Is Australian Shepherd Tail Docking Actually Worth It? An Enormous Controversy

🔄 Updated on November 18th, 2022

aussie-with-docked-tail-walking

Australian Shepherd tail docking is an ancient practice performed on Aussies to conform to the breed’s standards. The breed is naturally born with long tails, which get messy and matted—tail docking keeps the tails short and neat.

The practice is also done for cosmetic reasons and to protect the dog from injury. If you’re still skeptical about docking your Aussie’s tail, read on to find out what it entails to make a more informed decision.

Do Australian Shepherds Have Tails?

Most Aussies have tails, but there’s a chance they may be born without a tail. This is a rare occurrence, as only one in five puppies are born without tails. Another reason Aussies don’t have tails is that they have been docked.

Are Australian Shepherds Born With Tails?

Most Australian Shepherds are born with tails, but there are instances when an Aussie is born without a tail due to the bobtail gene. Only 20% of Aussies have this gene which causes a genetic mutation in the puppy.

In such instances, the parent breeds have normal (N) and natural bobtail (BT) genotypes to produce a pup with a natural bobtail. A T Locus trait test helps determine if the dog has one of the genotypes and if it will develop a bobtail. Here’s a summary:

  • N/N: Aussies with this genotype don’t have the natural bobtail variant hence will develop normal-length tails. They’re also less likely to transmit the natural bobtail variant to their pups
  • BT/BT: Puppies with two copies of this genotype will likely develop severe congenital problems if they survive. Most of them develop spinal deformities, while others die
  • N/BT: Puppies with this genotype are likely to develop a natural bobtail. There’s also a 50% chance they’ll transmit the gene to their offspring. Mating Aussies with the N/BT gene will produce 50% with a natural bobtail, 25% with the BT/BT genotype, and 25% with normal-length tails

Why Do Australian Shepherds Have no Tail?

There are two reasons an Australian Shepherd doesn’t have a tail:

  • They have the N/BT gene, which means they’re born without a tail
  • Their tails were docked 3-5 days after birth

What Does It Mean to Dock an Australian Shepherd’s Tail?

Australian Shepherd tail docking is the removal of portions of the dog’s tail. It’s also known as caudectomy. The extent of the procedure varies depending on the purpose of tail docking. Sometimes a third of the tail may be removed, but in other instances, half of the tail is cut.

Tail docking is performed on puppies aged 3-5 days when the nervous system isn’t fully developed to avoid causing much pain. Puppies also recover faster than adult dogs because the tissues haven’t fully calcified. 

Adult Aussies may also have their tails docked, but it’s treated as a surgical procedure. Anesthesia is administered, and painkillers and antibiotics are prescribed.

Why Are Australian Shepherd Tails Docked?

Tail docking is an age-old practice that dates back to the Ancient Roman Empire. Dog owners believed tail docking prevented rabies, a virus believed to spread through dog tails. The Roman shepherds would cut off the dog’s tail on the puppy’s 40th day.

Another reason Roman shepherds docked tails was to prevent injury when hunting and fighting. This theory still holds in modern-day pet domestication. Aussies naturally have long tails, which can get caught between spaces leaving them hurt and stuck. 

And since guard dogs would be seized by the tail, cutting them off made the tails have a more manageable length.

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The Romans also believed that dogs with docked tails ran faster than other dogs. At the time, dogs were used for hunting and cutting their tails off improved speed. 

They also docked dogs’ tails to avoid a tax on dog ownership. The Roman government at the time taxed owners who kept dogs for companionship, exempting hunting dogs.

As such, wealthy dog owners docked their dogs’ tails to distinguish them from hunting dogs. People in the lower classes followed suit to avoid paying taxes. 

Tail docking is still common in modern-day animal domestication among certain dog breeds like the Australian Shepherd. However, dock tailing is done for specific reasons:

Enhance Hygiene

The Australian Shepherd has a thick coat prone to hide dirt and germs, especially at the tail. Moreover, dog poop can get caught in the tail because it’s close to the anus. Tail docking reduces the tail to a manageable length, eliminating any sanitary mishap.

Manage Trauma

Sometimes the tail may get hurt during an accident, and amputating it may be the only way to help the dog to recover. In this case, the amputation isn’t too short to avoid other problems like pulling injuries or nerve damage.

Prevent Injury

Modern Aussies still have their tails docked to prevent injury. Skilled herders breed Australian Shepherds in the western part of the United States, where the terrain is a bit rugged. It’s wrought with tall grass, weeds, shrubs, and other dangerous hazards that can hurt a dog’s tail.

Tail injuries are painful for Australian Shepherds and challenging to treat and heal. Tail docking reduces the chances of their tails getting hurt when working.

Happy Tail

This condition happens at the tip of the tail, resulting from excessive wagging or knocking against hard surfaces like a wall. A happy tail is pretty common in working and military dogs because they bang their tails against walls. 

The impact injures the tip of the tail, causing it to break open and bleed. The vet may bandage the tail to prevent more blows, but it doesn’t stop the dog from wagging its tail – this leaves the scarred tissues prone to more injury as the wagging continues. 

Tail docking or amputation is necessary to keep the dog from wagging its tail and getting injured. The tail is cut short enough to prevent further injury and wagging in this scenario.

An Industry Standard

According to the Australian Shepherd Club of America (ASCA), a distinguishing characteristic of the Australian Shepherds is their natural or docked bobtails. The club explains that the tail must be straight and not exceed four inches, whether the dog has a natural bobtail or a docked one. 

