I had a co-worker several years ago who purchased a Great Dane puppy with thoughts of showing him. When he was old enough, she took him to the vet to have his ears cropped. The surgery didn’t go according to plan and the pup suffered a considerable amount of pain. It took months for him to recover, and turned into an expensive vet bill for my friend. Ear cropping and tail docking date back to at least Roman times and was commonplace, but the practice today is controversial. Regardless of which side of the debate you’re on, the history of ear cropping and tail docking has some practical and some absurd reasons why it was done.
Antibiotics were non-existent during Roman times which meant even small bites or cuts could easily become infected. Minor injuries suffered in a dog fight, in battle, while baiting bulls, bears, or other animals were likely to become life threatening. To help protect their dogs from injuries, ears were cropped and tails docked to reduce the areas other animals could bite or grab on to during a fight. Roman dogs were important to society. Sighthounds and other hounds were used for hunting, Huge Molosser dogs fought in battle alongside soldiers, and protected homes. Guardian dogs kept a watchful eye over livestock, and small canines were companion pets. Cropping ears and docking tails of working breeds was meant to be preventive measures to cut down on infection.
The Romans believed ear cropping and tail docking would prevent rabies, increase speed, give dogs stronger backs, and was more hygienic. To cut down on burrs and grasses like foxtail from becoming embedded in the tail, it was docked on hunting and herding breeds. They believed a shorter tail would prevent injuries to it when the dog was working in dense underbrush. It was also thought docking the tail of working dogs would discourage them from chasing prey by reducing the stability and maneuvering ability of the tail acting as a counterbalance.
In Ireland, a 1704 penal law was enacted by the British that placed a tax on owning a dog worth more than £5 . The Soft Coated Wheaten Terrier belonged to Irish tenant farmers as an all around farm dog. Poor farmers were forbidden to own quality hunting dogs like Greyhounds, Beagles, land spaniels, or hounds, and any dog of value could be confiscated by the wealthy. To show the tax man their average looking canines were working dogs of no value, Irish tenant farmers docked tails to avoid being taxed.
Similar taxes were enacted in other regions of Britain concerning the tail length of working dogs. Hunting for sport was reserved for wealthy landowners and nobility who believed only dogs with long tails could be used to hunt. The wealthy could afford to pay taxes on their canines long tails. Poor farmers were dependent on their dogs to guard their home and livestock, herd, hunt, and control vermin around the farm. So to reduce an unfair and high tax liability on dogs with long tails, tail docking became the norm for farmers barely scratching out a living.
French naturalist, Jean Lamarck, theorized acquired characteristics of the parents were passed down to their offspring. Even before Lamarck’s theory of evolution, people throughout Europe during the Middle Ages up to the end of the 1700’s believed ear cropping and tail docking would produce puppies with cropped ears and shortened tails. It does make one wonder why it took people so long to see there was a flaw in this belief when puppies continued to be born with floppy ears and long tails.
Supporters of ear cropping and tail docking claim these procedures are done for the general health and well being of the breeds commonly seen with docked tails and cropped ears. But, if their arguments are sound, why are just some working breeds altered and not all breeds? The tail is part of the dog’s vertebral column – a composition of muscles, nerves, tendons, cartilage, and bone. Docking is usually done without anesthesia when a pup is two to five days old. Ear cropping is done between the ages of nine and twelve weeks old. General anesthesia is used to perform this surgery when done by a vet, but not all crops are done by vets. Proponents say there is no long term damage to the dogs, and opponents claim otherwise. There is, however, pain and most likely suffering associated with both procedures. Since dogs are as individual as we are and experience pain in the same way we do, ear cropping and tail docking can have a greater and long lasting impact on some canines, especially if there’s complications after the procedure is done.
The body language of dogs can be subtle, and the ears and tail play a role in communicating their intentions to other dogs and us. A slight move of the tail to the left or right says two different things. The portion of the ear removed when cropped is called the pinna. It’s purpose is to collect sounds and funnel them directly into the external ear canal, and the muscles associated with the pinna allow the ear to twitch and move when listening. Whether or not you believe ear cropping or tail docking hampers a dog’s ability to communicate or hear correctly depends on your view of the procedures. Some people think a dog with cropped ears looks more macho and intimidating, and many of these breeds are commonly listed as dangerous dogs in breed specific legislation. Legitimate questions about the need to continue ear cropping and tail docking are pertinent to the discussion about hygiene and health claims by dog owners who want to continue traditional practices in these breeds.
Modern society is much more sophisticated than ones from the past, and many countries, especially in Europe, have banned ear cropping and tail docking. Dogs feel pain the same way we do, and our guide in how we view “tradition” and breed standards should be based more on function of the breed rather than aesthetics. We should respect dogs as individuals and accept them for the way they look at birth and not sculptured to adhere to tradition.
Pictured: Cane Corso Italiano with cropped ears and docked tail, Cane Corso Italiano without cropped ears or docked tail.
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