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A non-docker’s view... of docking! by Archie Bryden

As those who read my scribblings will know, my breed does not have its tail docked, although we did have a Miniature Pinscher which my daughter showed some years ago and which bossed the Staffords about. Consequently I have a rather dispassionate and ambivalent point of view on tail-docking.

Of course the whole basic issue of this sort of legislation was raised with the banning of hunting by dogs. Were I an MP, I would have voted against this, not because I want to ride with the hounds, which I certainly could not as I have never been on any equine species larger than a donkey on the beach, and am basically somewhat unhappy with any animal being ripped apart, but because, irrespective of ‘the pros and cons’ of the issue, it was brought for the wrong reasons – a piece of class warfare! The merits of any legislation is inconsequential, if it is introduced for the wrong reason, possibly as part of a hidden agenda, it cannot but be bad!

The docking question follows on naturally from this. Frankly I am not convinced by the arguments put forward by either side. The Council of Docked Breeds bases its argument for docking on the prevention of injury to working dogs in the field. But what is the frequency of such injuries suffered by working dogs? Is this ‘prevention of injury’ claim just hearsay? Is it simply a smokescreen for justifying a cosmetic procedure? Am I not right in saying that not all working dogs, for example Setters, are docked? Does this not undermine the argument? Within the scheme of things, police dogs are deemed as working, but their GSDs are undocked and no one in their right mind can claim that whether a ‘sniffer’ dog was docked or undocked would have any bearing on its performance.

The RSPCA’s web-site cites Swedish and Danish studies on tail injuries. The Danish one found that tail injuries comprised only 0.037% of clinic attendances (26 out of 76,000) and that there were no differences between traditionally docked and undocked breeds. What is not stated is how many of the 26 cases resulted from injuries while working and, furthermore, one must wonder if there were sufficient cases to make a meaningful, statistically significant, comparison between breeds.

The Swedish work, which is claimed by some to be ‘unscientific’, found 7/191 (3.7%) German Shorthaired Pointers had amputations carried out but does not indicate the reasons or whether they were working dogs or not. It is also pointed out, according to the Danish study, that 99.95% would be left, on account of a docking ban, with healthy, happy, uninjured tails! Perhaps I have missed something but I was never aware of tails feeling happy, or even sad for that matter! The use of such emotive phrasing is, I believe, not to the Society’s credit.

The other big question is whether docking does indeed cause pain. The RSPCA on one hand claims that, at three to five days old, puppies feel pain at a greater intensity than adult dogs, according to research which is not cited. On the other hand the CDB web-site has a detailed report by a German Veterinary Professor which states that puppies at such an early age do not feel pain on account of their immaturity.

The RSPCA is supported by the Veterinary Director of the Dogs Trust who simply states on its web-site ‘Tail-docking is known to cause pain and suffering to young puppies’ but does not offer any research to support his statement. He also goes on to say ‘It also deprives dogs of a vital form of their canine expression, and can have long-term adverse effects on health’. Have any dogs actually suffered through not being able to wag their tails or stick them boldly upright in a challenge? And what are the adverse health effects? In ‘Poppy the office dog’s’ section on the Dogs Trust site, post-docking problems affecting the stump and the dog’s anus are suggested but again there is no scientific reference in support.

One of the veterinary sites claims docking can cause incontinence and anal prolapse in bitches, but inevitably supplies no figures! I have never heard or read anything about this elsewhere and doubt if I am the only one! If such problems were to occur, albeit infrequently, surely one would have read about them at some time over the last 25 years?

One significant omission by those organisations, plus the main veterinary bodies, is studies on the incidence of infection, and possibly death, after docking. Have such studies never been done or can we assume that infection and death never happens post-docking, even when done by an amateur?

The urgent requirement is for good scientific studies to ascertain the incidence of tail injuries acquired by docked and undocked working dogs, comparing them with similar injuries in dogs of the same breeds which are not worked and in the general dog population. We also need studies on the method of docking – is there any difference between surgical removal and ‘banding’ regarding the various factors of concern.

Similarly the pain question has to be resolved by the best scientific means available. The CDB does claim ‘Undertakings by the Government that it would only legislate on scientific evidence, rather than hearsay or anecdote have been reversed’; the failure to refer to such evidence by those against docking supports this assertion. The CDB also cites Mr John Bower, a former BVA President, as stating ‘Who needs science: docking is just a totally unnecessary, cruel and cosmetic operation’! I trust Mr Bower will refute this if it is in fact untrue, but if this is indeed his opinion he has in my view let himself down badly professionally. Good science is paramount in such matters!

While I do not agree with such practices, I can understand organisations like the CDB, RSPCA and Dogs Trust being selective with any evidence they put on site in support of their respective points of view. Of course their credibility would be enhanced if they did attempt to look at things objectively and present all sides of the argument. However, can one condone this on the veterinary web-sites? In fact access to the section presenting the case against docking on the BSAVA site is limited to members only! Why? Does it contain information they would not like the informed, intelligent layman to see?

