Perceptions of Tail Docking and Ear Cropping in Dogs

October 5, 2016
Laurie Anne Walden, DVM, ELS

Dr. Walden received her doctorate in veterinary medicine from North Carolina State University. She is a practicing veterinarian and a certified editor in the life sciences (ELS). She owns Walden Medical Writing, LLC, and writes and edits materials for healthcare professionals and the general public.

A recent study examines the perceptions of tail docking and ear cropping in dogs.

In a study recently published in PLoS ONE, 42% of participants did not realize that dogs’ cropped ears and docked tails were the result of surgery. Dogs with cropped ears and docked tails were seen as more aggressive and less attractive than those with natural ears and tails. Owners of dogs with cropped ears and docked tails were perceived as more aggressive and narcissistic than owners of dogs with natural ears and tails.

Researchers from the University of British Columbia, Vancouver, Canada, recruited participants from the United States for three experiments. They used photographs of Doberman pinschers, miniature schnauzers, boxers, and Brussels griffons with and without surgical modification (cropped ears and docked tail).

In the first experiment, 810 participants viewed a photograph of a surgically modified dog and ranked the likelihood of various physical traits being the result of genetics or environment. The results suggested that most participants thought the short ears and tail were at least partly due to genetics.

Participants then were shown photographs of a modified dog and a natural dog. They were told that the dogs were siblings and asked to select an option explaining the difference in appearance. Although most (58%) correctly responded that some dogs’ ears and tails are surgically altered, 40% answered that ear and tail shape and size can vary within a breed (2% chose neither option). “…Assessing public attitudes on contentious practices such as ear cropping and tail docking might be difficult given that a large minority of the individuals appear to be unaware that this practice takes place,” write the authors.

In the second experiment, 392 participants viewed a photograph of either a modified or a natural dog and rated the dogs’ perceived personality traits. Modified dogs were viewed as being more aggressive and dominant; natural dogs were thought to be more playful and attractive. The authors conclude that human-induced changes in dogs (surgical modification) may affect the popularity and adoptability of certain breeds.

In the third experiment, 420 participants viewed a photograph of a modified or natural Doberman pinscher along with a photograph of a male or female owner. Participants ranked personality traits of both the dog and the owner. Owners of modified dogs were seen as being more aggressive, more narcissistic, less playful, less talkative, and less warm than those of natural dogs. The authors suggest that owners of modified dogs may have a higher risk of social conflict than owners of natural dogs.

“These three studies collectively provide evidence that human-induced changes to a dog’s appearance can dramatically affect how the dogs and their owners are perceived, which has the potential to negatively impact the dog as well as the owner,” say the authors. They list the following study limitations: results may not apply to all populations, the study did not include all breeds that typically undergo ear cropping and tail docking, and the Doberman pinscher was the only breed used to investigate perceptions of dog owners.

Dr. Laurie Anne Walden received her doctorate in veterinary medicine from North Carolina State University. After an internship in small animal medicine and surgery at Auburn University, she returned to North Carolina, where she has been in small animal primary care practice for over 20 years. Dr. Walden is a board-certified editor in the life sciences and owner of Walden Medical Writing, LLC.