Maple May Where Did your Tail Go? The Docking of Australian Shepherd Tails.

So far, every single family member and friend to meet Maple has had the same question: “Where is her tail?” or my personal favorite, “Does she get a tail?” For anyone who doesn’t know, most Australian Shepherds do not have a natural bobtail, but are instead docked. Docking is performed on puppies when they are under 5 days old. Many common dog breeds are docked, including Dobermans, Rottweilers, Brittany Spaniels, Poodles, German Pointers, Schnauzers, Cocker Spaniels, Airedale terriers and others. There are many arguments on the ethics of docking and why docking is performed. In today’s post, we will look at why Aussies are docked while other herding breeds are not, the process of docking, whether or not docking is painful for the pups, and why docking is done in working dogs and pets.

Why are Aussies Docked but Border Collies are Not?

Australian Shepherds have been historically docked, with the argument being that Aussies are prone to injuring their tails while herding cattle. Some ask the question why Border Collies, a breed often seen as similar to Aussies, are not docked as well. The answer given to this is that Border Collies herd differently than Aussies and Border Collies are sheep dogs, no cattle dogs. It is easy to find videos of Border Collies herding sheep and Aussies herding cattle, and the difference is very apparent. Aussies get very close to the stock and nip the heels, whereas Border Collies mostly herd with their strong eye. As such, comparing the two is akin to comparing apples and oranges.

Still, Australian Cattle Dogs are not docked, so it would seem a dog can be a cattle dog without being at a great risk of injuring their tail. It could be that their herding styles differ enough that they are not at risk for the same kind of injuries. The difference in herding styles between Border Collies and Aussies is apparent to me just from watching a couple of videos, but I don’t know enough of working cattle dogs to see a great difference in the Australian Cattle Dogs and Australian Shepherds herd stock.

Process of Docking:

Docking is performed at under 5 days of age. One of two methods can be used: either a constriction band is placed to cut off blood supply, or a scalpel is used to remove the tail. When the former method is used, the tail falls off after a few days of the band being in place. Generally no pain medication is used because the puppies are so young when the procedure is done that use of local anesthetics would be dangerous. This differs from older dogs, as when an older puppy or adult dog requires tail amputation general anesthetic is required.

Does Docking Hurt:

Many argue that docking does not hurt puppies, as their nervous systems are not fully developed. I have watched videos of puppies being docked online, and let me tell you, the pups definitely seem to feel their little tails being chopped off. So, even if studies say their nervous systems are not developed enough for the puppy to feel anything, I wouldn’t believe them.

Often, I have read the argument made that because docked puppies quickly go back to nursing, they are not in pain from the procedure. I don’t take this as evidence that the puppy doesn’t feel anything, only that it is likely momentary pain. An adult dog with a fully developed tail would most probably be in much more pain than a 1 day old puppy, because the nervous system of an adult dog is fully developed. Still, this does not mean that the puppy feels no pain at all, but it only that they feel less pain than an adult dog or older puppy would with the same procedure.

In summary, as far as I can tell, yes, docking hurts. While it does hurt, the pain seems to be momentary, much like circumcision for a baby boy. Whether or not this momentary pain is justifiable will be discussed next.

For Working Dogs:

There studies on working breeds that show that dogs who are traditionally docked are at greater risk of sustaining injuries to their tails when undocked (http://theses.gla.ac.uk/5629/1/2014lederermvm.pdf). Still, others argue that working dogs are not at a greater risk of injury to their tails (https://petozy.com/blogs/about-dogs/dogs-and-their-tails-a-q-a). In addition to these more scholarly sources, simply perusing dog forums it is easy to find people speaking of their working dogs’ tails being injured in the field, so tail injuries do happen.

An interesting note is that some argue that docking of dogs was not originally done to prevent injury in working dogs, but instead to signify that the dog was a working dog. If the dog was a working dog, the person did not have to pay taxes on their dog, so owners would dock them to avoid additional taxes (https://www.australian-shepherd-lovers.com/australian-shepherds-and-tails.html). I have never been able to find a good source to decipher if this is true or not.

Since tail injuries in an adult dog can be so detrimental, to me it seems reasonable to dock working dogs’ tails if they work in such a way that they are at a higher risk than the average dog of sustaining a tail injury.

For Pets and Show Dogs:

For pets and show dogs, docking is cosmetic. Many in the dog show community are adamant that the docking of dogs is not harmful. From the Australian Shepherd Club of America’s (ASCA) website:

“The Australian Shepherd Club of America will not condone the policy of any individual, group, or proposed legislation which restricts the practice of tail docking or removal of dewclaws for cosmetic or health reasons. We find this policy to be a detriment to the welfare of the Australian Shepherd breed as a whole and an infringement on the rights of the owners, breeders, trainers, and exhibitors of all domesticated animals.”

While laws against docking would most definitely infringe on the rights of owners, breeders, trainers, and exhibitors who want docked dogs, I do not see how ending the practice of tail docking for pets and show dogs would be detrimental to Australian Shepherds. However, many breeders who show their Aussies also compete in herding trials with them, and many still work their dogs on their farms. In these cases, it makes sense to dock the dogs. Since breeders do not know which pups they will keep when they are only 5 days old, all pups from these litters would need to be docked in these situations.

When it comes to infringing on the rights of owners, I don’t know why the ASCA doesn’t allow for dogs with tails to be shown. If they really wanted owners of the breed to have the most freedom to choose what to do with their dogs, they would allow Aussies with tails to compete in conformation events. I believe their hard stance on the issue is most likely in retaliation to animal rights groups like PETA who want to end the docking of all dogs for any and all reasons.

My Opinion:

Docking is not a painless procedure, but for true working dogs the benefits of docking outweigh the pain the puppy feels when the procedure is performed. I do not support legislation that outright bans docking, but I believe the breed clubs of all docked dogs, including the Australian Shepherd Club of America, should rewrite their breed standard definition so breeders who do not wish to work their dogs have the option of leaving their tails intact while still being able to show their dogs in conformation. There is no point in cutting off a dog’s tail if the dog is going to be a pet or show dog.

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