I’m a sucker for strong looking dogs; Dobermans, Dogos, Danes… just beautiful. Back when I got Athena, my Doberman, I knew next to nothing about dogs and I’m totally embarrassed to admit that I thought their pointy ears were natural; I thought they were born that way.
Doing my research before getting her, I quickly learned that wasn’t the case, and for me it was a no brainer; of course we’d leave the ears natural. Cropping them just seemed like a lot of work and a lot of hassle, when there was no downside to leaving them natural. That’s about as far as I thought into it. It just wasn’t a big deal to me.
Then, talking to the breeder, she asked us to put an extra deposit down if we weren’t going to let her do the ears, because if she didn’t do the ears and we backed out, “no one else would want her”. While that struck me as odd, I still shrugged it off. I just wanted my puppy. I also asked about leaving her tail natural, but they’d already been docked and – excited to get my puppy – I didn’t want to wait for the next litter to get one with a natural tail. So, I ended up with my Athena; natural, floppy ears, docked tail.
And then began what is, to this day, a near-daily questioning from random strangers:
- “What’s her mix?”
- “Why didn’t you do the ears?”
- “She’s not pure dobe, right?”
And so on, and so forth. I still get it multiple times a week. And I very quickly learned, everyone has an opinion when it comes to ear cropping and tail docking. EVERYONE.
So, let’s talk about it.
The history of ear cropping and tail docking seems to go back to, at least, ancient Roman times. The ancient Romans believed that ear cropping, tail docking, and tongue clipping (?!) worked as a preventative for rabies. While that is obviously not true, the tiny grain of truth in the thought probably had to do with the fact that working dogs who had tails and ears were more likely to get them hurt (whether in battle, or catching on something), and thus were more likely to get infections and get ill; this would have predated antibiotics.
Interestingly, in the 1700s in the UK, there was a tax on pet dogs but not on working dogs, and the way they’d distinguish between the two was that working dogs had to have their tails docked. Thusly, having a dog with a natural tail was a sign of wealth (you could afford to keep a pet), and people could dock their dog’s tail to avoid paying the tax.
Why is it still done?
If originally docking and cropping was done a) for working dogs, and b) to prevent rabies or infections, why is it still done? In general, but especially for pet dogs? We now have rabies vaccines and antibiotics, and most dogs – at least in this part of the world – are pets, not working dogs.
Well, it isn’t still done everywhere. Here in Canada, cosmetic surgery (ear cropping and tail docking) isn’t federally mandated, but provincially; it is banned outright in PEI and Newfoundland and Labrador. While not provincially banned, the veterinary associations in New Brunswick, Nova Scotia, and Quebec have banned vets from performing cosmetic surgery on dogs, and in BC, Manitoba, and Saskatchewan they have banned ear cropping but not tail docking.
Many countries, including a huge portion of Europe, Australia, and Brazil have banned cosmetic surgery on dogs.
Unfortunately, here in North America it is still quite prevalent. Which brings us back to the question of why.
Some people argue that cropping ears is a health measure. Most often you’ll hear people say that it prevents ear infections or can help dogs to hear better.
As for docking tails, they argue it prevents injury; your dog’s tail could hit something and break, or get caught in something.
Is there any truth to it? Looks like no. All sources on this seem to be anecdotal, and when we look at the science, it just doesn’t back it up.
The essential question is not “How harmful is the procedure?”, but rather “Is there sufficient justification for performing it?” Performing a surgical procedure for cosmetic purposes (i.e., for the sake of appearance) implies the procedure is not medically indicated. Because dogs have not been shown to derive self-esteem or pride in appearance from having their tails docked (common reasons for performing cosmetic procedures on people), there is no obvious benefit to our patients in performing this procedure.
From Ear Cropping and Tail Docking: Should You or Shouldn’t You?, they also raise the point of the ear infection claim.
Research shows that at least 80 percent of dogs won’t get ear infections, “and the breeds that are most likely to get them, such as cocker spaniels and poodles, don’t get their ears docked,” Patterson-Kane says.
Anyone who is being honest with themselves, given all of the above and the abundance of research on it, has to admit that this is what it boils down to: people like the look of a cropped ear and a docked tail. What we need to consider is, is that enough? Is the fact that people like how it looks, that it is “breed standard” enough?
Considering how reliant dogs are on body language, in taking away their ears and tails, we are taking away a big chunk of their ability to communicate with one another. This can have a real impact on their ability to socialize with each other. Their tails can also help with balance, and with spinal alignment.
It is also a concern that the procedures are painful; docking is done without anesthesia. Cropping has a lot of aftercare, and can have side effects – including serious infection, or just plain bad results.
Lastly, and perhaps most simply, as Dr. Julie Schell puts it, “dogs just love getting their ears rubbed and petted– don’t take that away from your dog.”
The bottom line
I really think it boils down to cognitive dissonance. People love their dogs. No matter if their ears are cropped, tails are docked, their dogs are on prong collars, whatever – all these things I don’t agree with – people love their dogs. I never question that. But they like how it looks, and so people need to find a way to justify it; to manage to come to terms with the fact that they want that look and they love their dogs.
Times are changing though, slowly but surely. I’m seeing fewer and fewer dogs with cropped ears; tails are a ways behind that, but I have confidence that that is changing too.
Here’s hoping that one day, maybe twenty years from now, floppy eared goofy dobes like mine will be the new “breed standard”.