Someone asked this question on our Facebook page the other day
“Why on earth, in this day and age, do we still dock dog’s tails?”
When we move mainly amongst others in the gundog community, I think it is easy to forget that many people unfamiliar with working gundogs, have no idea why we dock the tails of some of our working breeds.
They find the whole concept completely barbaric.
Without the benefit of knowledge, this is quite understandable.
So I thought I would put up this article, to refer people to, when they ask why we cut the tails off our spaniel puppies.
I hope that those of you supporting docking will add your own comments, and those who object will voice their concerns so that we can address them.
The purpose of docking
The original purpose of tail docking was to prevent damage to the ends of working dogs’ tails.The owners of hunting dogs discovered that the adult dog was less likely to injure its tail at work, if the end of the tail was removed soon after birth.
Split tails tend to re-open repeatedly and heal poorly.
A hundred or more years ago, such a dog would probably have been discarded or left to suffer.
Nowadays of course, we provide treatment for tail damage.
And the injured dog will often require an operation. Sometimes more than one.
This can also happen in a dog that has been docked inadequately.
Working gundogs, particularly breeds used specifically for hunting, are far more likely to damage the ends of their tails than dogs that do not work, due to prolonged contact with undergrowth. These are the breeds that are docked.
Nowadays, most dog are not worked, they are companions. Yet, over the years, as the dog ‘fancy’ developed, and people began keeping working dogs as pets, and to show, docking persisted. The shortened tail became part of the ‘breed standard’ even though its original purpose was no longer relevant.
Many dogs that would never be worked, and were unlikely to damage their tails, were docked as puppies.
Arguably with no good reason.
As a result, public opinion against docking grew, and put pressure on the government to ban the practice of docking.
Docking in Scotland was banned completely, and in Wales is restricted to certain breeds of dog. In England, a great deal of discussion and consultation took place, and a decision was made to permit docking for litters of puppies that were intended for work.
You can read more about the legalities of docking in England in this article: Can your puppies be legally docked?
The arguments for and against
Some people felt that docking should not have been banned at all, they see no problem with docking any breed of dog that is traditionally docked. They argue that small puppies have little sensation in their tails at two or three days old, and show little reaction to being docked provided it is done at this early age.
Others felt that docking should have been banned outright across the board. They argue that docking must be painful and is an unnecessary mutilation of a living creature.
Yet others, including me, felt that the ban on docking, with an exemption for working dogs, was a reasonable solution to this ethical and practical problem. We argue that any effects of docking at an early age should be balanced against the effects of trauma to the tail in the older dog.
Docking undoubtedly prevents pain and injury. The real argument lies in whether or not it is ethical to dock all working puppies, to prevent pain and injury that will occur later in some of those individuals, but not in others.
Of those that object to the exemption for our working gundogs, there are a number of common premises or beliefs that underly their opinions.
Here are some of the arguments that I have heard recently
Not all dogs get tail damaged, so just dock when they do.
This is true, some spaniels don’t damage their tails, no matter how hard they hunt. The problem with therapeutic docking in response to persistent damage, is that it is a much more serious operation. Often preceded by months of discomfort whilst other remedies are attempted
My spaniel goes for long walks and hunts, and hasn’t damaged her tail! So that proves that docking is not necessary.
Not only do we know that some dogs are more prone to tail damage than others, taking a dog for a very long walk is not the same as working the dog in a beating line.
Dogs used for beating may be hunting in thick cover for extended periods of time and do so at a rapid pace. They are typically high drive dogs that crash through cover at speed, and their tails are highly prone to damage.
You can just bandage the tail up
Unfortunately it is almost impossible to bandage a spaniel’s tail in such a way that the bandage will remain in place throughout a working day.
If it means cutting off puppy’s tails, you should not work your dogs
This is quite a common response from someone whose other concerns have been addressed. The answer is that working dogs are an absolutely essential part of producing game for the table without causing suffering. They flush game that would otherwise not have been found, and they ensure that quarry species can be retrieved and despatched humanely.
If you want to explore the ethics of game shooting more deeply, you might be interested in this article: A sporting chance- a look at the ethics of game shooting
More help and information
If you enjoy my articles, you might like my new book: The Happy Puppy Handbook – a definitive guide to early puppy care and training.
