Leslie Fried is a prominent dog breeder who has been turning out champion Rottweilers since 1986. She says she knows a winning Rottie when she sees one, and a number of years ago, she thought she had an outstanding female for the show ring.
There was just one problem: Unlike all the other Rottweilers on the circuit, Fried’s dog Tyra still had a “natural” tail — a big, long one. Tyra was from the first litter of puppies whose tails Fried, after seven generations of breeding, had left undocked.
“People were saying, ‘Get that mongrel out of the ring,’ ” said Fried, who lives in New Jersey. “You feel intimidated — and I’m not new to this world or a weak-temperament person.”
Fried says she wanted to show that a Rottweiler could be a great competitor with a natural tail. But after paying the entry fees and travel expenses to show Tyra in various rings for more than two years, Fried and Tyra’s owners gave up. Tyra never earned American Kennel Club champion status. One of Tyra’s puppies did, though, and she will compete this week at the elite Westminster Kennel Club Dog Show — with what’s left of her docked tail.
Fried is among a small but growing number of breeders willing to voice opposition to docking tails or cropping dogs’ ears to make the point that these are cruelties that should end. But they say the practices are so deeply embedded in show culture that any undercurrent pushing to end them remains overwhelmed by the sport’s tradition-bound majority.
“She wouldn’t be there, either, if she had a tail,” Fried said of Brandi, the dog that will show at Westminster. “This should not be happening in today’s world.”
Docking and cropping date back generations to times when, for instance, people falsely believed that removing part of a dog’s tail could prevent rabies. The practices became common for several breeds, ranging from silky terriers to miniature schnauzers. Today, even though the American Veterinary Medical Association shuns the procedures as painful and cosmetic, some breeders insist they are necessary to, say, prevent animals from having something to latch onto in a fight.
Ultimately, the practices of cropping and docking became written into many of the judging standards used to evaluate dogs in AKC-sanctioned shows, including Westminster. As of 2013, the AKC recognized 20 breeds with cropped ears and 62 breeds with docked tails.
To be sure, beliefs are evolving in some breeds. The silky terrier that won best of breed on Monday — Lamplighter Bendill Tail Wind, who goes by “Windy” at home — has a natural tail. Her breeder, Barbara Beissel, said she stopped docking her puppies nine years ago in defiance of the breed standard, which states “the tail is docked,” and has made it her mission to show that natural-tailed silkies can win.
“I’ve been at Westminster every year consistently with a dog with a natural tail, but this is the first time we’ve won the breed,” Beissell said in an interview as she prepared the dog for its next round of judging. “This is big . . . And no matter what, the world will see this beautiful dog with a natural tail.”
Because each breed’s parent club creates the standards, language about docking and cropping varies. Unlike the silky terrier’s, which decrees that its docked tail is “set high and carried at twelve to two o’clock position,” the Doberman pinscher standard says: “Ears normally cropped and carried erect.”
“They have been fighting, nattering, for decades now over the meaning of ‘normally,’ ” said Kathy Davieds, a Virginia-based veterinarian and breeder of Dobermans since 1983. “There are two camps. One says ‘normally’ means what most sane people think, which is usually. But the rabid pro-croppers say it means cropped in a normal fashion.”
Breeders who stand by the procedures can be fervent. When the AKC’s Terrier Group Breeder of the Year for 2016 was charged with eight counts of animal cruelty for illegally cropping the ears of her miniature schnauzers, she vowed to continue. And she did: After being convicted, she was arrested again and charged with felony torture.
In several nations, including the United Kingdom and Australia, docking and cropping are banned and considered animal cruelty.
But in many show rings, including the widely televised event that the Westminster Kennel Club hosts every February in Manhattan’s Madison Square Garden, traditions die hard. Men will be wearing bow ties at ringside, the official colors will include regal purple, and, some breeders predict, “naturals” will be excluded from the winner’s circle in some breeds.
Teresa La Brie, an Upstate New York breeder who has produced more than 70 champion Great Danes since 1985, took her first dog to Westminster in the early 1990s. She was at the event again last year, with a Great Dane that had long, floppy ears.
“The problem with the naturals is that you don’t go to Westminster expecting to win,” La Brie said. “The judge didn’t give me even a sideways glance. I go to show the audience, the public, to say, ‘Yes, you can have natural ears.’ ”
A few years ago, at a show in Massachusetts, La Brie said a judge separated the cropped Danes from the natural-eared dogs.
“She made a point of showing us all that she would not even evaluate our dogs,” La Brie said. “I’ve had judges close their eyes when they walk by. . . . They want you not to exist.”
Lisa Peterson, a spokeswoman for the Westminster Kennel Club, said the organization abides by AKC regulations and stands by the decisions of its judges, whom she said are “responsible for interpreting” standards set by breed clubs.
AKC spokeswoman Brandi Hunter said many dogs with natural ears and tails from traditionally cropped and docked breeds earn championships. All newly recognized breeds whose standards include docking or cropping must also include descriptions for undocked tails or uncropped ears, she added.
“More and more parent clubs have addressed the judging of undocked tails via their judges’ education, even if the standard does not state it,” Hunter said.
Jeff Shaver, the vice president of the American Rottweiler Club and husband of an AKC judge, said he has shown and won with docked and undocked Rottweilers, and he believes both should be equal competitors. But he said breeders who perceive a bias against natural dogs are correct.
“It’s worse in some breeds than others,” he said. “When the first Rottweiler with a tail showed back in 2006 back in Florida, there was almost a riot. People were crazy — cursing, yelling, screaming, all kinds of threats. It was ridiculous. There were Facebook wars, this that and the other. Friendships ended over it.”
Shaver said things are calmer now in the Rottweiler show rings, and that his wife is among the judges who don’t care if a dog has a tail. He said he anticipates a day when cropping and docking will be banned in the United States, rendering any controversy about them irrelevant.
“Frankly, it’s going to take a major city like Los Angeles, or like New York City, where they have Westminster, to pass a crop and docking ban,” he said. “If one state passes that, it’s over.”
Breeders who insist on cropping are bucking a change in public sentiment, Davieds said. In the 1980s, she said two-thirds of people who contacted her to purchase a pet Doberman wanted puppies with pointy ears.
“Now, nine out of 10 people want uncropped,” Davieds said. In many cases, she said the customers mention that they’ve reached out to other breeders who refused the request. “I have actually had people cry,” she said.
Fried, whose Rottweiler Brandi will show at Westminster with a shortened tail, said she would stop docking altogether if she could still compete “on an even playing field.”
But then, she added, she thinks about the fact that so many of her buyers want only Rottweiler puppies that come from champion lines.
“If Brandi had not been docked, she may not even be a champion today,” Fried said, “let alone the number five female going to Westminster.”