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The tail end for docking

Thing of the past - docked breeds will disappear from the show ring over the next few years Photo by William Moores

TODAY WITH the enactment of the Animal Welfare Act, docking in England becomes illegal after the Labour Government’s much-vaunted legislation to update and enhance animal welfare regulations.

The Act’s passage has been a long and tortuous one over six years in the form of the Animal Welfare Bill (AWB) and what has now been enacted for England from today (the Act became effective in Wales from March 28th) is then culmination of hundreds of hours of parliamentary and consultative committee time.

Even now, the Act is only on the statute books in pretty general form; it is an Enabling Act, under which a whole raft of other animal welfare-related laws and guidelines will be enacted by Secondary Legislation over the coming years.

The AWB was described in parliamentary debates on more than one occasion as a ‘Christmas Tree Bill’, on which MPs could hang their own particular likes and dislikes. And the one subject which came top of the tree for personal dislikes was the docking of dogs’ tails.

Tail docking has always been a contentious issue, and bodies such as the Royal College of Veterinary Surgeons, the British Veterinary Association and the RSPCA have sought to have the whole practice outlawed over the years. The last time legislation affecting tail docking was considered was in 1991, when the then Conservative Government made an amendment to the Veterinary Surgeons Act, making it an offence for anyone but a qualified veterinary surgeon to dock a puppy’s tail.

The new law came into effect in 1993, after which time the RCVS made it clear that they would consider any vet to undertake tail docking to be guilty of an act of gross misconduct. However, after a botched attempt to discipline one veterinary surgeon for tail docking in 1994, the RCVS left the matter alone until the tide once again turned in their favour in 2006 when the AWB was amended to include a ban on tail docking.

In January 2002, DEFRA launched a consultation paper, which suggested a ban on tail docking as one element in a possible future Animal Welfare Bill. The Minister initially in charge of overseeing the AWB, Elliot Morley, made no secret of his dislike of ‘mutilations’ of domestic animals, and also what he saw as breeding of ‘extreme types’. Opposition to any such ban on tail docking was launched by the Council of Docked Breeds, whilst the Kennel Club continued to promote the case for tail docking during the various stages of consultation on the proposed Bill.

Things settled down somewhat when Ben Bradshaw replaced Mr Morley as Minister in 2004. On a visit to Crufts that year, the new Minister expressed the view that, as far as the Government was concerned, they were quite happy for the ‘status quo’ to prevail with regard to tail docking legislation.

However, the Minister reneged on his pledge over the course of the next few months. In November 2004, the Government announced in the Queen’s Speech that they would be introducing the Animal Welfare Bill. Shortly afterwards, the Government published a Draft version of its proposed Bill. This indicated that there would be a ban on so-called ‘mutilations’. These were not defined, but it was made clear that docking would be included amongst them. The Draft Bill also proposed that some ‘mutilations’ would be exempt from a ban. As far as docking was concerned, the Government signalled that the docking of ‘working dogs’ would be permitted, but that ‘cosmetic’ docking would not.

From then on, the CDB worked very closely with the Kennel Club in a concerted effort to retain the freedom of choice on docking. There was a ray of hope when the Animal Welfare Bill was published 14th October 2005. In the Regulatory Impact Assessment which document which accompanied the Bill, the Government stated: ‘Sincere views were held by those who both support and oppose a ban on cosmetic docking and our preference is that there should continue to be freedom of choice.’

Predictably, the majority of MPs did not share this view. The third reading of the Animal Welfare Bill took place on Tuesday 14th March 2006, when no less than 88% of MPs voted in favour of a ban on tail docking with an exemption for certain working dogs, accompanied by many punitive restrictions, including a ban on any docked working dogs being exhibited at shows.

A great deal of lobbying to secure this exemption for working dogs had been undertaken by the British Association for Shooting and Conservation (BASC). This caused a rift between the CDB and BASC, whilst the Kennel Club, sensing that the working dog exemption was the best (and only) deal on the table, set about trying to secure the best deal possible.

