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Tail docking causes aggression, say scientists

DOCKING DOGS’ tails increasing the risk of making them more aggressive, according to two scientists based at the University of Victoria, British Columbia, Canada after observing how 492 dogs reacted to a robotic dog with and without a docked tail.

Nicholas Read, UVic biologist Tom Reimchen and graduate student Steve Leaver wanted to find out what effect cutting off a dog's tail might have on its behaviour and the way other dogs behave around it. What they discovered was that dogs will approach a dog with a docked tail more cautiously than they will a dog with a complete tail. And that, says Reimchen, could make the dog with a docked tail more aggressive.

Reimchen is quoted as saying: ‘Think of it this way: What type of teenager would you get if everyone approached him saying, 'I don't trust you'? What type of personality would emerge from that? It could be the same in dogs.’

These findings, based on a series of observations made in the summer of 2006, are published in the latest edition of Behaviour magazine, a European science journal dedicated to the study of animal and human behaviour. Reimchen has hypothesized that if a dog lacks a tail, arguably the most important communication tool it has when it comes to relating to other dogs, its behaviour could be negatively affected. To test this hypothesis, Leaver outfitted a toy dog with a motor in its hindquarters that would wag - or not - one of two artificial tails Leaver could attach to its rear end. The first tail was 30 centimetres long, roughly the length of a normal tail, and the second was nine centimetres, roughly the length of a docked tail.

Then Leaver took the robo-dog, which resembled a black Labrador, to a number of off-leash parks in the Victoria area to observe how real dogs reacted to it.

"When the long tail was wagging, then other dogs would approach [the robo-dog] in a confident friendly way," Leaver said in an interview. "But when the tail was still and upright, they were less likely to approach, and if they did, it was in a less confident way."

That, he said, was consistent with normal dog behaviour. In dog "language" a wagging tail usually means "come play with me," while a stiff, upright tail usually means "stay away" or at least "approach with care."

Read writes that when Leaver fixed the shorter tail to the toy dog, real dogs were more likely to believe that discretion was the better part of valour and approach it warily, said Reimchen, regardless of whether the shorter tail was wagging. "Without a tail, whether it was wagging or not, it was closer to the situation where the [long] tail was upright and still," he said.

So, Reimchen surmises, if a puppy's tail is docked when it is two or three days old, it is possible that that puppy's experiences with other dogs will be affected for the rest of its life. And that could lead to the dog becoming more remote and aggressive. "Our research does show a possible connection between losing that signal and losing the ability to communicate with a potential increase in aggression," he said.

A dog that lacks the ability to express its intentions with its tail may have to resort to other methods, says Leaver, such as growling, lunging or even biting. Or a dog that is always treated as if it were something to beware of, says Reimchen, may become a dog to beware of.

"It's not rocket science," he explained. "Suppose you have a group of 10 puppies and two of them have their tails chopped off. If we look at those two puppies minute by minute, day by day, and how not being able to signal with their tails is going to affect them, my thinking is that this could lead to a personality that is more cautious and eventually more aggressive."

The UVic research has been seized upon by anti-dockers in Canada as a good reason for Canada to follow the lead of the UK, several European nations and Australia and ban or at least limit the practice in Canada.

James Scott of the British Association of Shooting and Conservation (BASC) dismissed the research, saying: “This study looks at tail docking in isolation. In a real life situation, docked dogs will also display other behaviours which allow them to communicate with other dogs just as effectively as a dog with a full tail. It also seems to be a bit of a leap of faith to say that this will make the docked dog more aggressive.’

Mr Scott, BSc Hons, himself a former medical biochemist added: ‘For a seemingly well regarded scientist in his field, it appears the Tom Reimchen may have fallen victim to his feelings rather than sticking to the facts. The degree of anthropomorphism shown in his comments is worrying from a professional biologist.”

The Kennel Club declined to comment on the study. The Council of Docked Breeds was contacted for a comment last week, but did not respond.