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Brave - but doomed from the start? Liz Gay debates the Docking debate

If you are a lecturer at a university and decide there is a need to educate your students about debating scientific evidence and the need to keep an open mind would you, in this current climate, decide to give them a chance to see such a debate in action on the subject of docking ?

Claire Brown, Animal Welfare lecturer at Lincoln, thought it a very good idea and, despite some initial reservations from the faculty, organised opposing teams to debate ‘This house believes that the prophylactic docking of dogs’ tails is justified on animal welfare grounds’, and invited people to attend and instructed her pupils to do a little evening work.

Two distinguished panels were present but, with total respect to the members, they were in my view very unbalanced. Three vets were to speak against the motion with one retired vet, one dog breeder and the Communications Director of the B.A.S.C. to speak for. Such is the way of human nature now that if you are in doubt about any subject you ask an expert, so perhaps subconsciously, could the vets have been considered to have more knowledge of the subject?

The introduction to the evening, by Professor Daniel Mills who was very resplendent in a dog tie, reminded everybody that ‘legislation isn’t always made on the base of solid evidence’ so asked all present to consider the evidence that would be put forward with an open mind; two words that would be uttered time and again throughout the evening.

Enthusiasm

The Chairman, Professor Mike Saks, came to the podium and laid down the ground rules for the night and, this guy was good, if anybody ever wants a chairman of a contentious debate give him a ring. Afterwards he admitted he had gulped when first asked to do it but he was very firm, very fair and kept everything in good order. Admittedly his ‘enforcer’ Professor Mills did, once or twice, appear a little keen with his enthusiasm to tell people to be quiet or they would be evicted, but there was the possibility it could have been a rowdy evening and the management weren’t very relaxed to begin with.

First to speak was Mr B Sutherland, a retired veterinary surgeon and he opened for the motion. He said that whilst in practice he had always docked and had no problem with doing it and asked what veterinary skills there now were to deal with long tail injuries? He was of the opinion that no research as to their treatment had been done and wondered if the Royal College was directing its resources the wrong way.

As is the standard procedure of debates the next speaker was against the motion. Vet Emma Goodman-Milne was the best known of the speakers, through her television work, and depending which side of the fence you sit has often irritated you beyond belief with her views or has made you reach for the pen and paper to record your approval. Would she say anything new? No. The history of docking was given and so was the phrase ‘cosmetic docking is considered by the bulk of people to be indefensible’ and the sharp intake of breath from some of the audience was audible along with a breathed ‘who says!’

Examples of fully tailed working breeds were given and the inclusion of the Deerhound was an interesting one. Emma pointed out that some countries banned docking 20 years ago and have never seen the need to rescind it because there have never been the forecasted problems.

Wendy Brooks, secretary of the Boxer Breed Council, spoke with the passion of somebody already dealing with, and despairing of, the consequences of full tails in a normally docked breed. Boxers, and tails, don’t easily go together and many experience acute painful damage. It has always been ‘horses for courses’ and some breeds, especially with very short coats that don’t protect the tail added to ultra exuberant temperament, have big problems indeed. Wendy put forward the interesting thought that if sheep were allowed to be docked because they were part of the food chain would dogs, by default, become dockable if they were eaten once more as they had been in some countries?

Wendy was the first of many throughout the night to bring up the double standards that seem to operate that if it is fine, as far as vets are concerned, to spay to prevent puppies why isn’t it fine to dock to prevent tail damage?

Mr Chris Laurence, veterinary director of the Dogs Trust, began his presentation by mentally holding his hand up and saying ‘I docked for years…but decided not to’. A excellent opening gambit to an audience that has docked breed owners in it as it identifies an experience and conscious decision that some of the more radical anti-docking vets patently don’t have.

Mr Laurence spoke on legislation and said that it should be based on fact and a good way to get that fact was by a scientific paper based on peer review. Pain is subjective but can be checked by anatomy, physiology and behaviour. Stand on a dog’s toe and it will yelp, because the pulses to the brain record this, so it would be possible to test the reaction of pain in neonatal puppies but it would be unethical to do so. It should be remembered that keeping quiet is a protective measure in a young whelp, so is it really a sign of no stress from docking if the puppy remains quiet?

