Why some breeders do (or don't) dock their dogs' tails

A look into the historical practice of docking dogs' tails.

by Good Dog

Have you ever thought about why some dogs’ tails are much shorter than others? Beyond the difference in breed sizes, some breeders or dog owners decide to dock their dogs’ tails, which means they surgically remove a part of the tail.

The practice started as early as the time of the Roman empire, but it really picked up popularity in the Victorian era. Most experts trace the act back to a book titled The American Book of the Dog from 1891; people wanted their dogs to look a certain way, and therefore chose this “elective” surgery for their animals.

Right now, there are 62 breeds (as recognized by the American Kennel Club) who have docked tails. These include Cocker Spaniels, Rottweilers, and Yorkshire Terriers; the American Veterinary Medical Association connotes the act of docking with hunting dogs, like Pointers. Some breeds have naturally very short tails (such as the Old English Sheepdog and Australian Shepherd) which are called “bobtails.”

According to the AVMA, there are three main historical reasons for docking a dog’s tail: The ancient Romans believed that cutting off a portion of a dog’s tail or tongue could prevent it from getting rabies. People of a lower class who owned dogs traditionally used for hunting had to dock their dogs’ tails because they were not allowed to hunt if they had a tail. (The irony here, as noted by the AVMA, is that it was also believed that docking hunting dogs’ tails would help the dog get more power and speed.) For working/hunting dogs, it was believed that docking their tails’ would prevent injury during different high-intensity activities. For example, a terrier with a docked tail would help its owner pull it out of a hole they followed an animal into.

Today, because the role of dogs has largely shifted away from traditional working situations and into that of a companion, the idea of docking their tails has also started to shift. It’s considered an unnecessary cosmetic procedure, and there is little to no evidence that docking a dog’s tail prevents it from injury.

“Because dogs have not been shown to derive self-esteem or pride in appearance from having their tails docked (common reasons for performing cosmetic procedures on people), there is no obvious benefit to our patients in performing this procedure,” said the AVMA. “The only benefit that appears to be derived from cosmetic tail docking of dogs is the owner’s impression of a pleasing appearance.”

The practice of docking dogs’ tails has become widely banned in some areas of the world, with breed associations amending their descriptions to conform to the new standard of non-docking. With it being a cosmetic procedure that has no real impact on injury prevention or “self-esteem” of the dogs, it only affects their appearance to humans. Some breeders, who are not interested in breeding or selling “show quality” dogs, will opt not to perform the docking procedure on their dogs. There is only emerging evidence that a docked tail confuses communication between dogs.

At the end of the day, it’s up to breeders and dog owners to decide if they want to dock the tails of puppies in order to comply with different breed standards as decided by the AKC or other breed governing bodies. This may affect their qualifications to compete in different championship competitions. Otherwise, most experts agree that it’s a cosmetic, and ultimately unneeded, procedure that might have been useful centuries ago.