Skip to main content

Verified by Psychology Today

How People Perceive Dogs With Docked Tails and Cropped Ears

Docked or cropped dogs are perceived to be "tough guys" and so are their owners.

SC Psychological Enterprises photo
Source: SC Psychological Enterprises photo

Dogs that have undergone medical procedures to alter the shape of their ears or the length of their tails seem to acquire a certain combative appearance and there is some new data which suggests that this appearance causes people to judge the personality of both the dogs and their owners negatively.

Certain breeds of dogs have traditionally been surgically altered either to assist them in their designated working function, or to meet the aesthetic standards set out by particular kennel clubs. Dogs that were supposed to function as guard dogs often had their tails cut short (technically "docked") because the presence of a tail could provide a handhold for "the bad guys" to control the dog while at the same time avoiding his teeth. These same dogs often had their ears surgically reshaped to minimize the size of the ear flaps (technically called "ear cropping") because the flaps of the ears are very sensitive and could provide handholds for someone to control the dog's head position while avoiding the dog's teeth. These surgical procedures were also done on dogs destined to be fighters in the pit sports against dogs or other animals, and sometimes tail cropping was done on hunting dogs in the belief that long tails were subject to damage as they went through dense underbrush and over rocky terrain.

Today such procedures are classified as "medically unnecessary surgeries" because nowadays their primary purpose is seen to be cosmetic. Certain breed standards maintained by various kennel clubs include specifications regarding the length of the tail or the shape and position of the ears, and these can often only be attained by docking or cropping. It is likely that these aesthetic requirements have been imposed upon these breeds simply because dog breeders have had their taste in what their breed of dog should look like shaped by the historical precedents. When these breeds originated, they were surgically modified because it seemed to improve the dog's ability to function in its assigned work, and now that "look" has come to be what breeders and breed fanciers expect and prefer, even though these dogs are now more likely to be used only as pets and companions today.

The dogs which most typically had their tails docked or their ears cropped were the "tough guys of dogdom", namely the guard dogs, fighters, and hunters. It is possible that the particular look which is given to various breeds by this surgical alteration, may have also come to be associated in the mind of the average person with those characteristics expected of "tough guys". In other words dogs with the appearance typical of cropped and docked dogs might now be seen as possibly more aggressive, more dominant and less playful and affectionate.

Katelyn Mills, Jesse Robbins and Marina von Keysrlngk, researchers in the Animal Welfare Program, at the University of British Columbia in Vancouver, Canada, investigated the effect that docked tails and cropped ears have on our perception of the nature and personality of dogs, and then extended their research to see if these factors also had any effect on our perception of the dogs' owners as well. The results of their studies appeared in the journal PLoS ONE*.

The researchers conducted several different Internet-based surveys but I will concentrate on the those which looked at the personality data. The examples of dogs which they presented to their test subjects were pictures of four dog breeds that commonly have their tails docked and their ears cropped. Three of these breeds, the Boxer, Doberman Pinscher and Miniature Schnauzer are quite popular (in the top 20 registered breeds for the American Kennel Club) while the fourth, the Brussels Griffon, is not so popular but provided them with an example of a toy breed that often undergoes these surgical changes. There were two pictures of each dog breed, both in the same orientation and against the same background. The difference was that one of these dogs had cropped ears and docked tail while the other was a surgically unmodified dog. You can see an example of what a surgically modified and a "natural" Boxer would look like at the top of this article.

In one survey 392 people who were residents of the United States served as test subjects. To conceal the aim of their study, the participants were told that they would be participating in an experiment to see whether or not it was possible to accurately predict the personality of dogs using nothing more than a photograph. Each test subject saw only a total of four images (one version (natural or surgically modified) of each breed. They were then asked to rate each dog on a set of personality traits that were selected from a previously published dog personality questionnaire.

The results were consistent with the idea that seeing dogs with docked tails and cropped ears evokes a stereotype in people — one in which the dogs are seen as more bellicose and mean-spirited. According to these data such modified dogs are seen as more aggressive, both towards people and other dogs. They were also seen as being more dominant than natural unmodified dogs. Furthermore the natural dogs were reported as being more playful. Finally, seemingly flying in the face of the cosmetic purpose for the ear and tail surgeries, the natural unmodified dogs were rated as being more attractive than those who underwent docking and cropping.

Now here is where things get really interesting. In their final survey the researchers decided to see if the judgments of the personalities of the surgically altered dogs could have an effect on how people judged the personality of the people who owned those dogs. This time there were 420 participants, all residents of the United States. In this study the picture of the natural or the surgically modified dog was combined with a picture of a person. The test subjects were told that they would be participating in a study assessing whether an individual's choice of a pet communicates information about their personality. Thus they were told that they would be seeing a picture of a real person (Karen or Brian) and their pet dog Pepper (either a natural or a tail docked and ear cropped Doberman Pinscher). They then were given a list of questions about the personality of the dog's owner.

The results of this study suggest that observers tend to view the dog's owner has having much the same characteristics that their stereotype assigns to the dog. Overall the participants perceived the owners of dogs with cropped ears and docked tails as being more aggressive. They also were seen as more narcissistic where the experimenters use the definition of narcissism as “excessive self-admiration and feelings of superiority”. Furthermore the owners of these modified dogs were judged as being less playful, less talkative, and less warm than the owners of the natural or unmodified dogs. The researchers summarize these results by saying that at least in the eyes of those individuals who observe the dogs and their owners together "it could be suggested that owners of modified dogs [appear to] have a greater risk of social conflicts, human interaction complications and decreased approachability than owners of natural dogs."

Could it be that simply because ear cropping and tail docking is historically associated with rough, tough and combative dogs (guards, fighters and hunters), the average person has formed a negative stereotype? Certainly these data show that simply seeing dogs who have undergone such surgical modification triggers in most observers the notion that such dogs are likely to be more forceful, antagonistic, and potentially violent than dogs who have not undergone such changes. If that is the case it makes sense that this same stereotype carries over to the dog's owner. Obviously a person who needs such a dog is more likely to be seen as less desirable socially, and more likely to be a "hard case" as well.

Stanley Coren is the author of many books including: Gods, Ghosts and Black Dogs; The Wisdom of Dogs; Do Dogs Dream? Born to Bark; The Modern Dog; Why Do Dogs Have Wet Noses? The Pawprints of History; How Dogs Think; How To Speak Dog; Why We Love the Dogs We Do; What Do Dogs Know? The Intelligence of Dogs; Why Does My Dog Act That Way? Understanding Dogs for Dummies; Sleep Thieves; The Left-hander Syndrome

Copyright SC Psychological Enterprises Ltd. May not be reprinted or reposted without permission

Data from: Katelyn E. Mills, Jesse Robbins and Marina A.G. von Keysrlngk, (2016). Tail Docking and Ear Cropping Dogs: Public Awareness and Perceptions. PLoS ONE 11(6): e0158131. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0158131

More from Psychology Today

More from Stanley Coren PhD., DSc, FRSC

More from Psychology Today