A critical analysis of tail docking in dogs and its effects upon dogs’ behaviour and communication

Published: 2019/11/28 Number of words: 2689

Canis familiaris, or the domestic dog, is believed to be the world’s oldest domesticated species. One of the most widely held theories is that it is descended and evolved from Canis lupus, the wolf, around 14,000 years ago (Clutton Brook, 1995). Like its ancestors, the domestic dog is an extremely sociable, pack animal, but instead of being conspecific, it regards the human family members it resides with as pack members. Currently, there are an estimated 5.15 million dog-owning households in the UK with around 6.5 million dogs being kept (Pet Food Manufacturers Association, 2003), making the dog one of the most popular companion animals in the UK.

Selective breeding has resulted in great diversity; there are over 400 different breeds of dog and, while there are some striking morphological differences, in essence they all employ similar methods to communicate with each other. These methods include olfactory cues (for example scent recognition and urine marking), auditory cues (such as growls), and visual cues (including body postures such as tail position and stance). The domestication process, which has transformed Canis familiaris from wolf to companion animal, has inevitably interfered with the dog’s morphology and behavioural traits (Svartberg and Forkman, 2002), including the ability to communicate effectively with conspecific and other species. In some cases, this may be exacerbated by the physical alterations humans impose, such as tail docking.

Tail docking is the term used to describe the shortening of an animal’s tail by amputation (DEFRA, 2004). This is a process that is undertaken on many species and for a variety of reasons including for cosmetic purposes, to maintain breed standards and for therapeutic/ prophylactic reasons. The procedure is usually undertaken on the neonatal pup and on certain breeds such as spaniels, some terriers and Dobermans. Historically, it has been carried out for many reasons, including rabies prevention (an early Roman belief), injury prevention and to exempt working dogs (pre-1796) from the general dogs’ tax (UK Parliament, 2004).

This study looks at some of the implications of tail docking and considers the arguments both ‘for’ and ‘against’ the contentious debate that surrounds tail docking. It considers how tail docking may or may not interfere with the dog’s ability to communicate with others and any potential problems which may arise as a result of tail docking.


The behaviour, including posture, of domestic dogs has been extensively documented and studied (Fox, 1969, Wansbourgh, 1996). The stance and posture a dog adopts, together with other cues, are key to its ability to communicate effectively with other conspecifics (plus other species), and to maintain structured relationships within a pack; for example, dominance hierarchies. The dog utilises many parts of its body to relay information, for example, piloerection (when the dog ‘has it hackles up’) and the position and carriage of its tail.

The tail can be used as a benchmark for many emotions. For example, a loose and exaggerated wagging tail when combined with movement of the entire rump is indicative of a subordinate dog. A tail clamped between the hind legs hints that the dog is afraid or anxious, whereas a confident dog, verging on aggressive arousal, may display a ‘fluffed’ out tail, which makes it look bigger, while holding it vertically out from its rump.

This is reinforced by Morton (1992) and Wansbourgh (1996) who report that the tail of a dog has two main functions; that of balance and as a tool to for communication with both other dogs and other species. The position of the tail and the way that it is moved, together with body stance, can signal pleasure, friendliness, dominance, playfulness, unhappiness, poor well-being, defensiveness, inquisitiveness, aggression, nervousness and submissiveness. It is also used in specific ways which are characteristic of certain breeds, such as pointing’ (Morton, 1992).

In essence, this indicates that amputation of part or the whole of the tail could potentially interfere with the nature of communication between conspecifics and other species, including humans. This is reflected by Wansbourgh (1996) who asserts ‘some behaviourists believe the absence of a tail may predispose a dog to show unwarranted aggressive behaviour towards other dogs and humans or that they may be the victim of attacks by other dogs due to its failure to communicate effectively’.

Arguments such as this are supported by organisations such as the Anti-Docking Alliance, or the ADA (established 2000), amongst others, as being reasonable. They are pressing for a complete ban on all non-essential, non-therapeutic tail docking.. The ADA also maintain that (as dogs currently rank as one of the most popular species of companion animal in the UK) the need for efficient and clear communication between humans and dogs, along with the ability to interpret a dog’s body language, is of primary importance. They maintain that if humans, especially vulnerable groups such as children, are hindered in interpreting the dog’s body postures and cues, they may inadvertently find themselves in unpredictable situations. If certain behaviours such as nervousness, aggressiveness or defensiveness are misinterpreted, it can lead, for example, to aggressive attacks (author’s own observations, 2005).

The position of the ADA is reflected and supported by highly influential bodies such as the Royal College of Veterinary Surgeons, (RCVS). In a RCVS press release (1992), it was stated that ‘the RCVS considers tail docking of dogs to be an unjustified mutilation and is unethical unless done for therapeutic or acceptable prophylactic reasons’. In addition, the RCVS also recognises the various functions a dog’s tail serves, including its use as a highly visible communication cue. As such, an amendment was made in 1991 to the Veterinary Surgeons Act (1966) which made it illegal for any person other than a qualified veterinary surgeon to undertake the docking procedure. This came into effect in July 1993.

However, there is opposition to this contentious issue from the Council for Docked Breeds (CDB). The CDB insists that there is no research to support the idea that communication may suffer from the loss of part or all of a dog’s tail. The CBD outlines many reasons for the continued tail docking of dogs, amongst them the need to maintain breed standards and to prevent injury, but insists that communication will not suffer as a result. In support of this, LaHam (no date) reports that there is ‘not a single shred of evidence’ that supports the information given by ADA that tail communication is essential or that a dog is unable to do so effectively without a tail.

