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Tails in two countries

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DEVOLUTION is all very well, but it can potentially cause problems, as different approaches to, say, student tuition fees and university funding have illustrated. Differences in approach to the issue of non-therapeutic docking of dogs' tails seem set to provide another example, with veterinary surgeons being caught in the middle.

The Scottish Executive confirmed earlier this month that it would be introducing an outright ban on non-therapeutic tail docking in Scotland, and that the ban would come into effect at the end of April. The bva, bsava and rcvs have long been opposed to non-therapeutic docking of dogs' tails on animal welfare grounds, so that much, at least, is welcome. However, the situation in the rest of Great Britain is less clear cut, following a decision by Parliament last March, when mps voted for a partial ban, from which working dogs would be excluded. In November, the Government issued a consultation document seeking views on regulations which are to be introduced under the Animal Welfare Act and are intended to put that decision into effect. The Government has since amended the regulations in the light of the comments received and the resulting draft statutory instrument, in the form of The Docking of Working Dogs' Tails (England) Regulations 2007, has since been published. The regulations can be viewed on the website of the Office of Public Sector Information (at www.opsi.gov.uk/si/si2007/draft/20075778.htm) and are expected to come into force on April 6. Similar legislation is also being considered in Wales.

Doubts must remain about whether working dogs should have been exempted from the ban in England. However, given that the decision has been made, the concern must be whether the regulations can be workable, not least because no one can accurately predict the future. The legislation requires that ‘working’ dogs which may be docked must be less than five days old. However, it is impossible to assess the likelihood of neonatal puppies eventually being used for work; not all puppies in a litter will necessarily be put to work and their suitability cannot be assessed until later. The revised regulations represent a slight improvement on the earlier draft, in that they state that veterinary surgeons may certify that they have ‘seen evidence’ that a dog is of a specified type and likely to be used for a specified type of work. The previous draft would have required veterinary surgeons to certify simply that the dog was ‘likely’ to be used for a specified type of work; this would have required the veterinary surgeon to certify on a matter which would not have been within his or her knowledge, which would have contravened rcvs guidance on certification. That said, the evidence specified in the regulations provides no guarantee that the dog will be used for work, and both the types of dog and the types of work specified in the legislation leave considerable room for interpretation.

The revised regulations include a broader definition of specified types of dog than the earlier draft, listing ‘Hunt point retriever breeds of any type or combination of types’, ‘spaniels of any type or combination of types’ and ‘Terriers of any type or combination of types’. The types of work are specified as ‘law enforcement’, ‘activities of Her Majesty's armed forces’, ‘emergency rescue’, ‘lawful pest control’ and ‘the lawful shooting of animals’. Meanwhile, the list of those who can present evidence stating that the dog is to be used for work has been extended to include representatives of hm Prison Service and hm Revenue & Customs.

Under the regulations, owners or representatives presenting puppies to be docked will be required to sign a certificate confirming that the requirements are being complied with. In doing so, they will have the option of confirming that the dog is intended to be used for work or, alternatively, intended to be sold for use in work. The fact that the dogs might be sold on adds a further element of uncertainty to the whole process and emphasises the problems inherent in attempting to predict a dog's future.

The regulations require that dogs are microchipped, but not necessarily at the time the dog is docked or by the veterinary surgeon performing the operation. Veterinary and owner/representative certificates will be required but this provides scope for confusion and possible abuse and, in the absence of a central register of legally docked dogs, it is difficult to see how the regulations can be enforced.

The English regulations are inherently problematic, but the difficulties could be felt most acutely by practices near the border with Scotland, which may have clients on both sides of the border. Meanwhile, the English exemption could cause difficulties in enforcement in Scotland, not least because there would seem to be nothing to prevent dogs legally docked in England subsequently being bought by people north of the border.

It seems that, in drafting the regulations, the English legislators have gone through all sorts of hoops in attempting to meet the will of Parliament and comments received subsequently, but faced an impossible task from the start. It has still to be seen just how things work out in practice, but it remains regrettable that England did not, like Scotland, opt for an outright ban.

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