A Hopeful Ethics Note


Here’s at least one example of the culture getting more ethical. It might not seem like much, but ask a Jack Russell Terrier, and you’ll understand.

Gradually, dog owners and breeders are stopping the practice of docking—that is, cutting—the ears and tails of puppies so they conform to arbitrary breed standards. The reason is simple: it is cruel and pointless, and the dogs look just as good, indeed better, the natural way.

I first noticed this trend years ago when I saw this breed at a dog show:


I had no idea what it was. I asked, was told it was a natural example of the breed I was used to seeing this way…


Yes, it’s a Great Dane. In recent years, fewer and fewer owners are opting for the ear operation, allowing the breed to keep the ears that reflect its English Mastiff ancestry.

This beautiful, loving, smart breed dog usually has both its tale and its ears cropped, the tail down to a nub:


Why? Well, this look was considered scarier, I guess…


Now I am seeing more natural Doberman Pinschers with ears unclipped and long tails, assisting the breed in its PR makeover as it gradually loses the vicious dog reputation (as opposed to “favorite dog of vicious people”) it had for decades to the unjustly maligned pit bull breeds.

My dog, Rugby, is a Jack Russell Terrier.  Members of that Irish breed traditionally had their tails docked for what was once a practical reason: the dogs were bred as rabbit hunters, and are so stubborn that they have been known to go down a hole and starve waiting for the rabbit to come to it. The shortened tails are called “handles,” and allow an owner to grab the dog and pull it out of the hole without hurting it.


(It works!)

However, since Rugby jointed our household, a sensible and humane shift has occurred. Increasingly, Jack breeders aren’t docking the tails, so the dogs look like this:


…with the beagle-like tail intact. (Beagles are part of the marvelous brew that gave the world these hilarious, merry, disturbingly smart and independent dogs.)

So you see? At least in some corners of the dog breeding world, ethics is moving in the right direction.

That’s something to hold on to in these depressing times.





41 thoughts on “A Hopeful Ethics Note

  1. The original purpose of ear docking and tail docking in the doberman was so there was less for the attack victim to grab hold of to fight off the dog. But that purpose isn’t a part of dog showing or pet ownership. I have only had dobermans in the past that were ‘natural’ meaning no docking or ear surgery. I currently have a black labrador retriever.

  2. Dogs are interesting creatures for many reasons, not least how humans have changed them.

    A Jack Russell could impregnate a Great Dane (or try). And vice versa (god help the bitch). Because of human intervention, dogs have more phenotypes than any other species on earth.

    Welsh Corgis, for example, have the same genetic mutation that causes dwarfism in humans. As a result, a small group of scientists now study dogs to gain greater understanding of genetic disease in humans.

    The irony is that things we find appealing in dogs can be real genetic problems. Take the Pug, for example. Or the English Bulldog. I have never met a dog of either breed I didn’t like – they’re wonderfully kind, gentle and comical dogs. But they’re also genetic horror shows and susceptible to all kinds of terrible short- and long-term diseases. I adore Bernese Mountain Dogs and Newfoundlands. But Newfs almost invariably die young, due to their size, and Berners are highly prone to cancer.

    The cruelty humans have visited upon dogs isn’t limited to cutting ears and tails

    I’m a Lab guy. They can have genetic issues, but I’m now extremely careful in selecting highly knowledgeable breeders for my dogs – breeders who recognize their roles as stewards.

    At my age, I may have one more pup in me. After that, it’s gonna be shelter dogs – and maybe sooner than that. So many of them need homes.

    Jack, tell your JRT “yap-yap-yap-yap-yap” for me.

  3. We’re an adoption family ourselves. I don’t see anything wrong with people buying from ethical acting breeders but they do seem so far and few between. I could never bring myself to mutilating an animal outside of having them spayed/neutered (this includes declawing a cat).

    I think we are done with big dogs though (we’re a lab family and always have two of them). I’m getting old enough where I would rather have a small pup to shower love on while still having some semblance of a backyard. 🙂

    • Laurent,

      I will admit, one of my biggest beefs with those who object to declawing is the fact that they seem very gung-ho about what is essentially. feline (and canine) genital mutilation.

      It just strikes me as being very hypocritical.

      • Spaying pets is birth control, and humane, as unwanted puppies and kittens end up killed, often cruelly. Unless you know how to teach animals to use littel condoms and diaphragms, that’s a terrible analogy. Declawing harms the cat, often making them neurotic, definitely making them vulnerable to attack. The declawing is done for the convenience of the owner. Spaying is done for humane purposes. Unlike slicing ears and tails, there is a legitimate purpose involved, and no, I see no legitimate purpose in ripping out a cat’s claws.

        • Its not ripping out the cats claws.