Some veterinary surgeons in the UK lend their support to the CDB. Through their website, ‘Vets for Docking’, qualified veterinary surgeons who oppose the official RCVS stance on the tail docking debate, posted this statement (2002); ‘Communication in dogs is primarily an interaction by smell, facial expression and body posture. Similarly, urine marking of territory is a major communication mode. To a lesser extent, vocal communication plays a part. The tail plays a small part in the process and experience shows that the absence of a tail has absolutely no effect on canine communication skills. It is a simple fact that naturally docked breeds are perfectly happy and interact normally with both humans and other dogs.’ This statement appears to be from personal observations only, as no information is given to justify its basis scientifically or with factual references.

The assertions expressed by ‘Vets for Docking’ were opposed by a memorandum sent to the UK Government by the ADA, Section 16,(2004). It states: ‘Dogs without tails and those with them are likely to find efficient communication difficult, which can affect the way in which they behave towards one another; for example, through increased aggression’. This is supported by the work by Morton (1996) who reveals that, through a lack of part of or the whole tail, the failure of essential communication between conspecifics could easily give rise to frustrations because of the inability to express emotive tail displays. This could primarily manifest as an increase in aggression directed towards other dogs or the dog could become a victim of unsolicited attacks by other dogs.

In a review of the scientific literature and veterinary opinion, the Animal Welfare Veterinary Division of New Zealand (AWVDNZ) (2002) concluded, as one of many points, that ‘the removal of the tail, whole or part, from a breed or type of dog that is born with a full tail, deprives the dog of a major body appendage, and can result in behavioural changes in the dog’. This is an issue which could potentially impact, not only on the dog’s ability to communicate with other dogs, but also the communicative cues it gives to other species, including humans.

‘Dogs are very experienced in the recognition of human gestures’ (Miklōsiet al., 2001). The ability of dogs to communicate with humans has been well documented, (Miklōsi et al.,2001, Miklōsi et al.,2003). In studies undertaken by Miklōsi et al.(2003), it was established that dogs displayed ‘preferential looking at humans, which seems to be a genetic predisposition in dogs…..we assume that one of the first steps in domestication of the dog was selection for ‘human-like’ communicative behaviours’. This indicates that, while the dog does employ a wide range of cues for communicating, the ones it uses most frequently are the ones which humans can also employ, such as looking/ gazing with the eyes and facial expressions, and therefore the ones which humans understand the most. More subtle cues can be overlooked or misunderstood completely. In the case of the tail, while it is a highly visible signal, it can often be misinterpreted by humans.

Most people, who consider themselves familiar with dogs, interpret a ‘dog with a waggy tail’ to be friendly and approachable. While this may be the case in the majority of situations, it is not necessarily certain. If the dog has no tail to observe, it could potentially be very difficult to interpret, resulting in undesirable or aggressive situations. In addition to inter-dog aggression, unwarranted aggression may also be directed towards other household members if the dog resides as part of a family group. As mentioned, vulnerable people, such as young children, who may find it difficult to interpret the cues and body language the dog is displaying, may be particularly at risk of antagonistic situations and/ or attack, (author’s own observations).

This is summed up by a bulletin issued by the New Zealand Veterinary Association (NZVA) (2004), which announced that the use of the tail during communication is especially important with children. ‘Children are taught to ‘read’ a dog’s body language especially by observing the tail; i.e. a potentially ‘safe’ dog is one that is happily wagging its tail’ (NZVA, 2004). This is especially valid when considering that the tail is a highly visible indicator of mood from a distance (Lorenz, 1952).

In contrast, advocates for docking, Vets for Docking (2002), report that, ‘it is a simple fact that naturally docked breeds are perfectly happy to interact normally with both humans and other dogs’. Presumably, this is because this organisation asserts that the tail has no or little function where communication is concerned. While it may be true that dogs with no tail are able to lead full, constructive and ‘happy’ lives, there are still major disagreements regarding the need for a dog to retain its tail, if it naturally has one.

While there is conflict between advocate groups relating to the tail docking issues in relation to communication and interpretation by humans, it does appear that the cues a tail gives, while certainly playing a part, are not the major way communication occurs between a humans and dogs. However, in the case of communication with other dogs, reviewed literature (Fox, 1969, Wansbourgh, 1996, Morton, 1992) supports the integral use of the tail, along with other body postures, as one of the primary methods for successful inter-dog communication.


Dogs employ a wide range of body postures and vocalisation to communicate their emotional state to conspecifics and other species, including humans. The body postures they adopt represent a large proportion of the dogs’ visible body language in which the carriage and position of the tail is but one of the visible cues.

The issues surrounding tail docking in dogs continues to be a much debated subject. It is agreed that the dog uses its tail for communication purposes; however, to what extent the tail is important in the communication process is still widely argued. The uses of the tail are well documented (Morton, 1992) and logic suggests that if the whole or part of the tail was to be amputated, these uses may be impaired in some way.

Arguments put forward by pro-docking groups appear, on examination, to be based upon personal observations and opinions, with little or no reviewed literature to back them up. In contrast, when the available literature is reviewed, it can justifiably be said that there is evidence that tail docking of dogs does indeed interfere with its ability to communicate effectively, both with other dogs and with humans. However, communicative ability appears to be (in the author’s opinion), impaired more in the case of inter-dog communication than in human–dog communication when a tail has been amputated.

It is at this juncture that it becomes apparent that if communication is impaired, it may lead to undesirable situations, both for the dog in question, other dogs and, in some cases, humans. This may lead to antagonistic or dangerous situations in which a dog may attack either another dog or a human, if the human misinterprets the visual cues given by the dog’s tail. It becomes ever more difficult to interpret the clues if there is no actual tail there to ‘read’.

The communication issue is just one within the plethora of reasons given by the pro- and anti-docking groups as they continue to debate whether tail docking is justifiable in the 21st century.


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