Updated: Mar 22, 2021
“The mammalian tail, present in all mammalian species, has evolved as a surprisingly multi-purpose and important appendage”.
Department of Zoology, University of Natal, Pietermaitzburg, South Africa
It took a long time to convince people that the earth was not flat. Then it took another long time to convince people that the earth was not the center of the solar system. When I was a kid you put butter on burns, heat on sprains and you were supposed to cut and suck a snakebite; and more than likely you had your tonsils taken out before you were ten whether you needed to or not. It took a long time to convince the people of Austin, Texas that bats are good; but they did, and today “watching the bats” is a favorite pastime and they even have a world-famous music festival called “Batfest”. I am reminded of a story I might have heard on NPR about a young woman who always cut a fourth of the pork roast off before putting it in the oven. Her daughter asked her why she did that and the woman replied, “Well, that’s just the way I learned to do it from my mother. I’ve just always done it that way.” One weekend the grandmother was visiting and the granddaughter asked her grandmother why she cut the end of the pork roast off and the grandmother said, “Well, I had to do it that way because I didn’t have a pan big enough to hold the whole thing.” So a whole generation had to go by before somebody said, “Hmmmm, why does cutting a fourth of that thing off make it cook any better?”
Which brings me to a peculiar habit in Colorado, Idaho, Washington and Utah of cutting the tails off some the most incredible dogs in the world; Australian Cattle Dogs. The Australians themselves don’t do it. How did we acquire the custom? As Aristotle said, “God and Nature create nothing that does not fulfill a purpose.” It is a curious egotism of man to contemplate the alteration and disfigurement of nature.
Tails serve important functions in every beast born with such an appendage. Her long, heavy tail helps the Cheetah to turn faster at fifty miles an hour. The beaver’s tail is used for balance and warning. White tail deer use their tails as “pursuit invitation signals” (Bildstein. University of Chicago). Cows have tails to swish away flies. Dogs, like their wolf and dingo cousins (all canines actually) have tails for several very important reasons: to wag to demonstrate geniality, to tuck between legs to show fear, to stick straight up to demonstrate confident aggression, to hold out straight to “point” toward game, to tuck and protect private parts and to hold sideways to signal willingness for the propagation of the species and, not altogether unlike the Cheetah, to help in balance and, something we seldom think about, as a rudder when swimming (Dr. Robert Wansborough, “Cosmetic Tail Docking of Dogs”, Australian Veterinary Journal. July 1996)). These are not myths; these are scientifically proven facts. For example, all dogs have glands in their anus which secrete totally individualistic odors and guess what helps stopper up these odors if a dog chooses modesty over promiscuity? The tail! Why would anybody want to handicap his/her dog by cutting off an important part of its body? (Curiously, as my Heeler matures, I notice the beautiful meshing of the rump fur with the tail fur in a kind of total furry seal of her rear end) In fact, when I play with her and she is on her back her tail curls around beautifully to cover all her delicate parts. The fact is, the very same laws of “natural selection” which eliminated our own tails a long time ago have decided that dogs still need tails. Norway, Sweden, Switzerland, and Germany all forbid the practice of docking and 55,000 members of the World Small Animal Veterinary Association prohibit it.
The custom of docking tails has its origin in folklore and its continuance in stubbornness just like many other abuses and mutilations of animals which love us unconditionally but which we insist on mutating and hybridizing. For example, people still cut off the whiskers (vibrissae) of certain dog breeds such as Poodles for show purposes. And I have cropped the ears of two different kinds of dogs (Boxers and Great Danes) unaware that the dog’s ear has at least 18 different muscles (Sarah’s dogs.com) for tilting, rotating, lowering and raising for all the obvious purposes. Again, I would ask if anybody really believes there is a God with his biology kit who would make the entire animal kingdom and screw up by putting whiskers and tails on dogs which should be cut off later on? One begins to think that people who cut off whiskers and tails believe in neither Darwin nor God.
