Aussie Tails – On or Off?

Tailed and tailess Aussies - photo credit Robin De Villiers

Tailed and tailess Aussies – photo credit Robin De Villiers

Love it or hate it, an identifying characteristic of the Australian Shepherd is its bobtail as set forth in its breed standard.

Most Aussies have their tail docked three days after birth in compliance with this standard – for while many are born with a naturally bobbed tail, the length of it is usually longer than desired, or the tail is malformed (with a kink in it, for example).  The tail length is determined by genes (as everything is), and fairly simple genes at that. If the Australian shepherd bobtail can be bred for, why don’t breeders just do that, instead of cutting them off?

Genetically, here are your options (from Canine Genetics):

BT/BT Lethal The dog carries two copy of the mutant gene. This condition is lethal in utero.
BT/n Short Tail The dog carries one copy of the normal gene and one copy of the mutant gene. The dog has a natural short tail. Heterozygous dogs can pass the mutation to their offspring with a probability of 50%.
n/n Normal Tail The dog has two copies of the normal gene and will have a normal tail.

So, essentially, breeding for the bobtail will result in puppies dead in utero, on top of which, there are a number of complications (such as spina bifida, and others cited in this article). You’d essentially be limiting the availability of the gene pool by breeding for the bobtail, and no one can guarantee the length of the bobtail with be the desirable one without very concentrated breeding – ignoring other much more important aspects of the dog’s breedability (such as working ability, temperament, and structural conformation).

Peach demonstrating how she uses her tail as a counterbalance. Photo by nao

Peach demonstrating how she uses her tail as a counterbalance. Photo by Naomi Rae, Redwood Ranch

While there are some benefits to the docked tail, including reducing risk of injury in the field – there are many benefits to leaving them on. One is simply skipping a completely elective alteration of a dog’s limb at an early age. Proponents of leaving the tail on cite additional agility and propulsion through the use of the dog’s natural tail assembly, though I have yet to see a study that is able to truly back it up. It’s mostly anecdotal evidence.

Even so, as the breed has become popular in countries where tail docking has been banned, the problem has arisen: what do breeders of Australian Shepherds there and shipping them to those countries do?

Most are leaving the tails on and breeding for full tails. While there has been some interest in addressing the tail set and carriage in the breed standards to accommodate tailed dogs in countries that forbid the traditional tail length, it’s been met with resistance by the US breeders because allowing for tail length will make it that much easier to cease docking and the traditional Aussie bobtail in the future. Most judges, when faced with a tailed dog, simply choose to ignore tail set and carriage – though the assembly of the overall dog clearly has an effect on how the tail is put together.

Increasingly, performance breeders of the Australian Shepherd in the US are leaving tails on, as well. If this strikes your fancy, consider asking such breeders to leave a tail on a dog – if they aren’t leaving the entire litter, this can mean you’re stuck with your choice of puppy at three days of age, but I’ve yet to see anyone who opted for this possibility disappointed in their choice.

Whether you’re a fan of the bobtail and the ways it’s been achieved or not, the Aussie tail is beautiful in all its forms.

Tailed and bobtailed Aussie butts - Photo by Kim Barrett

Tailed and bobtailed Aussie butts – Photo by Kim Barrett