Why are Cocker Spaniel tails docked? Tail docking is performed because the breed standard and traditions allow for the procedure in the United States.
Most pro-docking enthusiasts support docked tails as an important characteristic of the Cocker Spaniel’s function as a hunting dog.
Named after the woodcock, the bird they were bred to hunt, American Cocker Spaniels are the smallest dog in the American Kennel Club’s Sporting group.
In this article, we’ll mostly be referring to the tail docking of the American Cocker Spaniel. The English Cocker Spaniel’s tail may be docked or natural and is “set to confirm to the croup” (muscular area of the dog’s rump), according to the United Kennel Club.
Tail docking is the removal of a portion of the dog’s tail. The length it is docked depends on the breed.
The American Spaniel Club calls for the length of the docked tail to be “in balance with the size of the dogs, not short and stubby, nor excessively long.”
Why does it matter if a Cocker’s tail is docked, how the procedure is performed, and why do some Cocker Spaniels have a longer, natural tail? This article will get to the bottom (pun intended) of it all.
How Did Cocker Spaniel Tail Docking Get Started?
Removing part of a dog’s tail dates back to Ancient Roman times, who believed cutting the dog’s tail (and tongue) prevented rabies.
Early American Puritans in the 17th and 18th centuries thought demons possessed dog tails, so they cut off their tails.
At the same time, in England, owners of hunting and gaming dogs got taxed, but owners of working dogs on farms were not. So working dogs’ tails were docked to differentiate them.
With time, tail docking was more commonplace to prevent large animals from stepping on a dog’s tail. Hunters felt their dogs’ tails could get tangled in brush or be grabbed by prey in the field.
Since 1881, Cockers with docked tails have been considered customary by the American Spaniel Club (ASC), which is the parent club of the Cocker Spaniel. ASC defines the reason for a docked tail as:
“The usual method of hunting is to let him quarter the ground ahead of the gun, covering all territory within gun range. This he should do at a snappy pace. Upon flushing the game, he should stop or preferably drop to a sitting position so as not to interfere with the shot, after which he should stop or preferably drop to a sitting position so as not to interfere with the shot, after which he should retrieve on command only.”
They continue, “He should, of course, be so trained that he will be under control at all times. He is likewise valuable for occasional water retrieving and, as a rule, takes to water readily. Because of this mode of hunting for which the breed was created more than 100 years ago, the Cocker Spaniel is a docked tail hunting breed.”
The characteristic incessant merry action of the tail while working in thick, dense cover which is sometimes deeper than the dog absolutely necessitates docking to prevent injury to the animal.”
Why Are Cocker Spaniel Tails Docked?
If your Cocker Spaniel doesn’t hunt, traipse through brush, work around thick vegetation, or enter the show ring, why dock the tail?
“Right now, docking tails continue to be a part of the breed standard,” says Lisa Gaertner, founder of Pinecliff Cockers. “Keeping the tail short avoids potential injury during hunts and trials. We do see tailed cockers from time to time in the show ring, but again, the American Spaniel Club continues to maintain docking as part of the standard.”
Today’s modern Cocker Spaniel has its tail docked for cosmetic reasons as part of the breed standard, or in rare cases if something traumatic happens (tail slammed in a door, dog fight, etc.)
What’s The Purpose of A Dog’s Tail?
We can’t have an honest discussion about Cocker Spaniels and docking their tails without sharing the tail’s purpose and anatomy.
A dog’s tail helps him with balance, movement, and communication. The tail is an extension of your dog’s spine. The canine tail is comprised of a string of small bones, so dogs can break their tail.
Never pull on a dog’s tail because it can cause damage to important nerves higher up his spinal cord; nerves that control urinating and defecating.
It’s really fascinating when you consider a dog’s tail contains vertebrae, muscles, nerves, and cartilage. Tails have anywhere between 5 and 20 vertebrae that are larger at their base and get smaller towards the tip.
“The American Cocker Spaniel like many of the Flushing Spaniels were bred to flush and retrieve the birds from dense brush,” Cocker Spaniel breeder/handler/groomer, Marlene Ness shares. “And being we are to be a ‘merry’ breed, tail always wagging, the tail is docked to prevent injury to the tail.”
Can Tail Docking Cause Spine Problems?
“There is no mechanism for tail docking to affect a dog’s spine,” according to veterinarian Dr. Michael Salkin, who has 50 years’ experience. “Arthritis in the spine is most often due to degenerative changes in the spine, and Cockers are over-represented with intervertebral/degenerative disk disease.”
