make them gundogs though.

  • ADA

    The type of ground worked on is, in the main, theoretical and does not always happen in reality countrywide!
    My argument would apply that the Setter tail is more stable and therefore this is the type of tail which should be aimed at when breeding stock and also a consistent length. I have seen a good few working Spaniels with much longer tails than their undocked show counterparts.
    I don’t think you personally are singing from the same hymn sheet as many of the field sport campaigners desirous of the right to dock, in that you seem to be concerned mainly with the docking of Spaniel breeds. (German Pointers would now be working as English Pointers in Scotland). As will be noted from the Welsh, English, N. Ireland field sport activists who lobbied for HPRs and Terriers and crossbreeds(!) to be included in the regulations of their respective country’s Animal Welfare Act. This has caused bad legislation.
    Regarding conformation of show dogs there does not seem to be any such similar move in the breeding of working dogs which in the main lie outside anyone’s jurisdiction except in their working ability trials. The 7 years after the Act was imposed should have given ample time for selective breeding programmes in which to produce a better tail length with less thrashing movement (as per Setter). It’s never too late to start and Scotland could lead the way. It should be remembered that tail docking in itself is an injury which can sometimes cause a !

    • LG

      I have seen plenty examples of the various HPR breeds worked in heavy cover but never an English pointer so would continue to argue that there is little justification to dock an english pointer. Yes, some of the HPR breeds work on the hill, but most of those individuals and many more work on the low ground during the winter months, in much heavier cover and are therefore much more prone to suffering from a tail injury.

      Conformation is important to me and working dog owners are fortunate that, for the most part, their dogs have not been exaggerated like some of the show dogs have. However, a good working dog needs an awful lot more than just good looks and a short tail. What would be the point in breeding a dog with a short tail if doing so meant that temperament, trainablilty and natural ability have to take a back seat..? Once a dog has failed to make the grade as a working dog it is highly unlikely that it will be ever be bred from regardless of how good it looks or how short it’s tail is.

      (I have a good looking youngster with a relatively short tail but I would not dream of breeding from it. It is lacking “trainability”. I would not want another one like it so would not inflict it upon anyone else either. I do have one other with a relatively short tail but despite being a good working dog it has a conformational fault and will not be bred from either.)

  • ADA

    LG –
    Unfortunately that does imply that welfare comes way down the list. There are now mongrels/crossbreeds being categorised as working dogs and no-one could possibly know whether a mongrel when born is likely to inherit acceptable working dog traits or the best/worst health issues.
    A Spaniel needs its tail to be showing when flushing otherwise it’s likely to get shot (hence the “shorter” dock (longer stump) than the formerly docked show dog. The show ring has undocked actual working dogs being shown.
    Across the country terrains are different for working dogs – possibly no two are the same. (Undocked) Hounds go through almost all terrains. The Setter has its origins in the Springer Spaniel and can also flush game but that is not docked. The English Pointer is not docked but the German Pointer was. My suspicion would be that those who lobby for docking would wish all their dogs to be docked rather than having to breed in selection for tail carriage, set, movement and conformation (the latter too often not in evidence when compared with show dog conformation).
    Allowing exemptions causes loopholes in legislation.

    • LG

      Pointers and setters work on open hill ground so their tails are not lashing about in dense cover. Normal heather cover on hill ground is unlikely to cause damage to any dogs tail. Pointers/setters are not suited to working in heavy cover. Spaniels are much more suited to heavy cover and they do lash their tails from side to side with enthusiasm whilst hunting, bashing the end of their tails of anything within range. Setters do not do this to anything like the same extent and even if they did, they’re on open ground so there’s not much to bash their tails off. Unlike the (English) pointer and the setter breeds, the German pointers were not developed for work on open moorland and were docked in accordance with the job expected of them and the environment they worked in.

      Nobody campaigning for tail docking wants ALL their dogs docked, only the ones at an increased risk of suffering tail damage. Retrievers and setters do not fall into that category and nor do hounds, none of these breeds thrash their tails about like spaniels do.

      If a spaniel has been trained properly it should remain on the spot where the game was flushed from until asked to do anything else, virtually eliminating the risk of it being shot.

      Oh, and I have never been able to see the need for a dog to have it’s tail taken off as short as possible before entering the show ring. Conformation is a whole different kettle of fish and there are breeds of show dogs that I would not even entertain as a pet because of the problems that their conformation causes them, however, there is work being done to rectify this.

  • john

    I suggest Camilla has her own tail docked to show that it’s an advantage.

