Don’t Tread On Me!

Our puppies are nine days old. One is already up on her long, thick legs walking. She is the whiner and fusser in the litter. They are already losing their generic newborn look. It’s still too early to really recognize them as Kerry Blue puppies if they are not curled up with their mother. We cannot tell if their ears are small and well placed on their heads, if they will have good coats, long heads or if their tail sets are correct. But anyone looking at the litter knows they are healthy and thriving. They have no names, just pink, white and green. We have no favorite and although many of our friends ask us if we can tell which one is better than the others we have to answer, no.

In looking at puppies in litters, we have one test of quality: My mom. No, this isn’t an anecdote about the veteran breeder who stares down into the pile of puppies and pronounces, “the red one”, as the best pup and damned if it doesn’t grow up to win Montgomery. My mom always falls in love with the dud puppy. No matter whose litter she sees, no matter what the breed, she can pick out the dud puppy from the door. You know the dud. This is the puppy where all the worst traits from the sire and the dam come together in one small, cuddly being. She will instinctively pick up and carry around the worst puppy in the litter. My mom holds it, cradles it in her arms and coos at it. She will walk directly to the area where the puppies are playing, reach down into the scrum and pick up the worst of the lot. There’s no deliberating, just a confident selection. Her “dud-ometer” is so finely calibrated, that people cringe every time she lingers on one of the puppies.

At five days old we bundled up the puppies and their mom and went to have their tails docked and dew claws removed. Our vet does this unquestioningly and with compassion. I have read most of the arguments about docking, both for and against the practice, but still there was no question that the litter would undergo this procedure. Eva stayed in the little exam room while my mom and the puppies went somewhere into the bowels of the clinic for the removals. You could hear them crying, but Eva sat stoically by me, staring into the distance. Why did we do this without any debate or indecision?

All our Kerries have had docked tails and no dew claws. Most of the puppies that come for ear setting are the same. Those of us who dock and remove these vestigial thumbs do so because we believe we are honoring the AKC breed standard. The revised standard, however, is light on this point. There is no mention of either docking or dew claw removal in our standard. In fact, the standard only statea the tail is to be carried gaily on high, the straighter the better. There is no mention of dew claws at all. Docking and dew claw removal are really rituals, passed down from breeder to breeder, founded on somebody’s idea that to do so was useful. Done properly, the procedure is humane with no measurable, deleterious effects. We like the way a docked tail looks on our dogs, just as we prefer the expression of our dogs with the ears set. There really are no other reasons to dock our breed’s tail, or set the ears, except we prefer the look. Doing these things to our dogs honors our standard and heritage, but more importantly they are our choice.

The United States Kerry Blue Terrier Club, submitted a very well written letter to the AVMA in defense of docking and dew claw removal. The AVMA, backed by the Animal Rights movement, has come out against docking and cropping. Some members of these groups believe the procedures are unnecessary and cruel. Purely cosmetic or worse just for wins in the breed ring. Since we are a docked breed, we wanted to stand in solidarity with other parent clubs of docked breeds to help the AVMA realize there are two sides to the story. We cited some rather arcane research and articles and opinions by learned sounding people in dogs about the reasons for docking. Most thinking people would take issue with many of the points. The point not stated, the one that should lie at the heart of any argument in favor of limiting personal liberties, is that in our country personal freedoms, especially property rights are to be protected.

Dogs are actually property, we own them. As domestic animals, they need to be nurtured and cared for by their owners. All their food and shelter and medical care must originate from us. As our property, we have the right to buy and sell them at will as well as euthanize them when we believe that is necessary. Most of us resist the government’s intrusion into our personal lives in other areas. Why should these dog issues be any different? We don’t need the government to regulate what we can do with our property, as long as our actions aren’t harming our neighbors. There is no proof docking or dew claw removal, performed by a licensed vet in a clean environment, is inherently cruel. If an individual veterinarian chooses not to carry out these procedures for his clients, that is his choice.

The docking of tails in the Kerry Blue Terrier is a breeder or owner’s choice. The standard supports both ways by its lack of specificity. It is a tradition many of us believe worthy of continuation and adds to the character of the breed. In respect for those who have come before us, we continue the practice. However, rethinking tradition and careful reasoning is always healthy. If breeders in the new millennium chose not to dock the tails, and insist on leaving dew claws in place, this will be their legacy.

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