The docked tail wags the dog

I DON'T KNOW IF IT'S TRUE, although I suppose it must be because it is in Scottish Parliament briefing notes, but docking dogs' tails was an early 17th-century phenomenon introduced by English cattle drovers.

I find it a bit hard to believe that a drover woke up one day and decided to have his doggie's tail off because it was always getting trodden on by careless cattle. More likely, the first written account of tail docking, which had been going on for centuries, just happens to have been found in England - "The squire did this day order the litter be docked of its tails in the manner of the drovers' hounds". Or some such. And thus a tale was born. Anyway, there it is in the Scottish Parliament bumf; definitely the fault of the English, all this docking malarkey. As you can imagine, if you didn't know already, there is a frightful rammy going on over dogs' tails.

In Scotland, the most politically correct legislature in the universe apart from California, we are about to ban docking completely, or at least make it so difficult to find a vet prepared to do it that even the police are warning that dog owners are likely to head over the Border, where docking regulations will not be so tight. Don't even think about having your spaniel puppy's tail snipped in Scotland. The Thought Police will be abseiling out of Executive helicopters threatening to stone you to death with hardback copies of the Animal Health and Welfare (Scotland) Bill.

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The case for and against docking is almost worse than the row over hunting, with neither side agreeing or likely to agree. And dogs, on the whole, are bad at speaking their minds and make rotten witnesses at Parliamentary committees.

But the accepted lore is this: some working breeds, notably spaniels, have had their tails docked for centuries because they injure them while tearing about in the undergrowth and the injury can go septic. And, in case you didn't know (I got this from a friend who used to be a veterinary nurse for the PDSA), a dog that injures its tail badly chews at it, very sensibly, to get rid of the bad bit.

Consequently, it has long been considered sensible to dock the tails of some breeds at birth, or at least within a week, before all the bones harden up. Unfortunately, there are a number of breeds which have not done a day's work for yonks and so the docking of their tails is really no more than fashion left over from the days when these bigger breeds really did work.

But "cosmetic docking" is not really a very good excuse for what the British Small Animals Veterinary Association blood-curdlingly calls "mutilation". They are vehemently against docking for any reason apart from medical; but how many real working dogs do the BSAVA ethics committee members ever see themselves?

The sensible line to take now that we are a grown-up nation with our own Parliament is to do what they are likely to do south of the Border - leave it up to owners and vets. Not everyone wants their dog's tail docked, after all. It is becoming less de rigueur and even the Kennel Club no longer insists on it for traditionally docked breeds.

But no, in Scotland we will make it as complicated as possible. How you enforce a rule that only working dogs can be docked is anyone's guess. You can't sell a puppy with a legal condition that it goes shooting at least once a week. What happens if it becomes a lapdog? Will the Executive insist it has its tail stitched back on?

We will have a politically correct muddle this side of the Border and a pragmatic solution the other. The police say the law will be unenforceable. Rather than face the wrath of the Executive docking squad, owners will go south. You can see it now - Ye Olde English Docking Parlour on the English side of Gretna. The English come here to get married and we go there to get our tails docked.