          Its worse. They are removing the claw, the done its attached to and parts of the pad of the paw that the bone and claw are on top off. Its the equivalent of copping off someone’s finger at the first joint.

  4. In the Samoyed world, there aren’t any visible changes, but the dogs are often de-barked because they are SO loud and barky. This, to me, is an invisible mutilation and I find it evil. This is part of the personality of these highly vocal dogs. The excuse given is that when you have several of these dogs, because you are a breeder or just because you can’t have only one of these adorable dogs, the din of their barking makes you bark-raving mad. Sorry. If you can’t stand the bark, get a Basenji.

    • De-barking a dog is beyond cruel. Communication is important to dogs who live with human beings, and barking (and in my dog’s case, whining, humming, purring, screeching, quacking, snorting, sighing, wheezing, wimpering, and about 20 different barks, all with identifiable meanings.) I’m shocked that this practice is allowed.

      • I hate the practice. The dogs don’t become silent, but they sound like they have really bad laryngitis. Not for me. Not for my dog. We “sing” together.

  5. Gotta love Huskies, beautiful, smart, loyal and they clearly form sentences when they talk to you – then look at you like you’re a twat when you can’t answer sensibly. Oh yeah, they shed like a blizzard.

    Happily they don’t normally get mutilated.

    I also hate the idea of breeding for weird characteristics, such as some micro dogs, just as much as pointless plastic surgery in animals – or humans.

  6. I have mixed thoughts on this.

    My gut instinct is to say that like declawing a cat (made that decision twice, and it was tough, but ultimately, the right call for my cats), the ear-docking and tail-docking is a decision that is between the pet owner, the veterinarian, and God. As you also pointed out, there was a practical reason for the tail surgery for the JRT – it allowed those who used the dog for hunting to save its life.

    At the same time, do people whose dogs don’t need that surgery get it done? Yes, that is the case. I don’t have the answer, I just feel a blanket ban on those procedures is a mistake.

    I guess you could say that declawing, ear docking, and tail docking are procedures that should be safe, legal, and rare.

    • I don’t recall saying that the practices should be banned. If they were banned, then the decision not to do them wouldn’t be ethical, but merely compliant. I said it was cruel.

      Declawing is also cruel, moreso than the docking and ear-trimming, much like de-barking dogs. Cats use their claws as defense, to climb, and as recreation. If you can’t tolerate a cat’s claws, get a bird. Don’t punish the cat for being a cat. Dogs don’t miss their tails, as far as we can determine.

      • It was never about punishing the cats for being cats.

        One cat had been taken in from a family member who had an accident and could no longer care for her. The decision to declaw came about due to some very serious abandonment issues that arose after a trip to another family member’s funeral. That allowed the cat to travel to hotels with us. The declawing allowed us to address that issue – and this cat is doing fine. She stays indoors, and she loves to hop on my lap (or my laptop’s keyboard) to get attention. It was a hard call, but the right call for cat #1.

        For the second cat, the thing that tipped it was when she scratched the first one. There it wasn’t as hard of a call. It just wasn’t fair to cat #1 to not declaw cat #2. This one is also doing well, and is still the same bundle of energy. Hard to do? Yes, but it was the right thing to do.

        If there is a third cat that joins cat #1 and/or cat #2, then I will probably have to make that decision again. But it’s not a decision taken lightly, and we had a very competent vet handle the procedure for both cats.

    • I would be interested in hearing how de-clawing was the right call for your cats. De-clawing is the equivalent of removing all of your fingertips down to the first joint. As far as I know, there is no medical reason to do this procedure on an animal, unless maybe said animal has cancer of the toe, which I guess is possible but I’ve never heard of it. And I clearly might be wrong. The worst case scenario, though, is a de-clawed pet that has gotten outside. They can’t defend themselves and they can’t climb to escape predators.

      Neutering a pet can prevent many diseases, but more importantly, it is essential for population control. Animal shelters and rescue organizations are bursting at the seams from too many unwanted or feral animals.

  7. “(Beagles are part of the marvelous brew that gave the world these hilarious, merry, disturbingly smart and independent dogs.)”

    Would you attribute the breed’s “hilariousness”, “merriness”, “intelligence” and “independence” to it’s breeding? Or to it’s acculturation?

    • A nature vs. nurture conundrum, to be sure. However, having spoken to many JR owners and been struck by the similarity in their accounts, it has to be nurture. My previous Jack Russell, the more diabolical Dickens, enjoyed opening my wife’s handbag and purse and getting a mouthful of 20’s, which he would shake at us to provoke a lively game of chase. If we demurred, he would take a bite out of one of them.

      • Fair enough, the wording sounded like you were alluding to some sort of great result of DNA. Which though describing POSITIVE traits would still be an estopped argument, as it’s ultimately the same as decrying Pit Bulls for “negative” breeding.