Kit Williams says
Those that are against docking of working spaniels tails would benefit from seeing a non docked tail ripped to sheds – not pleasant! And very very painful for the dog. Besides their tails are not docked completely – they still have very waggy tails! Just not long enough to get caught and ripped when in cover. Done professionally and when 2-3 days old causes very little discomfort. Far less than a toddler being forced to having its ear pierced by a human! which to me IS barbaric – where is the ‘human’ cry to ban this traumatic practice?!!
My cocker spaniel Ben is now 6 months old and he most definitely has the waggiest tail/whole back end.
He is also a great family pet .and when he kept knocking his tail and my kitchen was starting to look like a murder scene ,the vets and us have come to the conclusion that an amputation is the best way forward . So he is going under the knife tomorrow . It’s great to read this page and see how common it is for this breed especially to have problems with such a crazy tail .
I myself have always had labs and not really considered wether or not it’s right to dock tails but I do think that spaniels for health reasons should maybe be an exception . We are considering having another cocker next year and I will most defiantly be looking for a working puppy already docked . Can’t stand to see them in pain .
Thanks for sharing your story Laura, hope Ben soon recovers from his operation.
Reading this article for the 2nd time and its still a great article and good to read more comments.
I am all for docking on working breeds not just working dogs.
It is not barbaric in any way, whats barbaric is the dog having to have a major painful op with very very painful long recovery time after having the tail docked later in life.
I’m also against people who put all these human feelings into dogs and say how barbaric tail docking is at two days old and how dogs shouldn’t be worked if tails are to be docked… How ridiculous and again this is people who clearly have no idea about the working world or the fact that working breeds are at there absolute happiest when working!! They are stopping their dog doing what is completely natural to them and I feel it is more cruel when people take on a working puppy and have no intention of actually letting that dog ever do what comes natural to it and they don’t put in any gun dog training. A bored working breed is one that gets very depressed and fed up. Its all well and good a spaniel having a long fancy tail, going off to the groomers once a month and having on lead walks round the park but is that dog really happy? I very much doubt it and to me people who are clueless about working breeds and are ignorant to why tails are docked, shouldn’t own them and they should let everyone with very happy, healthy, fit (not fat!!), well trained working gun dogs get on with what we know best in the working world.
And like somebody else commented all pet owners these days are desperate to get their dogs spayed/neutered, even commonly so when the dog is way too young and is still a puppy, rather than train and work through puppy behaviours they stupidly think neutering will solve all their problems. So its ok to put a very young dog through very invasive surgery for none other than the owners self satisfaction but its not ok to avoid serious painful injury when the pups are days old and will never know any different!
I have also never ever met a working dog yet with a docked tail who can’t show emotion or balance? Where this even comes from I don’t know and it sounds like another excuse somebodies come with against docking.
If these people actually went on a shoot and watched docked working breeds work they would be amazed at the happy, over enthusiastic, very fit dogs with amazing stamina on a hard days work and brilliant balance and skill to dart and weave about doing what they are bred to do! They are not in any way hindered without a tail and in fact you usually find the dog with the tail is the hindered unbalanced one as our sprocker was in the beginning of her life, her tail was always in her way and she showed us that by always being bothered by it, after finally recovering from a late docking she was a different dog, she works amazing and she’s so much happier, her tail has never bothered her again.
I will never buy another working puppy with its tail.
Amie Kemp says
My spaniel is 5 and isn’t a working dog, just a loved pet who enjoys hours and hours of walking and running. He has a gorgeous tail and to all our friends and family is famous for his sheer happiness which is shown by the wagging of his tail and entire back end of his body.