The final speaker in favour of the motion was Christopher Graffius, director of communications for the BASC, and this was a man who could communicate! A man of the match is always awarded these days and if it were in debates the vote of many would have been here. He seemed to work mainly off the cuff so could reply to some of the points previously raised. If docking a dog is like interfering with a dog’s smile what does circumcision do to human babies and that is perfectly legal and at the behest of the parents, was a line that got nods of acknowledgement in the audience.

He asked why the vets hadn’t come to the ‘experts’ in the field, the shooting community, and asked for their opinions or did the vets consider themselves better than the owners? If, in a two year Swedish study 35% of fully tailed, normally docked animals, had reported tail damage what would that mount to in a five year period and anybody who compared a working collie, and their tail, with a working gundog in a tail obviously didn’t know too much about their working conditions.

Closing the official speakers was James Yeates who was down to speak on ethics. Mr Yeates qualified from Bristol in 2004 and possesses an impressive list of qualifications but didn’t really connect too well with many of the audience. One of his examples was a vet wringing an injured starling’s neck and possibly he picked up the rather blank looks of ‘well, what else would he do?’ that flashed round a fair number present and so decided to try and work the audience in the same manner as the previous speaker. It wasn’t an unqualified success as he spoke very fast, but he was willing to try and will have learnt by the experience.

Professor Saks then threw the meeting open to the floor and so the main point of the evening began; speaking your opinion and people certainly did. How can years of anger, exasperation and misunderstanding be adequately reported, because that is what the evening told? Legislation should be scientific and cold, but in so many matters it is emotion and feeling and this is such a prime example that things are rarely black and white.

One side sees the docking of tails as a mutilation and is willing to take the risk of damage later on. The other sees that there is pain in any surgical procedure so why not do it earlier than later?

One person says spaying is a mutilation on welfare grounds and the other replies bringing up other things than docking is just a diversionary tactic. One man has never had trouble with his fully tailed gundog but another has. A statement that working gundogs often get damaged ears and they aren’t taken off is met with claims that ears heal easier and don’t get the repeat damage of tails. An expert in one field says the public don’t want tails and an expert in another says yes they certainly do. A comment that vets have little, if any, knowledge in repairing adult tails is counted with the claim that anaesthesia is now very safe and causes little inconvenience, but interestingly it was never said that vets actually do know a lot about adult tail problems.

A tough but reasonably fair fight was I felt rather spoiled when one very anti-docking person inferred very strongly that pro-docking people didn’t know how their puppies suffered after docking because, unlike her who slept by her puppies, their youngsters were all outside in the kennel or in dog rooms. The lady concerned didn’t get the proverbial slap but the cracking up of necks from people the other side of the auditorium to see who had made such a remark indicated the way it was considered very below the belt.

It was a night of divisions. Seasoned breeders and casual owners; stock keepers and pet owners. Old school versus new. However it is written, it was an indication of what is going to happen in the world of dogs and the changes are very worrying. The Anti-Docking Alliance had people travelling up from the Cotswold to Lincoln; the few pro-dockers there had come to show support to the part of the fraternity, the working gundogs, that had escaped the regulation and their numbers were few because as was said, time and again, when ringing around to ask why they hadn’t attended ‘why bother?’

Consequences

It all emphasised the difference between the generations, university students to old age pensioners, and the feeling and understanding of dogs. Some, like Chris Laurence and the Anti-Docking Alliance members present, had made their own decisions based on experience but so many there, and the vets are included in this, were caught up in an idea that they seemed to really know nothing about and the consequences it may bring. Two post-debate comments illustrate this all too well. A couple who, by their reactions during the debate, had been gauged as anti-docking had in the end voted for, and there was curiosity so they were asked.

Yes, they were anti-docking and they had chosen to be and that was the operative word; chosen. They hoped everybody would feel the same way but now this law meant there was going to be no more choice and they didn’t like that one little bit. Another person was asked if they had considered that the docking ban may mean the end for some of the lesser numbered and less well known breeds that were customarily docked? The reply was if that is all it takes they should go anyway. The Musketeers motto of ‘all for one and one for all’ has obviously vanished.

Oh yes, the debate motion was defeated with 70 against and 27 for. As always with everything of this ilk a result biased to its participating audience.