  • Uncle Brian

    Historically, what can have been the purpose of docking dogs’ tails in the first place? It can’t have been for the sake of appearances, since aesthetically a docked tail is always a disimprovement. Can it have been something to do with the risk of injury to the tail, such as the Scots are claiming now?

    • Ron Todd

      In my limited experience with the type of people that use working dogs they never seem too bothered if a dog is injured as long as there is another ready to take its place. What happens to all the working dogs that get too old?

      • the viceroy’s gin

        You have limited experience, as you acknowledge, yet you continue to speak as if you understand field dogs and how they’re used. Strange.

      • LG

        In my experience, an injured working dog is a greatly missed part of the team. It has taken commitment, time and money to raise and train it to the stage where it can even be called a working dog and therefore deserves and needs to be looked after. Most people do not have an endless supply of dogs ready to just take it’s place. The vast majority of retired working dogs are looked after very well by somebody in their old age but given the opportunity most would still love to be out working rather than lying snoozing. What percentage of “rescue” dogs do you think are working dogs..? I suspect it’s a pretty low figure compared to the number of pet dogs that need to be “rescued”.

      • Uncle Brian

        I notice, for what it’s worth, that no one has challenged my assertion that “aesthetically a docked tail is always a disimprovement.”

        • LG

          I did not challenge it becaue it’s about welfare, not aesthetics. As we are all aware, the docking of dogs tails for aesthetic reasons is against the law in this country.

  • ADA

    Many working breeds have not had tails taken into consideration when breeding (although English Pointers aren’t docked and German S-H Pointers were). Nowadays anyone breeding working dogs should be selecting their breeding stock from dogs with good tail carriage, set, movement and length in the same way they have bred for other working “types”. There are Spaniels that do not have the rotary tail movement that is often found in working Spaniels. Working dog breeders have now had 7 plus years since the ban to have been working on better tail breeding. Show dog breeders have to take it into consideration now when breeding their dogs.
    Regarding pain in neonates this is often misinterpreted and it is now considered that they feel more pain because the nerve pathways are uncontrolled and haven’t developed into defined pathways. Puppies can and do die from shock, blood loss (especially if they have genetic disposition to von Willebrands disease or other inherited blood disorders), or infection.
    There is a high incidence of leg injuries in working dogs. Docked dogs can also get tail injuries.
    Mongrels/crossbreeds described as working dogs are being docked but working breeds such as Labradors, Retrievers, Setters (similar tails to Spaniels from past cross breeding) Hounds and English Pointers are not commonly docked.

    • LG

      As well as conformation, working dogs are bred for temperament, trainability and natural working. Without these three things in a working dog you have nothing, so I’m afraid tail carriage comes well down the list of what needs to be considered in a potential litter of puppies.

      With regard to your points about some breeds of gundog not being commonly docked, that is because they are much less likely to suffer tail damage, either because of the type of ground they are worked on and the job they have, or because of their style of working. Only those animals at a higher risk of injury have their tails shortened as puppies.

  • Jackthesmilingblack

    Don’t you just love the arguments dredged up to justify modifying the Creator’s handiwork? Ever heard of natural selection? Stop breeding unnatural dogs.

  • Jackthesmilingblack

    BTW, what’s the PC term for female dog?

    • Camilla Swift


  • swatnan

    Oh come on! How many of us go grouse shooting these days?
    And if you dock their tails, what will they have to chase all day? if tails were meant to be short, then they’d be born with short tails.

  • Ron Todd

    Foxes with their big bush tails manage without docking.

    • the viceroy’s gin

      Why would you say that? The average life expectancy of a fox is likely a fraction of any field dog, I’d wager .

      • Ron Todd

        A fox must spend a far greater part of its life running around the countryside than any working dog.

        • the viceroy’s gin

          No, it must not. You are making that up, clearly.

          You’ll note that a fox’s diet is mostly mice, as well as plant life. They’re not “running around the countryside”, as you’re claiming is true. The fox is not a pursuit animal, in fact. Wolves, yes. Coyotes, yes. Not foxes.

          The lifespan of a fox is only a fraction of a field dog, and you don’t seem the type that would know the mortality vectors for a fox, so I doubt you are qualified to make the assumptions and claims that you are about them, or their tails.

          • mrsjosephinehydehartley

            A fox’s diet is mostly anything as far as I’ve noticed – judging by the disgusting smell of their holes – indeed fox muck doesn’t look like anything in particular apart from general rubbish and bones..