The end of his tail has just split and we now have to decide what to do. Attempt to keep his tail bandaged until it heals then once the bandages come off there will be tissue damage and there is a high chance it will continue to break. Or we have to decide to put our much loved pet through a very painful amputation. If this was done as a puppy he wouldn’t have a split tail and wouldn’t be faced with a painful operation and we wouldn’t have to choose. He doesn’t appear to be in any pain at this stage and my husband and I have different opinions so we are leaning towards trying the healing process once and if it splits again we will dock his tail but the risk with this is the damage next time could be worse and potentially cause spinal injuries and put him in a lot of pain anyway. The operation itself will be a painful day but the recovery is only 10 days whereas the healing process can take a long time and may never be achieved. However much I love my dog’s tail I love my dog more and would rather have a short tailed happy spaniel with a long fulfilled life than what we are faced with now. He is my first dog and 5 years ago I may have said that docking isn’t necessary, however that opinion was uneducated and how much nicer would it be for us and my spaniel if this was dealt with as a puppy. Spaniels are made to work, although we don’t work our spaniel he is walked for long periods where he enjoys running, chasing and flushing. Choosing to deprive your spaniel from working, running and playing just in case they damage their tails is cruel. We now have to keep him on the lead while walking so the bandage stays on as long as possible and he is not getting the one thing he enjoys most in life. All he needs to be happy is walks, food and his ‘pack’, well it’s actually my pack and he’s part of it, nothing else matters to dogs. To those who say that they are born with tails so should keep them fail to realise that before docking became an option or for wild dogs with broken tails these lovely creatures would just be left to suffer with no treatment and that is barbaric. One of my spaniels has had her tail docked, it wasn’t something we were looking for I just wanted a brown sprocker, she came from working stock so the breeder docked all the pups tails in the first few days of their life. She is equally as happy as our older one and at least we can take comfort in knowing she will never have to go through this. Any future additions to my pack will have docked tails and it will be what I look for over colour next time. As with anything in life it’s easy to say what should / shouldn’t be done but until you are faced with the alternative consequence you can never really know how important docking is at a young age.
Thank you Amie for sharing your story. I do hope your dog’s tail mends well with no further problems.
Iona Taylor says
I have a 6 year old, undocked Cocker who is a VERY enthusiastic worker. He has never injured his tail, but last year wore the skin on his nose out, resulting in a week off in January. My 4 month old pup has a tail that has been docked very short.
I have 2 working cockers, and as working spaniels it is a must their tails are docked, my 2 are docked, i have seen many working spaniels with split tails and it is agony for them!, my friend had a sprocker with a long tail, and it split to halfway down his tail, the poor dog was in absolute agony, even after the vet operated on him, he was still in a lot of pain for about a month after.
I am picking up my working cocker puppy next week, and he is not docked. We wont be working him (i.e. not involved in shoots) and he will be a pet. However I am hoping to do gun dog trianing with him to keep him active and challenged.
Having read this, I presume that the extent we go forward witht he training may be limited by the environment – the conditions described that can cause torn tails will have to be avoided at all costs! I am hope that I can work through the grades of gun dog training with him, without risking his tail being damaged.
Docking was not something we looked for when getting a puppy, as he will be a pet, so I will very carefully keep an eye out for situations which might damage his tail as we progress with trainging.
Thanks for the comments, its been really useful to read!
Hi Sarah, good lluck with your new puppy, and I hope you enjoy the grades. Drop into the forum and let us know how you get on 🙂
John MacTavish says
Got to say that I’m in the dock WORKING BREEDS, not just working dogs.
Spaniels have been bred primarily as working dogs, they have been bred over the years to be quick in the turn and brave in thick cover. Whether the dog is working or just out for a walk with a non shooting owner it will still exhibit the same movement characteristics and put it’s tail at the same risk of being damaged.
We have had a full and exhaustive scientific report done by Glasgow University for our Scottish Parliament, it clearly shows that working breeds are about 20 times more likely to suffer tail damage if their tails are not docked compared to docked ones. This report was meant to have been read and the original docking ban was meant to have been looked at by our parliament……..this has not happened because of a lack of lobby pressure.
I have a copy of the report and took part in a lot of the discussions pertaining to it’s remit. It makes for interesting reading, although I’m not surprised by any of it because it’s simply science telling me (or any working breed dog owner) what we could have told the scientists without the huge expense
Gina Brown says
I have a spaniel who is undocked, never again! She regularly splits her tail while working. Have bought a GSP who is thankfully docked – wouldn’t have bought her otherwise.