Conspicuous by its absence on the veterinary sites, such as those of the RCVS, BVA and BSAVA, is any reference to dew claw removal. This is most puzzling, for surely these bodies ought to be campaigning against this with as much vigour as tail docking. And of course there is the matter of the vigour some vets encourage owners to get their dogs neutered. The welfare organisations do, of course, support this to prevent unwanted litters and I personally feel, having looked at the overall situation, that spaying is beneficial despite the risk of major surgery; being a mere male the thought of castration for dogs does bring tears to my eyes!

What does concern me are those vets, who are probably anti-docking, that will spay or castrate at a very early age, and one can be forgiven for believing they are motivated by cash and not the animals’ welfare. My belief is to wait until after the second season before spaying to allow full maturity but again this is probably yet another topic lacking ample scientific study!

And then there is DEFRA, which has put the matter before Parliament, and the Members of Parliament themselves. By voting for the worst possible option, banning cosmetic docking but allowing it for working dogs, they have exacerbated the situation! Surely it should have banned all or not at all! Docking simply cannot be cruel, if it is indeed so, in one situation but not another!

In fact this legislation, if implemented without further modification, could be as much of a shambles as the DDA. It could be manna from heaven for any upstart of an animal welfare inspector or policeman wanting to make a name for themselves! Need I say more?

DEFRA, showing the same degree of competence as its predecessor MAFF (Who can forget the foot and mouth shambles?), clearly has no understanding of the ‘dog game’ and has been quoted, to a concerned exhibitor, pointing out that legally docked dogs may only be shown to demonstrate their working ability. They simply cannot envisage working dogs can also be show dogs! And what about dogs that have been docked therapeutically? Do the interfering busybodies of DEFRA want to ban them being shown too? I’m beginning to think of jumping on the ‘Human Rights’ bandwagon!

As I said above I can understand, but maybe not condone, the narrow point of view of the animal welfare societies, what I definitely cannot condone is MPs suffering from tunnel vision and not looking at this sort of legislation from a wider perspective in comparison with similar practices, notably in humans. The question of infant circumcision has been raised by many when discussing docking, but MPs would not touch this issue with the proverbial bargepole – might cause a spate of civil liberties cases and, more importantly, might cost votes!

Then there is the issue of body piercing of babies and young children – just look at those with pierced ears in prams! Were such children able to give informed consent before such procedures? Of course not, so it seems it is quite permissible to chop a bit off wee boys’ ‘willies’ or stick pins through babies’ ears, but not chop a bit off dogs’ tails! And such procedures are not without risk. What is the incidence of infection, complication and penile deformity, and possibly death, after circumcision? Are the figures available? What is well documented are the infection risks of body piercing, especially Hepatitis B and C, plus bacterial infection of the site involved. Double standards evidently prevail!

The one body I feel sorry for is the Kennel Club. Yes! The KC! For it will be left to sort out much of the mess if common sense does not prevail. Under its auspices, dog shows have been run for well over a century, efficiently and in accordance with the laws of the land. There is no reason to believe that this should not continue so surely DEFRA, with which the KC has consultation on many issues, should take a step backwards and work out the best way of implementing the will of Parliament with our governing body, which does have all the relevant records to hand. By donning the cloak of humility, DEFRA and the Government could do much to prevent the damage being caused by their failure to think through this legislation fully.

So where, many will ask, do I stand myself? At the beginning I stated I was not impressed by the arguments being presented and, as I have been typing this article and confirming matters on the various web-sites and elsewhere, I have become more unimpressed with the protagonists for the opposing points of view – none come out with credit.

To me there are only two options – banning docking entirely or the status quo. As no figures have been presented supporting docking as a prophylactic measure for working dogs, and as I can see no argument, other than cosmetic reasons, for docking non-working dogs, I would, if forced and somewhat reluctantly, have to go for a total ban – I accept most traditionally docked breeds seem odd with tails but we would get used to this in time.

The pain issue is unresolved; more evidence is needed especially as to the degree. If any pain is minimal, for example not more than an injection, and ample evidence is not forthcoming for medical problems resulting from docking, then one can ask, justifiably, is there a not a case for maintaining the status quo.

The saddest part is that an adversarial approach has been taken by most parties involved. This may be condoned for the CDB, which was fighting from a rather weak position overall, but what about the welfare organisations and the veterinary associations? How much more persuasive their argument would have been had they presented a balanced discussion of the ‘pros and cons’, backed up with appropriate scientific references. This would certainly have given extra weight to their opinions.

There are no winners, only losers, on this issue. The greatest pity is that there are respected organisations, which can do so much good for animals, especially dogs, at the forefront of those losers!