Moreover, dog shows and contests stipulate the minimum requirements for specific dog breeds to participate in the matches, and for the Australian Shepherd, it’s a docked tail. While dogs with normal tails can still compete, many dog owners are penalized or lose because of their dog’s tail length.

How Is Tail Docking Performed on a Mini Australian Shepherd Tail?

There are two ways of docking an Aussie’s tail: 

Cutting the tail with a scalpel or surgical scissors: The vet cuts through the muscle tissue, spinal column, cartilage, and nerve endings without anesthesia. The skin is then sutured over the remaining tail tissue to facilitate healing.

Wrapping the dog’s tail with a ligature made from rubber: The ligature remains on the tail for days, constricting any blood flow until the tail falls off.

Both procedures are performed on young Aussies aged 3-5 days. If not, the procedure is postponed until the dog is 8-12 weeks old, and general anesthesia may be necessary to control pain, induce unconsciousness, and aid in muscle relaxation.

The vet may also administer a pre-anesthesia sedative-analgesic to allow the placement of the breathing tube in the windpipe for anesthesia inhalation during the surgery.

What Is the Ideal Australian Shepherd Tail Docking Length?

If docking an adult Australian Shepherd’s tail, the ideal length is four inches (10.16 cm). This is the standard requirement of the Australian Shepherd Club of America and the American Kennel Club.

How Long Does a Dog’s Docked Tail Take To Heal?

Typically, a docked tail takes 2-4 days to heal. Sutures get absorbed by the skin or removed 5-7 days later. Older dogs take longer to heal, and if a temporary bandage is placed over the wound, it must be removed after 2-3 days.

You must prevent the dog and its mates from licking the area until it’s healed. Licking the area creates moisture which can cause infection. It would also help if you placed a collar on the pet’s head to limit access to the rear of its body. 

While at it, examine the wound, looking for any discoloration or discharge. And if sutures were used, check them for bleeding or swelling, but if the vet used a bandage, avoid moisture, soiling, or slippage. 

Controversy Over Docking Aussie Tails

While tail docking is an industry standard for Australian Shepherds, some dog owners disagree with the practice. Most of them find it unnecessary and inhumane regardless of the perceived benefits.

Pros

  • Reduced risk of injury
  • Improves hygiene
  • Reduces risk of infection
  • Makes it easy to groom Aussies

Cons

Much controversy surrounds tail docking, as many opponents cite the disadvantages of this practice.

Hinders Communication

Some argue that tail docking prevents dogs from expressing themselves. Dog tails are critical communication tools as they help them spread their scent.

These smells are called pheromones and are designed to help dogs display aggression, fear, playfulness, or caution. Dogs with docked tails may send mixed signals to their counterparts, leading to conflicts, fights, and injury. 

Lack of Balance

Others cite a lack of balance as the reason they oppose tail docking. Naturally, tails enhance balance when a dog is running. They’ll throw the front part of the body, and as the rear bends in the direction, they want to go, the dog throws the tail in the same direction to prevent the rear from swinging excessively.

Dogs also use their tails as rudders when swimming. They’re strong, thick, and flexible helping them wade through the water quickly and make quick turns. As such, breeds with short or docked tails find it challenging to swim in the water.

Lack of Standardized Laws

The legalization of tail docking varies by state and country. While many countries (Turkey, Wales, Sweden, Switzerland, Scotland, and more) have outlawed the practice, tail docking remains unregulated in the U.S. Only Pennsylvania, and Maryland states restrict the practice.

The former prohibits tail docking of dogs less than five days old, while in Maryland, only vets can perform the procedure and must use anesthesia.

Procedure Complications

According to the American Veterinary Medical Association, tail docking presents several risks, including:

  • Nerve tumor, which is painful and makes the dog irritable when its tail is touched
  • Leaking of the cerebrospinal fluid
  • Infection
  • Death

FAQ

Here are the commonly asked questions regarding Australian shepherd tail docking.

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Why do Australian shepherds have docked tails?

Australian Shepherds have docked tails because they’re cut off a few days after birth. The premise is to align the breed to the industry standard and for cosmetic reasons.

Is tail docking painful?

Tail docking isn’t painful if performed correctly (3-5 days after birth). They may experience temporary discomfort because their nervous system isn’t fully developed, but it disappears within a short period.

How long do Aussie tails docked take to heal?

Puppies may heal 2-4 days after the procedure, but older dogs can take longer.

Can Australian tail docking get fatal?

If performed at the right time (3-5 after birth), the pup bleeds small amounts of blood and heals within a short period. However, if the procedure isn’t performed correctly, the dog may bleed excessively and die.

What is the cost of having an Australian shepherd docked tail?

Tail docking is pretty affordable, as the costs range between $10 and $20 per puppy. The procedure is slightly expensive for older Aussies because they need diagnostics tests and administration of anesthesia.

Conclusion

You can now decide whether to have your Australian Shepherd’s undocked tail cut. You should understand the reasons for Australian Shepherd tail docking, and its pros and cons before starting the procedure. 

Also, consider their age—if they are older than five days, you may need to postpone the procedure until they turn eight weeks. Since they’ll be older than the usual age limit, anesthesia and other tests are necessary.

Sarah Alward | Doctor of Veterinary Medicine
Sarah Alward | Doctor of Veterinary Medicine
Our resident DVM helps review every article to ensure we always provide scientifically accurate, up-to-date information. She’s proud to help provide pet parents everywhere with the info they need to keep their pets safe, healthy, and comfortable.