As for communication issues – no way! A well balanced happy bunch here.
I’ve witnessed many torn tails in undocked working dogs. Rather like boxers who suffer a nasty cut, the damaged area is then more liable to easy subsequent damage. I hate to see any animal suffer … and prevention seems much better than dealing with repeat injuries, pain and discomfort.
after reading most comments i would be without doubt that docking should be made crucial to working dogs , like most people have said that their dogs have suffered due to tails not being docked , what is the law dont dock and dogs suffer in the long run or dock and everything is fine , be cruel to be kind ? dont think so !, the trouble with this country there are too many do gooders that create troble for others
I have a pet Weimaraner who is undocked…I wash blood off my walls as part of my weekly clean. She has had infections in her tail and has a rather large lump of scar tissue on the tip now. A vet in America recommended amputation while we were out visiting family and her tail became infected from repeated injury. While I love every bit of my girl including her tail, I wish for her she had been docked. She has so little fur covering her tail that there is near no protection from hard surfaces. Even in the “fancy” there is a reason that they were docked, it isn’t just a fashion.
Linda Wilson says
First of all I should say that I don’t have a docked breed in that we have Pointers. Pointers do not require to be docked as they are not expected to face cover. However, I am wholly in support of docking in HPR’s and Spaniels as they do face cover and therefore the risk of tail damage. Even a pet dog in any of these breeds runs the risk of damage if that dog uses his instinct to hunt through brambles, bushes, etc. I have seen docking carried out and I believe it is much less stressful for the pup than the removal of dew claws which is still permitted.
David Drew says
Read Sporting Gun this month where you will see a write up about my dogs tail amputation!
Andrew Gadsden says
I grew up with spaniels with docked tails. I have never worked them so I know nothing about the problems of split tails. I have just bought a cocker puppy, and I decided, after careful thought, to look for an undocked liter.
Dogs use their tails for balance and communication. I am more concerned about this than about the procedure itself.
Tails have been docked for many reasons in the past – for example, by the Romans to prevent rabies (they thought rabies was caused by worms that lived in the tail), and in the 18th century to avoid a tax on dogs with tails.
So I’ve started to believe that the main reason for docking is tradition.
There are many breeds that work and are not docked. Perhaps spaniels are especially prone to tail injuries.
But I do struggle to understand why, if spaniels work so hard in cover that they need to have their tails docked, they were bred with those ridiculous long ears. For me, it just doesn’t add up.
Thank you for your very interesting and informative article.
Alex wilson says
My partner has ALWAYS had docked working spaniels that have always had very busy working lives. All very happy dogs and could certainly express emotions and communicate absolutely fine with docked tails. Years ago his father always docked the puppies tails and the mother looked after them so there’s no pain or discomfort for the pups.
We decided a year and a half ago to get a springer X cocker, we didn’t want one with a tail but fell in love with her tail intact… A very long tail at that!
It never suited her, she looked uncomfortable, she never held it proud it always hung between her legs, she would chew it when nervous. She then unfortunately damaged it working and the split never healed so despite me trying numerous creams, pastes, bandages it kept splitting and bleeding everywhere for two months or more. She was in pain and distressed by it all so the vet docked it in the end. But that wasn’t the end, it was docked and then due to it not healing well it had to be re-docked again and another £150! It still caused her hurrendous pain and 8 weeks later still wasn’t fully healed. It all ended up costing more than the dog itself cost and put her through no end of pain!
She isn’t even a full on worker, she’s a pet that we work as novices for her own pleasure. She’s never had problems with her ears but spaniels can easily damage their tails and they don’t heal like other parts of their body. If she cuts her ear it easily heals.
I hear so many stories very similar to ours where spaniels working or pets end up going through so much pain with a late in life docking due to injury.
I am totally against people cutting dogs ears off to make them look mean but tail docking in spaniels SAVES them from pain not in all cases but in many and I feel these people who think it’s barbaric really have no idea about the working world or the fact that it’s really kinder for the breed. It’s not barbaric in any way and every spaniel I meet with a docked tail has no trouble being super pleased to see me and working spaniels with docked tails have no trouble wagging those stumps when working hard doing the job they love best!
