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  • Writer's pictureDan FitzPatrick

Tale of a Tail

I have a tail.

Now, that may not seem particularly newsworthy given that I am a dog, but in this instance, it actually is quite unusual. You see, I am an Australian Shepherd, and by tradition our tails are docked at birth. That may seem mean or painful to some people, but in reality, it is not. My uncle, Logan, and my nephew, Hank, both had their tails docked and they assure me that it was not painful, and they do not mind not having a tail.

A bit of history may be in order.

The Australian Shepherd is a breed of herding dog. Notwithstanding its name, it actually originated in the United States and was developed in California in the 19th century from a variety of herding breeds including collies imported into California with sheep from Australia and New Zealand.

The breed’s progenitor was the Pyrenean Shepherd, the dog of choice of the Basque people who lived near the Pyrenees Mountains in the borderlands between France and Spain. The Basques were known as world-class shepherds, and in the early 1800s, many of them traveled to Australia, with their prized dogs in tow, to ply their trade in Australia’s vast interior full of rich pastureland perfect for cattle ranching. There, they crossed their dogs with imported British breeds, including Collies and Border Collies. Eventually, some of them left for California. The local ranchers admired the dogs and assumed they were an Australian breed. Hence, the name.

Some people assume that our tails are traditionally docked for cosmetic reasons, but that is not the case. The practice is rooted in practicality. Our tails are by nature feathery and as we work the fields herding, our tails would pick up the (ahem) mess left behind by the animals. That did not make us very popular guests in our humans’ homes. It also was not great for our overall health. In addition, our feathery tails get caught easily in weeds, stickers and burrs, which are difficult to remove and can cause injury to our tails.

Many of us do not work in the fields these days, so the traditional reasons for docking are not as compelling. However, it has become part of the breed “standard” and is expected of most Aussies, especially those who compete in dog shows.

Speaking of competing, our breed is known as being extremely agile and able to run, jump and perform acrobatics most other breeds cannot. Which brings up an interesting point. Most humans believe that a dog’s tail exists principally to assist us in keeping our balance, especially on narrow surfaces, or when making high speed turns. None of that has hampered my docked relatives from competing successfully in rodeos and agility trials, so that theory might benefit from some rethinking.

I do agree, however, with those humans who believe that a dog’s tail serves as a form of communication. While Logan and Hank can (and do) wag their behinds to express their happiness, I can use my feathery appendage to communicate on an operatic scale. I am smart enough to know how to use the combination of my deep brown eyes and wagging tail to melt the heart of any human I come across. I really am that adorable.

And on a practical note, I am never without something to play with if I am ever bored!

Logan, Hank and I get along very well. There is no “tail envy” or discrimination amongst us. While we do have some differences, we are all dogs and happy to be so. We do not focus on those differences, but rather celebrate our common “canine-ality.” This has proven to be a source of great happiness for us.

We love our human families deeply and unconditionally. That’s what dogs do, and we do it well. So, we are troubled and sad to see our humans unhappy, as they appear to be quite a lot these days. One source of that unhappiness, it seems to us, is the tendency for humans to focus (more these days than ever) on the differences among them. Differences that make no sense to us. We don’t care about the color, pattern or texture of each other’s fur coat, so why should humans do so? While as a breed we do like to bark, we do not bark or growl at, or chase or fight other dogs simply because they do not look like us. What would be the sense in that? (Cats, admittedly, are another matter, but that will have to await another article.)

I suspect that many humans would never consider taking advice from a dog, but I am going to press on (doggedly?) nonetheless; it is a trait of our breed. Please step back, take a deep breath and stop focusing on your differences. As a first step, stop calling each other names and using hurtful labels. Who cares what your skin color is, or your ethnic background? We dogs live very happily in a multi-breed world; why can’t you live equally as happily in a multi-cultural one? We have no problem overlooking pretty significant differences like tails/no tails, so why can’t you? We are mere domestic working animals; you are the apex of the animal kingdom. All creation literally depends on what you do and how you get along. As does our happiness as part of your families. If you won’t or can’t do it for each other, please do it for us.

And remember, we are, and always will be, your best friends.

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