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Docking: Gundog handlers meet Minister

ANIMAL WELFARE Minister Ben Bradshaw told a delegation of gundog handlers from the British Association for Shooting and Conservation (BASC) that he had ‘some sympathy’ with BASC’s campaign to exclude working dogs from a ban on tail docking when they met at the Houses of Parliament on Wednesday February 8th.

However he stressed that MPs, who are likely to be given a vote on the issue in a month’s time, must be persuaded that an exemption is enforceable.

BASC Director of Communications Christopher Graffius said after the meeting:

"It is vital that all BASC members and all gundog owners, breeders and handlers lobby their MPs by letter or in person to explain why docking is in the best welfare interests of working dogs. It must be made clear that the dogs are not docked for cosmetic reasons, but to prevent painful injury and possible amputation later in life. We have just a few brief weeks to make the case."

Breeds such as spaniels and pointers working as gun, sniffer or detection dogs are prone to painful tail damage if left undocked. The injuries are caused by the natural action of the wagging tail when in thick cover or confined spaces and often lead to amputation which is traumatic and can leave a dog unable or unwilling to work.

More than thirty gundogs and their handlers spent the day lobbying MPs, the public and the media on the issue. The group delivered a letter to 10 Downing Street and later met DEFRA minister Ben Bradshaw who took time to talk to handlers and meet the dogs. All BASC members have received a lobbying card to send to MPs.

Robert Furby from Northants attended the lobby with his docked German Wirehaired Pointer, Jess. "I’d hate to think what would happen if she had her tail behind her," he said pointing to a stitched wound on Jess’s ear, "Docking is not for fashion, it is because they work and their extremities are easily damaged. If they start to bleed the blood doesn’t drip – it pours and if you don’t do something about it you could lose the dog."

Initially the BASC believed the Government backed tail docking in the case of working dogs. When the Animal Welfare Bill was published in October 2005, DEFRA Minister Ben Bradshaw commented:

"If an argument can be made, as has been made by those involved in shooting and gun sports and by the Police in regard to sniffer dogs, where there are strong therapeutic and welfare reasons for dogs continuing to be docked then those are areas where we are prepared to look at an exemption." On meting the BASC delegation however, Mr. Bradshaw added that the argument is not based on welfare but on whether a welfare exemption is workable.

It is normal practice to remove the final third of a working dog’s tail – the area most prone to injury - before the puppy has opened its eyes. According to BASC there is no evidence that this affects balance, increases aggression or inhibits the ability of the dog to express itself.

BASC believes that an exemption is workable if certificates are given to working dogs by a registered vet. Microchipping has been suggested as a way of verifying that the certificates are bona fide.

"We think the chances of an exemption are good," said BASC Communications Director Christopher Graffius. "There is a great deal of misunderstanding in Parliament as many MPs are not familiar with dogs and how they work. For the welfare of working dogs we want a precautionary exemption to the rules." According to BASC, a few thousand dogs every year will require a veterinary decision on docking.

The Animal Welfare Bill returns to the House of Commons for its final reading on March 8th. MPs are likely to be asked to decide between three options for docking:

Keeping the status quo, which allows docking for any reason provided it is carried out by a vet

A complete ban on docking

A ban with an exemption for working dogs.

Christopher Graffius added: "We believe an exemption can be produced which would apply only to working dogs and which would be effective and enforceable. It would ban docking for cosmetic reasons, but allow vets to dock working dogs if they are satisfied it is in the animal’s best interests. It is a practical way forward between two extremes, which will solve the issue of injuries to working dogs."

"This was an important step in our campaign which has helped to bring it to the attention of MPs and the public. This is a clear animal welfare issue. It is better to allow a vet to remove the tip of a gundog’s tail than for it to suffer injury."