Alex wilson says
And just to add after Jude our sprocker finally recovered after months of pain she was like a different dog! Everybody commented on how much happier she seemed, how she held herself better, ran better. Members of the family were so surprised at the transformation. She was obviously never meant to have a tail and to this day we’ve not had another problem, she works really well now she’s just about to turn two and wags her docked tail non stop!
Jo Hewison says
We have two cockers that I adore! They both work amazingly several daya s week in the seaon, and we have won and been placed at working tests, so we have fun!
We have had very bad luck with them both recently, though – IOHC with both – I didn’t know anything at al about it, but apparently prevalent in *all* spaniels.
Both have broken their legs in freak accidents, on at 3 years old, one at 6. Both winthin a coupld of months of each other.
Devastating. One is fine, but not sure of the long term for my sweet Welly
What awful luck! Fingers crossed for Welly.
Jo Hewison says
This article puts it all on the table, I think
I am against neutering for owner’s convenience when , most likely, sound management and training would nip any behaviour problems in the bud. With irresponsible owners, however, a different matter.
I will not home a pup if the potential owner tells me they are going to neuter it. It tells me that they can’t even be bothered to find out if the poor little soul might have a problem…….
Jo Hewison says
Sorry = posted in the wrong place!
Jo Hewison says
We go to a lovely homeopathic/holistic vet to do our pups’tails, and no-one could be more concerned about a dog’s welfare than him. He says he has had to do late amputation on spaniels’tails in the past, after they were damaged and wouldn’t heal properly, and he wouldn’t wish that on any dog.
In answer to being barbaric – is it not barbaric to take out testicles and ovaries in the name of convenience – usually that of the owner…….. Sorry – probably off topic.
Didn’t realise you had spaniels Jo, how lovely! One of my own cockers had to have a late amputation at two because she had been docked far too long and had severe tail damage. It was a horrible time for her.
There does seem to be some movement amongst vets to discussing neutering more and to recognising that there are pros as well as cons. Though some still want to whip every dog’s balls off at the first opportunity. The new study was interesting but I’m not sure that we can draw any firm conclusions from it.
I understand the docking argument, but we don’t dock a foxhound’s stern, and they work like no other dog, covering miles of country in the toughest undergrowth. Thoughts?
Foxhounds cover large amounts of ground, but this is not all dense cover, a fair proportion of their time will be spent crossing open ground. This is very different to a working spaniel that may spend long periods of time forcing through dense cover. The tail of the foxhound is also held high and has a slower action than a spaniel. Hounds do sometimes suffer tail damage, as do retrievers, but not so frequently as to have created a need for docking.
It is worth bearing in mind that docking was originally initiated out of need and practicality. Not for any other reason. Where there was not sufficient need, docking would not become routine practice. Had there been a need for docking foxhounds, I am sure that there would have been no hesitation to do so.
Hi I have a cocker spaniel and springer spaniel as pets , not working dogs , both have not been docked , my cocker spaniels tail hail has been fine , my 6 year old springer has split his tail 9 occasions over the last 7months each time taking approx 4 weeks to heal , however this time although he’s good and doesn’t touch bandage when on and tolerates it most of the time , each time tail looks healed within 24 hours of bandages being off his tail is split again , blood everywhere , dog gets distressed , but this time approx 3 inches of his tail has went black in colour . I live in Scotland ….and my vet says we just have to keep bandaging it . My poor boy is suffering and seems to be less tolerant , growling when touch tail and obviously sore . I’m concerned about change in colour this time , dreading going back to vet another large bill and my boy still suffering . I believe there should be a case for docking in certain breeds , especially when there is a problem . I’m frustrated any advise , this is really upsetting .
I am so sorry to hear you have this horrid problem. I suggest you get a second opinion. There is nothing to stop vets in Scotland amputating a tail for therapeutic reasons. And it sounds as though you might be heading in this direction. Good luck
Stevie Allerton says
Hi, My vet has always docked my GSP puppies’ tails by applying a band at the required length. The puppy feels no pain whatsoever – it would also not feel pain at 2 days old anyway, as it’s nerve pathways have not yet fully developed. As the puppy grows over the next week or 10 days. the tail becomes shrivelled and just drops off, leaving a very neat finish. In answer to the question about Scottish law, it is only illegal to dock pups in Scotland, not to own one that was docked elsewhere.