Dr. Salkin indicates both urinary and fecal incontinence are seen with severe spinal cord compression caused by a disc of arthritis. The compression is found in the middle of the spinal cord and distal (towards the tail.) This has nothing to do with tail docking.
Fact: Tail docking must be performed at the right time, the right way, by the right person.
Methods Are Used For Cocker Spaniel Tail Docking
When a Cocker puppy’s tail is docked, it is often within the first five days of life because most tissue is still soft, resulting in less pain and faster healing without general anesthesia.
General anesthesia or sedation is not used because the puppy would be at significant risk of death.
The two main methods of tail docking:
- Surgically with special medical shears
- Banding the tail so part of it falls off
“I use the banding method,” Gaertner says. “I’ve been doing it [this way] for more than 10 years and have had nothing but success with it.”
The banding method uses two tools – a castration bander and tiny rubber bands. When her puppies are two or three days old, she uses the castration bander to place the tiny rubberband at the desired location on the tail where she wants it to stop.
“What happens is blood flow then discontinues to the end of the tail, causing it to die and fall off,” she explains. “It is pain-free and unlike traditional docking (cutting), if you don’t like the location of the band when you put it on, you can move it.”
Of note, three to five inches is the standard length for most tail docking. What remains is about three-quarters the length of their natural tails. The entire tail is not removed when docking a Cocker Spaniel.
Oftentimes, reputable breeders will perform the docking procedure or it can be performed by a licensed veterinarian in the United States.
FACT: The tail cartilage is soft, and bones and the nervous system are not fully developed in puppies at this age.
Can Adult Cocker Spaniel Tails Be Docked?
Once the pup is eight weeks or older, vertebrae will grow into their tails. Careful precision must be used to cut around the area if docking is performed. Anesthesia must be utilized to avoid pain.
Rarely is tail docking performed on an adult Cocker Spaniel unless the tail must be amputated for medical reasons; i.e., cancer, broken tail, severe injury, etc. The medical term for the permanent removal of a dog’s tail is caudectomy.
What Does the AVMA Say About Cocker Spaniel Tail Docking?
The American Veterinary Medical Association (AVMA) opposes cosmetic tail docking of dogs, stating,
“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. The only benefit that appears to be derived from cosmetic tail docking of dogs is the owner’s impression of a pleasing appearance. In the opinion of the AVMA, this is insufficient justification for performing a surgical procedure.”
Further, the AVMA indicates removing a dog’s tail for medical reasons is not docking.
The American Spaniel Club’s Retort On Tail Docking
The AVMA reaffirmed its 2008 stance on tail docking in a 2012 policy. In their statement, they wrote, “The AVMA encourages the elimination of ear cropping and tail docking from breed standards.”
The American Spaniel Club’s then-President, Charles P. Born, sent a letter to the AVMA in which he wrote,
It is our belief that these procedures that, when performed by a veterinarian, are very safe and virtually pain-free. We firmly believe that we, jointly with our veterinarians, should have the right to decide the proper care and treatment of our pets.
Is It Legal To Dock a Cocker Spaniel’s Tail?
Tail docking is legal in the United States with some caveats. The AVMA summarized those state laws and regulations on its website.
Tail docking is illegal in most countries, including England and Wales which banned the practice in 2007, with exceptions.
It is also banned in most European and South American countries, Iceland, Australia, New Zealand, and Israel.
What Happens If You Don’t Dock The Tail of a Cocker Spaniel?
Although it is not always necessary to dock Cocker Spaniels’ tails, there are things that can occur with longer tails.
Unnecessary Pain: Cocker Spaniels with undocked tails are more prone to tail injuries. A working dog or hunting dog can damage the tip of their tails. Abrasions, scratches, cuts, and field injuries are all common to long-tailed Cockers exposed to fields.
Tail-Related Accidents: Tail damage can occur from being slammed in a car or house door, being pulled on, caught on anything in nature, or if a dog or person purposely injures it.
Tail Infections: Things like debris, moisture, and bacteria thrive in thick, long, dense tails.
Long Tail Accidents: Longer tails are more prone to knocking things off tables, which can be very dangerous (i.e., lit candles.)
What About Docking a Working Cocker Spaniel Tail?
A type of English Cocker Spaniel bred to work is called a Working Cocker Spaniel. They are energetic dogs who love cuddling, being affectionate, retrieving, and, yes, working.
Working Cockers are very popular in the UK, where folks like David Beckham and Guy Ritchie have shared life with one or more.