The thing is, which all of us forget now and then, is that all dogs — every single mutt from Chihuahuas to Great Danes — have the same basic genome configuration as a wolf. “Ethologists who did a reckoning of wolf tail postures identified at least thirteen distinguishable messages…In breeding dogs to have particular looks that we find agreeable, we are limiting their possibilities for communicating…a dog with a docked tail has a docked repertoire of things he can say.” (Alexandra Horowitz, Inside of a Dog. Scribner, 114) Cattle Dogs (Heelers) are even wilder than most other breeds because it was only about a hundred years ago that the so-called Australian Cattle Dog was hybridized from the wild Dingo. ACD’s are famously tough and independent in large part thanks to their semi-wild gene pool. I mention this to emphasize the importance of its undomesticated, natural aspects of which its tail is an enormously important appendage. Five minutes in a room with an ACD is sufficient to appreciate the myriad communicative purposes to which the Heeler puts her impressive tail.
Recently, I watched a “Heeler” round up stock in a calf-roping ring down in Texas. As he went out in the arena to begin heading the calf back into the chutes he would dart back and forth heading the calf toward the fence. Then, as the calf was reluctant to go into the gate the dog would shoot in low, belly to the ground, and nip a rear heel and the calf would kick back as the dog dodged off to one side away from the brain-numbing hoof. I watched carefully as the tail would wag left as the dog darted right, clearly indicating the importance of using the tail for balance. It was a beautiful sight.
On another trip, I was in a small town in New Mexico and when I took my dog for an evacuation walk we encountered two stray Heelers with docked tails. I confess that my little bitch is friendly and always looking for some play but these two locals were not exactly enthusiastic about tourists and it was my impression that my dog was having a hard time “reading” their signals since there was nothing to go by except growls and curled lips; which is significant, but the lack of tail signals was definitely causing some confusion.
Reasons for “docking” dogs tails go back to the Romans (Amy Broughton, Detroit College of Law. Cropping and Docking: A Discussion of the Controversy and the Role of Law in Preventing Unnecessary Cosmetic Surgery on Dogs, 2003) and range from theories about the tails getting caught in fence gates, under-brush or getting bitten or stepped on by cows. In Elizabethan England docking was thought to prevent rabies. In Georgian times dogs were taxed by the length of their tails so obviously you cut off the tail to escape another ridiculous tax by the government. The practice continued even though the tax was repealed in 1796. To suggest that an athletic heeler is going to let a cow bite or step on its tail is like thinking that Mario Andretti is going to get run over by a truck. Heelers are among the most agile, tough, intelligent dogs in the world and there isn’t a cow alive that is going to catch one and bite it. No way Jose. And, even if a cow did step on a dog’s tail…I’ll bet a thousand dollars it didn’t slow that dawg down. There is simply no reason to cut off a dog’s tail on the one-in-a-thousand chance that it is going to get caught in a fence or a cow is going to bite it. Besides, I might add; why should people who jeopardize the very lives of their dogs untethered in the backs of their pick-ups worry if their dog’s tail gets bitten off?
I have actually weighed my dog’s tail and it comes in at about 17 ounces; say a pound. The dog weighs 40 pounds. 1:40. When I walk my dog across an 8 foot long 4×4 you can see the tail straight out behind her moving slightly from side to side for balance. When she is running through sage and rocks after a rabbit you can see the tail working for counterbalance as she zigs and zags in hot pursuit. Why would you want to compromise the balance of a great athlete? Yesterday, while walking our dog in the snow I was able to see exactly the narrow margins of her foot prints. It is as though she is balancing on a 2 by 4 (which actually measures 1 1/2 by 3 1/2 inches). That is to say, this is a forty pound dog with a shoulder width of eight inches and yet her feet fall in a line measuring not more than three inches apart! This narrow track incidentally, is exactly like her wild, nimble relatives, the Coyote. (Jason R. Knight. Coyote Tracks and Sign, 2008) If anybody thinks that her tail is of no consequence in maintaining balance along such a narrow beam, I suggest a glance at the next televised women’s gymnastics competition.