Thanks for that Stevie 🙂
Andy scott says
I have recently bought a 4 month old springer, his tail hasnt been docked, i intend to work him. Today at the vets i asked about getting it done, but they said they cant until it inevitable gets cut and possibly infected. Any way round this or have i just got to wait n hope it wont get infected?
Puppies need to be docked in the first few days of life. It would be illegal for your vet to do it now. You will just have to wait and see what happens I’m afraid.
Hi. Very interesting article. I’ve always wondered,when you say puppies have little sensation in their tails (which people always seem to say) does that mean they are not able to be given anything to take the pain away completely? I always assumed that the area was anaesthetised in some way until people kept saying “oh they don’t feel much” etc. Is that not the case? Just out of interest, is it the actual docking that is banned in scotland or are you not allowed to work/own a docked dog at all? Thanks a lot. 🙂 Rosamund
I have always had working dogs, I now have a WCS but there is no way that I would have bought a working dog in Scotland where I live – when buying a pup I have always bought from England and brought the pup back home – there is a list of Vets here who are pro the docking of working dogs tails and I have to say my Vet has no problem with my cocker being docked – I also have a Flatcoated Retriever who I was hoping would work but as he has grown i’m not sure that it will be a good idea as his tail is something else – Verity
Norfolk Homemade Mum says
I thought this was a really well writtten article. Having previously not had any knowledge of why docking occurred I found it very interesting. Is it just Cocker Spaniels that have their tails docked or do other working breeds have it done too?
Hi there, other working spaniels such as springers, and HPR breeds are prone to tail damage and can be docked if intended for work.
David Drew says
I have two Springers, the youngest being 15 months both have tails, the eldest, because she has! The youngster, because he came from Scotland. Both, and the youngster is still in training, have had split tails! As they get into a full working life I am confident that they will both get damaged more and will both have to have an operation to dock the tail in some degree. Far more traumatic for the dog than when it was a pup!
Thanks for sharing your experience David.
Richard Hyde says
Thanks Pippa for a reasoned argument.
My view is that docking is not required for any dog which is not going to work or occupy an environment where potential tail damage could occur; even ‘pet’ dogs who have a high hunting drive can suffer tail damage just on the daily walk if walked around dense cover. My Spaniels don’t differentiate between working and simply enjoying a walk, by their very definition they are driven genetically to hunt. My Labrador and Retrievers usually suffer from cuts to their faces from pushing through undergrowth. I don’t ask them to do this they are programmed to hunt and do so willingly and thoroughly enjoy the experience.
Other dogs which don’t experience this have no requirement to be docked purely for fashion or traditional reasons, for example ear cropping has absolutely no reason to be done, in my view. In my experience I’ve never seen a dog which has suffered tail damage heal sufficiently without amputation of the affected portion. I feel it is cruel to allow the dog to suffer the pain and trauma of tail damage, which could so easily have been avoided by docking. It’s true that not all dogs will damage their tails, call docking insurance; it’s mitigation of the risk. I believe that the current restrictions are reasonably fair, but for the reasons stated earlier are not always in the best interest of the dog. Having to prove the likely potential or inevitability of tail damage to legally dock by way of the dogs’ occupation is flawed. Preferably would be a dialogue between the breeder and their vet and advice taken providing the vet is prepared to give an unbiased view with the dogs’ best interest and not their own personal view taken into account.
Thanks for your comments Richard.
Carl owen says
Well we bought a undocked pup last year 7 moths on she damage her tail on the kitchen table leg it split and wouldnt heal 5 separate trips to the vets and a lot of pain to are dog lo
It started to hdal as soon as she wagged it and bangded it it would split again any way after 5 weeks it started to go black the vet said she had to have it amputated if this was Done as a pup all her suffering could have been avoided I will never by a spaniel with a full tail again .it dont matter weather they ard pets or working thdy should be docked
Thank you for sharing your thoughts Carl