Despite strong lobbying by the anti-docking camp, the Welsh Assembly upheld the working dog tail docking exemption contained within the Act when it was presented to the Assembly for ratification, and the Act came into effect in Wales on March 28th.

Meanwhile, the Scottish Assembly pursued its own Animal Health and Welfare Act, in which a total ban on tail docking was included. Despite strong lobbying by the CDB, BASC, the Kennel Club and the Scottish KC, MSPs voted overwhelmingly for a total ban with no exemptions. No dog born in Scotland may be docked and no dog may be removed from Scotland to England to be docked.

However, a working dog born outside Scotland may be docked. The Scottish Bill is due to become law on April 30th this year. Meanwhile, the SKC is pursuing a possible legal challenge to the total tail-docking ban, as the measures contained in the Act may possibly breach European Human Rights legislation.

As far as the Animal Welfare Act for England and Wales in concerned, the centuries-old practice of tail docking is effectively outlawed. Even with the working dogs exemption, there is clear indication from many breeders of traditionally docked breeds that they may simply give up breeding, which will see a severe reduction in breed numbers, possibly even endangering the existence of certain breeds.

The CDB’s far-ranging survey conducted amongst breeders of traditionally docked breeds asked breeders whether they would continue to breed their chosen breed following the docking ban.

35% of breeders said they would give up, 32% had not decided and 24% would ‘begrudgingly’ continue to breed puppies that could not be docked. Similar numbers responded on the question of whether they would continue to show their chosen breed undocked, with 37% saying they would not.

In any event, few vets will want to risk docking, following the successful prosecution of a vet for docking a litter of puppies by the RCVS in November 2006. The RCVS, emboldened by its success, made it clear that they would vigorously pursue disciplinary proceedings against any vet conducting docking, even for working dogs, despite the law, as enshrined by the Animal Welfare Act, allowing them to do so.

The Council for Docked Breeds commented: ‘The exemption appears unworkable as so few vets will be likely to continue to dock under its administrative requirements and pressure from the RCVS, who continue to discipline vets who dock within the law. The CDB cannot and will not condone law breaking, so sadly concludes that those UK breeders who wish to continue breeding any of the traditionally docked breeds, abides by the law and leaves tails undocked from the above dates, or stops breeding.’

However, in a case of perhaps the tail wagging the dog - or perhaps the tail actually biting the dog - the tail docking bans may come back to haunt the Labour Administrations in both Westminster and Scotland. The CDB’s survey found that 39% of respondents said they would not vote Labour at the next General Election, whilst 38% said they would transfer their vote from Labour to another party.

The Conservative Opposition has made no noises towards reversing the tail docking ban if they form a future Government, in the same way that their plans to overturn the hunting with dogs ban seem to have been conveniently forgotten. In any event, history has shown that promises made in opposition are conveniently forgotten in Government.

It seems that tail docking, a procedure that causes strong emotions on either side of the debate has, for good or ill, been consigned to history.


LAST WEEK, the Welsh Assembly voted to uphold the docking ban contained in the Animal Welfare Act. From March 28th, it will be illegal in Wales for a dog to be docked, except by a Veterinary Surgeon for therapeutic reasons and for working dogs under the exemption governed by regulations set by the Government and upheld by the Welsh Assembly. The Ban comes into effect in England today, April 6th.

Although the Anti-Docking Alliance (A.D.A.) welcomed what they called ‘this progressive step’ Pauline Baines, Founder of A.D.A. was, perhaps predictably, not so enthusiastic about the way at which these exemptions have been selected in each region.

The Anti-Docking Alliance is pleased that undocked puppies will now be seen at fee-paying dog shows and at Crufts from 2008. They are also advising anyone buying a dog which has been docked by a veterinary surgeon for work in the specified groups to ensure that they secure and keep the Veterinary certificate to say it was lawfully docked.