One breeder I talked to said she cuts off the tails because she doesn’t like the look of a dog with its tail! She raises the dogs but doesn’t like their natural God-given look? Go figure. Well, fact is, this particular sentiment is predominant among most western cattlemen. Another breeder said she cuts off the tails because she doesn’t like all the dust they stir up when they are sitting and wagging their tail in the barnyard dirt in front of her. I kid you not! Those were her very words. I can understand, although not like, cropping, trimming, shaping and shampooing for the quirky world of dog shows. Heelers, with their Dingo ancestry, are just one step away from their wild (wolf) state. They, more than most breeds really need every part of their body for work and communication.
I certainly do not mean to be sanctimonious about this because I too have cut tails and clipped ears as I confessed before and I would only suggest that people give the non-docking a thoroughly honest cogitation and perhaps a trial. It is not altogether unoteworthy that the American Kennel Club forbids the practice as do most European countries as per The European Convention for the Protection of Pet Animals. Australian Cattle Dogs (Red and Blue Heelers), which happen to be one of the most beautiful of all dogs with their compact, athletic bodies, strong jaws, intelligent faces and beautiful tails deserve to have their dignity left intact with an appendage which they can wave proudly for all to see as they exercise dominion over the backs of our pick-up trucks.
NY Agriculture and Markets Law § 353. Overdriving, torturing and injuring animals; failure to provide proper sustenance:
A person who overdrives, overloads, tortures or cruelly beats or unjustifiably injures, maims, mutilates or kills any animal, whether wild or tame, and whether belonging to himself or to another, or deprives any animal of necessary sustenance, food or drink, or neglects or refuses to furnish it such sustenance or drink, or causes, procures or permits any animal to be overdriven, overloaded, tortured, cruelly beaten, or unjustifiably injured, maimed, mutilated or killed, or to be deprived of necessary food or drink, or who wilfully sets on foot, instigates, engages in, or in any way furthers any act of cruelty to any animal, or any act tending to produce such cruelty, is guilty of a misdemeanor, punishable by imprisonment for not more than one year, or by a fine of not more than one thousand dollars, or by both.
Many different countries have responded to this epidemic in a variety of ways. For example, the Canadian Veterinary Medical Association released a statement indicating that it opposes the “surgical alteration of any animal, for purely cosmetic reasons . . . including tail docking . . . ear cropping . . ..”57 Similarly, the Council of the Royal College of Veterinary Surgeons (UK) ruled cosmetic docking to be “unethical.”58 The Australian Veterinary Association has consistently renewed its call for a ban on cosmetic surgery for dogs. Dr. Lindy Scott, animal welfare consultant for the AVA stated that the “mutilation of animals for cosmetic (non-veterinary) purposes was strongly opposed by the majority of the veterinary profession.”59 In an even bolder statement, Belgium, Denmark, Finland, Germany, Great Britain, Greece, Italy, Luxembourg, The Netherlands, Norway, Portugal, Sweden, and Switzerland have all banned cosmetic ear cropping and tail docking.60
Recently, in England, two dog owners and their associate were fined and jailed three months each after eleven Rottweiler puppies died during a tail docking procedure.61 The defendants believed that the dogs would be more “saleable” if the tails were docked, but did not want to pay veterinary fees so they hired Lloyd Earlington, who was not a vet, but who stated that he had experience in docking tails, and who agreed to conduct the operations at a reduced rate.62 Earlington arrived with Stanley knife blades and a “painkiller” solution.63 The puppies’ spinal cords were left exposed by the procedure and two main arteries had been left exposed in several cases.64 Two puppies died almost immediately from the pain and another three were in such shock that they had to be put down soon after the docking.65 The remainder of the litter died within three weeks.66 Because tail docking (by non-veterinarians) is prohibited in Great Britain, the prosecution was a success.
Broughton, University of Michigan 2006.