Australian shepherds, or "Aussies," are prized for their intelligence, their loyalty and, when it comes to livestock farmers, their exceptional abilities to herd. A common misconception, though, is that Australian shepherds don't have tails. On the contrary, no Aussie is truly tailless; the actual size of an Aussie's tail depends upon two factors: genetics and the intention of each Aussie's specific owner.
According to the American Kennel Club, Australian shepherds are born with either short bobtails, which give the appearance of no tail, or with longer, fur-covered tails. All is dependent upon genetics. Aussie breeders generally seek to produce puppies with the smallest possible tails, because such pups are favored in canine competitions, as well as in a working capacity.
Shows and Herding
When it comes to competitive shows, there are standards for Aussie tail size. The AKC, for example, sets the Aussie tail length breed standard at a maximum of 4 inches. In terms of farming and herding livestock, organizations such as the U.S. Australian Shepherd Association argue that Aussies with longer tails run the risk of developing infections as they go about their work. As a result, many farmers also seek Aussies with shorter tails.
To Dock or Not to Dock
When Aussies are born with longer tails, owners often choose to have the tails docked, or surgically shortened. This procedure is performed when Aussies are still pups and is sanctioned by such organizations as the AKC and the Australian Shepherd Club of America. Many animal welfare organizations, however, do not condone the practice of docking. The AVMA and RSPCA are two such anti-docking organizations. The practice of nontherapeutic docking is illegal in countries including Sweden, Germany and Australia.
Although Aussies can be born with longer tails, the AKC, Animal Planet and other reference sources say a large percentage of Aussie pups possess natural bobtails. Pups born of two parents with natural bobtails, according to the Australian Shepherd Health & Genetics Institute, run a higher risk of developing spinal problems as they grow. This possible risk should be considered by breeders and potential Aussie owners.
Jeff Katz has been a professional librarian, educator, historian, writer and editor for almost 20 years. He holds a Master of Library Science degree from the University of British Columbia and a BA degree in Classical Studies from Hunter College of the City University of New York.