Certain breeds, including the Working Cocker, can have their tail docked in England if they are, “HPR (hunt, point and retrieve) breed of any type or combination; spaniel of any type or combination of type; terriers of any type or combination of type.”
Totally Gun Dogs says, “Working gun dogs, particularly breeds used specifically for hunting, are far more likely to damage the ends of their tails than dogs that do not work due to prolonged contact with undergrowth. These are the breeds that are docked.”
Is It Cruel To Dock and Not Have Full Tails?
There are a few reasons for opponents of tail docking. Namely:
Health Complications: If the docking is not properly performed in a sterile environment, there can be problems. It’s a good idea for an experienced breeder or veterinary surgeon to perform the docking.
Nerve Pain: Because tail docking involves severing the nerves of the tail, there is a chance the dog can experience life-long issues. Jenny Lewis shared life with a small rescue dog named Pixel, who had lifelong nerve pain from improper tail docking.
Cosmetic Procedure: The AVMA and other opponents say tail docking is a cosmetic procedure with ‘no proven medical benefit to the dog.’
Social Implications: Removing a portion of the tail may the Cocker’s ability to communicate properly with tail movements, which is an important part of canine body language.
Older Dogs With Removal of a Tail: If tail docking is performed when a dog is older, this is called a caudectomy. Sutures are required, and only an experienced veterinarian should perform this if medically necessary.
Feedback From Cocker Spaniel Owners On Tail Docking
I’ve seen comments get turned off in groups, and have done the same when the conversation goes south regarding tail docking.
Here are some of the comments for or against tail docking and what can happen if a Spaniel tail isn’t docked.
Michelle L.: “All my English Cockers have been docked – and very humanely by the breeders here and in the UK – and they are very happy. Their little tails are always wagging.”
Lynn T: All my Cockers have been docked, all 6 have done great.”
Abbi M: It’s actually illegal to dock a dog’s tail unless they are working or it’s for a medical issue. I have a Cocker, and she has never been used for gun dog work, so her tail is full, but my father has a Cocker, and her tail is docked because she is (or was as she’s retired now) a working gundog.
Faith R: “While I absolutely LOVE my wigglebutts’ docked tails…I also like seeing the undocked tails.”
Andrew C: I believe in Australia, it’s illegal to dock the tail but understand both sides of the argument. Gilbert is not docked, and I love his long bushy tail. We also had an adopted senior who was docked, and he still managed to wag his little stump all the time. Personally, I love the tail, but Gilbert is not a working Cocker. He lives in the city I guess it depends on the circumstances.”
Val R: “In Alberta, Canada, it has been banned for years, and the vets do not do this. It is considered cruel and undue suffering. Some breeders do this secretly still but can be fined if caught.”
Laura C.: “Mine would whack his tail so hard and it would hit the edge of walls and doors and would bleed. More traumatic to constantly be hurting himself.”
Marilyn S.: “A dog with a broken tail doesn’t easily heal. It can be so horrific.”
Diane H: “Working cockers have their tails docked to aid in preventing injuries caused while working. In the UK all you need is a valid shotgun certificate to get them done.”
Brenda S: “The same happened to my daughter’s dog. The vet called it Happy Tail Syndrome. He tried the bandages…then the tube. Neither worked. The vet had to remove more than 1/2 of his tail to keep it from happening again. Poor baby looks a little funny, but problem solved. I hope the tube works for you!”
Fred S: “This happened to my flat coat years ago, he had to have the tip of his tail amputated as it wouldn’t heal, they did the same with a syringe case, and he ended up having more amputated because it didn’t work.”
Jeanne G (veterinarian): They are a sporting dog – originally bred to go under thick cover to find and flush woodcock. the docking was to protect the tail. It is part of the breed type of a cocker spaniel. Most show dogs have about 2/3 removed and leave about 1/3. Back yard breeders and many vets cut the tails too short.
Kim V (Cocker breeder): They are docked as it was to protect the tail while they went through brush Flushing the woodcock. Most natural tailed dogs that get shown the tail has hair on it. Nothing worse then a happy tail getting wacked on a wall and breaking open. So many back yard breeders cut the tails to short
My Personal Experience With Tail Docking
Three Cocker Spaniels has shared my life and heart to date, and I will go to my grave loving them and sharing life with them.
One was a puppy mill rescue and two were from reputable Cocker Spaniel breeders. All three arrived in my life with docked tails. None ever suffered side effects or issues.