Why Do Springer Spaniels Have Their Tails Docked?

Springer Spaniels have a very distinctive look, from their long ears to their stubby tails. Their short tail is not natural, though —  it is the result of docking. But why do breeders and vets even carry out this practice on Springer Spaniels? 

Springer Spaniels have their tails docked for aesthetic reasons. Docking is a long-running tradition carried out on several breeds of hunting dogs. There is little evidence to suggest that tail docking is beneficial to Springer Spaniels. 

Docking is becoming a less popular practice, and it is even illegal in some countries. It is painful, can cause health complications, and may not have any substantial benefits to the dogs. Read on to learn more about tail docking, why it started, and why breeders continue to do it to springer spaniels today.

What Is Tail Docking?

Springer Spaniels are not the only dog breed that has its tails docked. Many other hunting dogs have their tails docked, too. What is tail docking, anyway?

Tail docking is the practice of surgically removing the end of a puppy’s tail. Legally, docking must be performed on a puppy less than 5 days old. Many people believe that the dog’s bones are softer at this age, and their nervous system is less developed, hence less receptive to pain.

Different breeds have their tails docked at different lengths. Springer spaniels typically have their tails docked to 1/3 of their original size. There are 2 primary methods of docking: 

  • Cutting
  • Removing blood supply

A vet will cut a section of the puppy’s tail using scissors when using the cutting method. The vet cuts through the dog’s skin, bone, muscle, tendons, cartilage, and as many as 7 nerves. This surgery is typically done without anesthesia. 

Some vets dock puppy tails without scissors. Instead, they tie a band around a section of the tail to cut off blood flow. After some time without any blood supply, the end of the puppy’s tail falls off. Again, the vet is not likely to administer pain relief.

It is impossible to know how painful the procedure is for puppies. Breeders report that their puppies cry during the docking process. Some vets believe that the nerves are fully developed at birth.

Historical Reasons for Tail Docking

Records show that the practice of docking spaniel tails dates back to at least the 1500s, according to the English Springer Spaniel Field Trial Association. Docking the tails of hunting dogs is an even older practice, dating back to the ancient Romans. 

According to the American Veterinary Medical Association, the Romans started docking dogs’ tails for health reasons. The Romans believed that cutting a dog’s tail or tongue shorter would prevent rabies. However, this belief is entirely unfounded. 

Another historical reason for tail docking is for hunting. Many people believed that a dog’s tail helped the dog to run and hunt. Poor people who were not allowed to hunt docked their dogs’ tails. Only the wealthy elite had hunting dogs with their natural tails. 

As time passed, the narrative around docking the tails of hunting dogs changed. Dog owners saw the dog’s natural tail as a safety hazard. When a hunting dog runs through the underbrush of a forest to retrieve a game, the dog could injure their tail. Tail docking became a way to protect a hunting dog’s health, especially when veterinary medicine was not advanced. 

Because few of these claims have any substantial evidence to back them up, the main reason for docking today is tradition. Breeders are used to seeing Springer Spaniels with docked tails, so they continue to dock their dogs’ tails, even if the dogs never hunt.

Benefits of Tail Docking

Tail docking does have some benefits to Springer Spaniels that participate in hunts or competitions. Proponents of tail docking cite a hunting dog’s safety as their primary concern. Hunting dogs’ tails are at risk of injury in the underbrush. Tail docking is also the norm for competitions in some countries, including America. 

The followings are reasons why tail docking may be good for Springer Spaniels:

It Reduces Injury Risks in Working Spaniels

If your Springer Spaniel goes on hunts with you, having a docked tail may prevent injury. The tail is vulnerable to injury when a dog goes on hunts. The BBC cites multiple studies that suggest tail docking is beneficial to work dogs, including hunting spaniels. 

However, one study says that there may be over a hundred puppies docked needlessly for every tail injury prevented by docking. In addition, many hunting injuries can be treated with veterinary medicine, so an injured hunting dog can return to the sport after healing. 

Docked Tails Look Aesthetically Better

Many dog breeders prefer the look of a Springer Spaniel with a docked tail. In America, most Springer Spaniels have docked tails, especially at competitions. But as more countries outlaw tail docking, Springer Spaniels with natural tails are becoming more common at shows. 

Downsides of Tail Docking

Tail docking is a contentious subject for many veterinarians due to the unnecessary pain it causes a puppy. Tail docking damages multiple nerves, and the vet does not use anesthesia. This surgery has the potential to cause harm later in a dog’s life, too.

It Can Lead to Various Health Risks

Tail docking is painful for all puppies who undergo it, and some dogs develop health complications afterward. An improperly docked tail can cause chronic pain, says the British Veterinary Association. The wound may become infected, or a painful neuroma can form at the surgical site. 

Dogs Can’t Use Their Tails To Express Themselves

Dogs use their tails to express themselves with each other and humans. They use body language to communicate their mood, establish boundaries with other dogs, and express their desires. Tail docking deprives a puppy of this communication tool. It puts them at risk of being misunderstood by humans and other animals.

The American Veterinary Medical Association raises doubts about the lasting damage of tail docking to a dog’s communication skills, though. Research is still being done about whether or not tail docking causes psychological or social damage.

Final Thoughts

Tail docking is a centuries-old tradition for hunting dogs, including Springer Spaniels. It might be beneficial for Springer Spaniels that hunt, but it causes unnecessary harm to non-working dogs. As more countries outlaw tail docking, animal activists and veterinarians may advocate for the practice to be banned everywhere, as it has few measurable benefits. 


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