            But I agree, like most real birds and animals unless they’re practically starving they don’t go running about much – except perhaps at night foxes like to bark horribly – a bloodcurdling noise that sounds like nothing on earth..otherwise by day, they do like to find a sunny spot and sunbathe. Some foxes get rather large..I suppose this might indicate how old they are.

          • Ron Todd

            The field dogs I have known spent very few days in a typical year doing field work. Many were domestic pets that lived like any other domestic dog. Any fox in the country would not be able to feed itself if it spent as many hours inactive as a working field dog does never mind the non working ones.

            • the viceroy’s gin

              That’s why foxes lay around, so they don’t have to eat much. That’s how they survive on mice and berries. Field dogs eat by the bushel, because they work so hard. You don’t seem to know much about them, and appear to be speculating

              • Ron Todd

                If they had it that easy wouldn’t their numbers increase until each one had to work harder to get a sufficient share of the available food?

                • the viceroy’s gin

                  No sense playing 20 question and blathering, lad. You don’t understand what you’re talking ab out, and are seeking pointless argument.

                • Ron Todd

                  Good old viceroy no rational reply so straight in with the insults hidden behind a false name. At least you are consistent.

                • the viceroy’s gin

                  No insults, lad. You’re blathering, and about things you have no clue about. It’s just being pointed out to you, and you’re whining about it.

                • Ron Todd

                  Again just insults.
                  As you have nothing worthwhile to say i am going to ignore you.

                • the viceroy’s gin

                  Again, no insults, lad. You’re blathering, and you know nothing about the matters you’re blathering about, which you acknowledge. You’re whining because that’s being pointed out to you.

                  Ignore away, it’s likely the best thing for you.

    • itdoesntaddup

      Foxes get mange with or without docking.

      • Ron Todd

        So do dogs

        • the viceroy’s gin

          I can never recall a field dog with mange, so your comparison is inapt, again.

    • ButcombeMan

      Indeed they do and if you live in the country and watch foxes run they use their tails as rudders. My dogs have always “put up” foxes for their amusement. I watch them a lot.

      If a long tail was a disadvantage to a fox, they would not have them.

      I have always had working dogs, several breeds, never a docked tail, never a problem. The real problem though, may well be the design of the spaniels tail, coat and ears. I would never have a spaniel, not smart enough.

      Man designed the tail and the coat, design it out if it is a problem.

  • sfin

    It is always the problem with legislation, such as this – it is lobbied and voted for by people who haven’t a clue about how nature and the countryside operates.

    I once owned a pointer whose tail wasn’t docked as a puppy and he would frequently leave blood smears on walls and door jambs as he had a strong wag! This wasn’t a working dog – but he would badly injure his tail several times a year. In the end his tail was docked as an adult dog.

    I do wish the metropolitan set – with their Walt Disney view of animals, both wild and domestic, would leave policy areas, of which they are entirely ignorant, well alone.

    • dalai guevara

      Excuse me? Try and dock me and I’ll deck you 😉

  • CharlietheChump

    Docking a pup is no more disturbing to the animal than claw clipping.

    • Ron Todd

      How can you tell

    • Chris Morriss

      I suppose you’re also an apologist for the Middle-Eastern tribes docking their boy-childs’ penises too?

    • Ron Todd

      Take a newborn baby trim its nails then cut of one of its arms which do you think would disturb it more.

      If you can cut off a dogs tail without bothering it, then the dog would hardly be bothered by an injury to a tail.

      • the viceroy’s gin

        Goodness, I just noticed this bit of your ignorant blathering as well. You really don’t know much about dogs, do you?

  • steakfrites

    Reasonable article. Never nice thinking of a terrier getting trapped underground thanks to a long tail. Also Jack Russells look far better with neatly docked tails.

    • ButcombeMan

      You drag them out by the tail

  • Tom M

    I’m always wary of townies telling country folk how they should live. However, without prejudice, when I read your reasoning behind docking dogs tails it seemed a bit thin.
    If the reason you dock tails is to prevent injury when the dog is working in the scrub why does this reason not apply to the dog’s legs? Just asking.

    • GAM

      Because obviously a dog’s leg is pretty important when it comes to its ability to be a working dog. It’s tail is not.

      • Tom M

        That is, to you it’s not.

        • GAM

          I started writing, but just can’t be bothered. People like you, Tom, will just never get it. Enjoy Primrose Hill.

    • Conway

      Do the dogs wag their legs from side to side?

    • Cornelius Bonkers

      Well, they’d fall over wouldn’t they? Unless of course you docked them equally to the knee (O Pestorius style) but then they would injure their other parts (genitals, ears etc). No, the only answer would be to fit dogs with stilts

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