        Kind of the human racism of saying “All Asians are good at math”.

        • It is clear that for some reason, certain combinations of dog breeds lead to unexpected results, and somehow, sometimes, they will breed true. Jack Russells have had the reputation of being crazy since they came out of obscurity in the US in the Sixties, and I’ve read lots of theories why a ratting terrier, a bulldog and a dash of beagle leads to these characters. I suppose one could breed an inherently vicious dog—some wolf mixes come close—but the various breeds called pit bulls just aren’t that, and the evidence is overwhelming that except for individual anomalies, these are all loyal, stable, friendly, smart dogs that only are dangerous if abused.

          There are breeds that are smarter than others, but any individual has to be judged individually. There are smart boxers and dumb border collies. The fallacy of stereotyping us still a fallacy.

          • But still though, as long as you assert that some breeds (though in general) show *non-physical* traits in greater concentrations than other breeds *due to BREEDING*, then you can’t decry when other people assert that some breeds display NEGATIVE non-physical traits in greater concentrations than other breeds for the same reason.

            • There are in-bred traits that can be negative, and owners need to be aware of them, and have an obligation to train the dogs to avoid them. English Mastiffs are territorial, shy, easily startled and huge. That translates into a dangerous dog if an owner doesn’t socialize them and teach them to be trusting. I don’t deny the traits, but it is the owners who make those traits dangerous by not being responsible. No dog breed is vicious by nature, as far as I can tell.

  8. Thanks for the picture of the floppy-eared Dobie. I always thought my favorite black and tan Daschund was marked like, and must have been essentially a miniaturized, dwarfed, Doberman.

  9. Jack,
    More than even declawing, there are those advocating even much more frankensteinian changes to the cat (I guess eugenics has been played out in the canine world). Like this:


    What’s really frightening is casual way in which the science is discussed, even by the reporters. Their talking about undoing millions of years worth of highly refined hunting instinct and ability to make the animals more palatable to the home. Does no one worry about what else this might undo? We’ve already seen terrible cases of genetic diseased associated with a number of pure-bred animals, do we really want to find out what unintended consequences would result from altering a fundamental part of their nature?


    • I think it’s more then just the home with cats. I would have to look, but I believe feral cats are, by far, the largest killer of native species of any animal in an environment they arrive in (outside of humans of course). It’s not just how they are in the home, but that once let outside they decimate other animals if left unchecked.

      • Yep, wildlife biologist here, and cats (both feral and domestic) have a significant negative impact on native species populations. Even declawing a cat does not remove the predator instinct, and only slows them down from killing birds, amphibians and small mammals. The TNR (trap-neuter-release) are especially bad for native populations as it usually creates an artificially high concentration of cats in one location. As a spokesperson for native species, please keep your cats indoors! They can be perfectly happy living inside and it greatly reduces the possibility of the cat being hit by a car, killed by a dog/coyote/raccoon, catching a disease or being killed by a human who just has no moral sense.

  10. A Doberman that hasn’t had its tailed cropped is a dangerous dog.

    I had a good friend who had one that he didn’t crop the ears or the tail on and he was an extremely dangerous dog. You never when he was going to walk by and smack you in the nuts with his constantly wagging tail. And then when you grabbed them and started to make funny noises he thought you wanted to play so he would head butt you in the nuts and then jump of you to give you kisses as you made more funny noises.

  11. Unfortunately, I think Pit Bulls take the cake for “favorite dog of vicious people,” certainly here in macho Mexico del Norte, er, Arizona.

  12. I have one small thing to add.

    We have a Yorkie/Cairn mix who we adopted when he was almost seven years old. He had his tail docked before we ever adopted him.

    We are having him put to sleep on November 7th. I am fairly confident that this is the right decision for Toto as he no longer gets excited when my wife comes home, constantly runs into walls, barks for no reason whatsoever, has forgotten the word “treat”, only gets out of his pet bed to attend to absolutely essential functions, and seems to have no or little control over his elimination.

    However, I would be even more confident (or perhaps less confident) if he had never had his tail docked because I would be able to determine whether or not he was wagging it. Tail docking also has a negative effect on our pet’s ability to communicate with us, which makes already difficult decisions just that much harder. I’m glad we’re doing it less often.

    • I’m so sorry you are going through this. I’m had to put down five beloved animal companions, and I can get choked up thinking about any of them.

      And you are right: a dog’s tail is very expressive.

  13. I have enjoyed this discussion, due to the entirely NON POLITICAL topic and respectful tone. Is it sad that I miss this sort of debate enough to notice how much I enjoy it?

    This is what I originally came to get out of web discussions, back in the day.

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