In 2005, my wife and I were in Germany where we saw Doberman pinschers with floppy ears and long tails, cropping and docking having gone out of practice in the country. At first the dogs looked wrong to me, but after a few days I got used to it and within a week began to prefer this appearance. Aesthetic expectations about dogs can be overcome, but it made me wonder why such expectations arise at all.
Docking and cropping as terms applied to dogs can only be verified well after the practice began. The Oxford English Dictionary cites references to docking horses' tails from 1419 and 1530, but the earliest mention of docking a dog's tail comes from Boswell's Life of Johnson. Cropping the ears of animals is described as a form of branding for identification in the OED's entry for the verb. Expeditation--mutilation of the dogs to prevent their bothering the king's deer--can be verified as occurring hundreds of years earlier (see blog of January 8, 2011).
The origins of docking and cropping of English hunting dogs apparently lie in perceived practicalities. Rawdon Briggs Lee, in his 1893 book on sporting breeds of England and Ireland, cites a foxhound authority that rounding of the ears of the foxhound, taking an inch and a half off the end of the ear, was begun to prevent “canker either from foul blood or mechanical injury.” Lee also states that the spaniel’s tail is docked “because the spaniel in working covert is less likely to injure his tail by lashing it backwards and forwards and tearing it amongst the tangled briers and thick undergrowth.”
Lee, in his chapter on setters, refers to the drawing by Aldrovandus reproduced here, drawn before 1607, showing a spaniel or setter with a short tail flushing quail. Lee notes that Aldrovandus does not mention whether the dog's tail has been cropped, or if the animal was naturally bob-tailed. He clearly suspects the latter, as do I, given that two of the 15 drawings in De Quadripedibus are of short-tailed dogs. (See blog of January 26, 2011, for additional information and links regarding Aldrovandus.)
Yet Lee knew that dogs had their own opinions about cropping of their ears, as the following account from his book demonstrates.
A few years ago, I was attending one of the Crystal Palace dog shows, and engaged in conversation with a man, well known as a skillful performer on the ears of terriers and other dogs. Walking past the benches where the Danes were chained, we were startled by a terrible growl and furious lunge, a huge brindled dog springing up and making violent attempts to reach the man to whom I was talking. Luckily for him the chain and collar and staple held. I never saw so much ferocity depicted on the face of any animal whatever as there was on the countenance of that Great Dane. It would have been bad for that man had it got loose. Need it be said, we soon gave it a wide berth. “What was the meaning of that?” said I to the fellow, who was, in reality, very much frightened and shaken by the occurrence. “Well,” said he, “I know the dog, he was badly ‘cropped,’ and about five months ago, Mr. ----- called me down to his place to ‘perform’ on his ears again. We had a terrible job with him, and I guess the dog just recognized me, and wanted to have his revenge.”
At the time, anesthesia was not part of the procedure.
The American Veterinary Medical Association has stated:
Ear cropping and tail docking in dogs for cosmetic purposes are not medically indicated nor of benefit to the patient. These procedures can cause pain and distress, and as with all surgical procedures, are accompanied by inherent risks of anesthesia, blood loss, and infection. Therefore, veterinarians should counsel dog owners about these matters before agreeing to perform these surgeries.
The Association of Veterinarians for Animal Rights takes a more aggressive position:
The Association of Veterinarians for Animal Rights is opposed to various surgeries done to meet "breed standards" or to correct so-called vices. Procedures such as ear cropping, tail docking, or debarking in dogs, or declawing in cats are unacceptable because of the suffering and disfigurement they cause an animal are not offset by any benefits to the animal. If such a procedure can be shown to be necessary for medical or humane reasons, then it is permissible. The "breed standards" for dogs must be altered to allow the animals to be shown without being surgically mutilated.
Although advocates have introduced bills in various legislatures, modern laws seldom do more than require that veterinarians perform procedures, and that anesthesia be used. The U.S. territory of Guam statutorily requires:
Only a licensed veterinarian shall perform ear cropping or tail docking on an animal, which shall be performed in accordance with the American Veterinarian Medical Association policy, and the veterinarian shall counsel pet owners about this matter before agreeing to perform these surgeries and shall record said consultation in the pet's record. 10 Guam Code Annotated 34205(d) (added to the Code in 2008).
Some states, such as Maine, outlaw “mutilation,” but specifically exempt licensed veterinarians from the statutory crime. 7 Maine Revised Statutes Annotated 3907; Georgia Code Annotated 34205(d)
Pennsylvania has one of the most detailed cropping laws regarding dogs, contained in its animal cruelty statutes, which reads:
(1)(i) A person commits a summary offense if the person crops, trims or cuts off, or causes or procures to be cropped, trimmed or cut off, the whole or part of the ear or ears of a dog.
(ii) The provisions of this paragraph shall not prevent a veterinarian from cropping, trimming or cutting off the whole or part of the ear or ears of a dog when the dog is anesthetized and shall not prevent any person from causing or procuring the cropping, trimming or cutting off of a dog's ear or ears by a veterinarian.
(iii) The possession by any person of a dog with an ear or ears cropped, trimmed or cut off and with the wound or incision site resulting therefrom unhealed, or any such dog being found in the charge or custody of any person or confined upon the premises owned by or under the control of any person, shall be prima facie evidence of a violation of this subsection by the person except as provided for in this subsection.
(iv) A person who procures the cropping, trimming or cutting off of the whole or part of an ear or ears of a dog shall record the procedure. The record shall include the name of the attending veterinarian and the date and location at which the procedure was performed. The record shall be kept as long as the wound or incision site is unhealed and shall be transferred with the dog during that period of time. 18 Pennsylvania Consolidated Statutes Annotated 5511 (h)(1).
The state also has a docking law that reads substantially the same, as well as a debarking law.
A New York court convicted an individual of animal cruelty for wrapping a rubber band around the base of a Rottweiler’s tail in an attempt to dock the tail. New York v. Nelson, 11 Misc.3d 126, 815 N.Y.S.2d 495, 2006 WL 395217 (N.Y. Superior Court, App. Term 2006). See also Elisea v. Indiana, 777 N.E.2d 46 (Ind. Ct. App. 2002).
At the moment a massive legislative change to limit docking and cropping is unlikely. These procedures, though only cosmetic now, go back centuries and until recently were perceived to have a practical basis. It seems to me that change will only come from public acceptance of, and hopefully, eventual preference for the “natural” appearance of breeds.Sources: Rawdon Briggs Lee, A History & Description of the Modern Dogs of Great Britain and Ireland, Horace Cox, 1893, 57, 183-4, 401. An excellent website dealing with modern perspectives can be found at Michigan State University’s Animal Legal & Historical Center. For changes in European perspectives, see Elaine L. Hughes and Christiane Meyer, Animal Welfare in Canada and Europe, 6 Animal Law Review 23 (2000). For a website listing breeds that are docked and cropped for breed standards, see Stop the Crops.