Could this be another case of the tail wagging the dog?

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IF YOU find the passions stirred by the Balkans hard to understand, try this one. Yesterday the law was changed, banning the docking of dogs' tails for cosmetic purposes. Is that good, or is it bad? Before you answer - and everybody will certainly have an answer - bear in mind that almost any matter concerning animals and our treatment of them leads to contradiction and dilemma.

We kill animals for food, glue, shoes, soap, ornament and sport. Why should we draw any line at all, anywhere, when the question of our dominion over them arises? Putting to one side the issue of causing pain for pain's sake (docking a dog's tail is not thought to cause distress), what is wrong with lopping a bit off a beast simply because it looks nicer that way?

The row over what the length of a puppy dog's tail should be is subtler than it at first appears and should be treated with care, or the meat of the matter will be lost along with the tails.

After years of anguished lobbying by various animal groups, including the RSPCA, the 1966 Veterinary Surgeons Act has been amended to stop lay people docking dogs. There are 47 breeds - approximately 1.3 million dogs - that are commonly docked at present, out of 185 types registered with the Kennel Club. Many of these 'operations' are performed by breeders themselves, who cut the tail or use an elastic band to make it drop off.

The new law does not say that this practice has to stop. It merely says that it can no longer be done by unqualified people. A vet must do the job.

Ah, but a vet cannot. Not now. Or at least, only under certain circumstances that have recently been laid down by the Royal College of Veterinary Surgeons, which has ultimate power over all vets. The Royal College says this: members may dock tails - but not for cosmetic reasons. They may only do so to treat disease or injury; or where a vet knows that one particular puppy may suffer damage while out working, if the tail stays in place.

You can see the grey areas looming a mile off, areas in which many docked tails will continue to be lost. The point is that some docking will still go on, whatever happens, at least partly because the law says that this is acceptable, partly because vets will let it happen.

A glance at the wider implications of the curbs that remain reveals further confusions. Britain exports 1,250 docked-breed dogs every year - boxers, rottweilers and so on - many to countries with no tail controls whatsoever. Hundreds of dogs will therefore suffer late operations in the countries they end up in, suffering pain because their nervous systems will have grown up by then. Who wants that?

Pro-dockers point out that a forest of weird and wonky tails will now emerge over dog generations. Breeders will eventually narrow down the styles of tail they prefer and concentrate on those strains, reducing the genetic stock and increasing the risk of in-breeding.

The pro-dockers also insist that at least 200 vets have agreed to carry on docking regardless, raising the possibility of ugly rows, and being struck off, there is the likelihood of fierce battles, too, between breeders who demand that their local vets get in on this act, and vets who may want to stay legal. Trust will break down. Dog fights will break out.

Finally, the docking lobby offers this question to those who may still be wavering over the issue: 'A lot of breeders say, 'We like our dogs looking this way, and why shouldn't we?' '

These points, bear in mind, are the weapons of those who oppose the new controls: the Kennel Club, and the Council of Docked Breeds (breeders in wolf's clothing). They will be offering them to vets, journalists and the public for months to come as an expensive campaign to restore the dockers's rights gets under


The trouble with sophistries of this kind, however, is that they can obscure more truth than they reveal. The real issues are more sweetly simple.

Terence Bate, chief veterinary officer for the RSPCA, sets the agenda most clearly when he replies: 'Dogs are born with tails, so why shouldn't we leave them as they are?'

And this is the nub of the matter. Docked tails, all sides accept, are largely an anachronism born in days when most dogs worked and hunted. We have hung on to the practice not because we need to but because, in general, dog breeders enjoy tradition and do not see why they should change. It means difficulty, it means an erosion of understood standards, above all it means a question mark over existing champions who may turn out to produce ugly-tailed offspring. 'Why should we change?' they ask.

That is the wrong question. We may eat, wear and hunt animals, but in all other spheres - from vivisection to transport, handling and experiment - we are slowly doing our best to improve their position. Anti- dockers insist, rightly, that slicing off tails denies this trend, not so much for the harm it does but for the intent it signals.

They say that shaping animals to match our aesthetic preferences is the tip of an iceberg, with far harsher consequences for animals. This sounds simple but sensible.

They say the presumption that nature can be improved upon for reasons of personal interest - be it tradition or in the name of freedom - holds no water. This sounds sensible and sane.

In the end the outcome must hinge on Terence Bate's question: why shouldn't we leave them as they are?

Ask another question, and you are barking up the wrong tree.