How People Perceive Dogs With Docked Tails and Cropped Ears

Source: SC Psychological Enterprises photo

Dogs that have undergone medical procedures to alter the shape of their ears or the length of their tails seem to acquire a certain combative appearance and there is some new data which suggests that this appearance causes people to judge the personality of both the dogs and their owners negatively.

Certain breeds of dogs have traditionally been surgically altered either to assist them in their designated working function, or to meet the aesthetic standards set out by particular kennel clubs. Dogs that were supposed to function as guard dogs often had their tails cut short (technically “docked”) because the presence of a tail could provide a handhold for “the bad guys” to control the dog while at the same time avoiding his teeth. These same dogs often had their ears surgically reshaped to minimize the size of the ear flaps (technically called “ear cropping”) because the flaps of the ears are very sensitive and could provide handholds for someone to control the dog’s head position while avoiding the dog’s teeth. These surgical procedures were also done on dogs destined to be fighters in the pit sports against dogs or other animals, and sometimes tail cropping was done on hunting dogs in the belief that long tails were subject to damage as they went through dense underbrush and over rocky terrain.

Today such procedures are classified as “medically unnecessary surgeries” because nowadays their primary purpose is seen to be cosmetic. Certain breed standards maintained by various kennel clubs include specifications regarding the length of the tail or the shape and position of the ears, and these can often only be attained by docking or cropping. It is likely that these aesthetic requirements have been imposed upon these breeds simply because dog breeders have had their taste in what their breed of dog should look like shaped by the historical precedents. When these breeds originated, they were surgically modified because it seemed to improve the dog’s ability to function in its assigned work, and now that “look” has come to be what breeders and breed fanciers expect and prefer, even though these dogs are now more likely to be used only as pets and companions today.

The dogs which most typically had their tails docked or their ears cropped were the “tough guys of dogdom”, namely the guard dogs, fighters, and hunters. It is possible that the particular look which is given to various breeds by this surgical alteration, may have also come to be associated in the mind of the average person with those characteristics expected of “tough guys”. In other words dogs with the appearance typical of cropped and docked dogs might now be seen as possibly more aggressive, more dominant and less playful and affectionate.

Katelyn Mills, Jesse Robbins and Marina von Keysrlngk, researchers in the Animal Welfare Program, at the University of British Columbia in Vancouver, Canada, investigated the effect that docked tails and cropped ears have on our perception of the nature and personality of dogs, and then extended their research to see if these factors also had any effect on our perception of the dogs’ owners as well. The results of their studies appeared in the journal PLoS ONE*.