In previous articles, I've mentioned that we can say nothing about what an animal's behavior means unless we know the context in which is occurs. In the case of companion animals, a key contextual element is the owners' and others' emotional perception of those animals.

However, when it comes to behaviors displayed by companion animals, it's not uncommon for human perceptions of the context to vary even within the same household. The same display from the family dog that one person considers loving, her partner may perceive as obnoxious, while their kids think it's funny. Meanwhile, their visiting relatives hate the dog because "she looks weird."

Those different human responses, in turn, may affect the animal's subsequent behavior in general or only with those specific individuals. Although multiple factors contribute to this mixed perceptual bag within the companion animal household, this month I'd like to consider one factor that practitioners also may experience directly or indirectly.

In a research paper entitled "Tail Docking and Ear Cropping Dogs: Public Awareness and Perception" published in PLOS ONE, Katelyn E. Mills, Jesse Robbins and Marina von Keyserlingk wanted to fill a gap in the literature regarding how surgical alteration of canine body parts affected human perception. Although previous studies explored the perceptions of veterinarians and breeders relative to these surgeries when performed for strictly cosmetic reasons, no one had addressed those of the public.

To provide insight into this segment of the population, the researchers conducted three experiments using American residents as subjects. Data for each experiment included the number of participants, mean age and range, sex and percentage of the total who functioned as the primary canine caregiver in the household.

In the first experiment, researchers showed each participant one professional photo of a dog belonging to one of four breeds in which tail docking and ear cropping commonly occurs: Doberman pinscher, miniature schnauzer, boxer or Brussels griffon. Participants then rated the dog using a list of 10 traits they considered of genetic or environmental origin using seven-point scale.

During the second part of this experiment, the participants received two photographs of the same breed of dog, one with surgically modified ears and tail and one without. The history accompanying these photos stated that the dogs were purebred siblings. Participants then had to choose one of three options to describe what the dogs' different appearances meant:

  • That dogs of the same breed can have different ears and tails
  • That dogs of some breeds may have part of their ears and tails removed
  • Neither

Although this may come as a surprise to some veterinarians, 42 percent of the 810 participants believed that the short ears and tail were of genetic origin in these breeds.

In the second experiment, the researchers explored if and how the appearance of natural and modified dogs influenced people's perception of the dog's temperament. To determine this, they had a professional artist restore the ears and tails on the photographs of the surgically modified dogs.

When completed, the researchers had two photos of each of the original four dogs: the original photo of the dog with cropped ears and docked tail, and one of the same dog with his or her natural ears and tail restored by the artist. They then asked participants to rate a collection of either all surgically modified or all (artificially restored) natural dog pictures using a canine personality questionnaire.

In general, participants perceived the modified dogs as more human- and canine-aggressive as well as "dominant." Those who received the natural dog photos perceived those animals as more playful and attractive.

Keep in mind that the experiment wasn't designed to determine whether any of these dogs truly possessed those qualities. It was designed to determine if and how cropped ears and docked tails could influence people's perception of dogs so modified.

The third experiment examined how others' perception of the people with these dogs changed depending on the absence of presence of canine ears or tails. In this case, identical full-body pictures of the same man or woman were paired with images of the surgically modified or natural Doberman.

Each participant received images of one man and a modified or natural dog and a second set of a woman paired with either a modified or natural dog. Subjects then had to answer questions regarding their perceptions of the supposed owner as well as the dog.

Given the differences in participants' perception of the modified and natural dogs, again it probably comes as little surprise that the participants' perceptions of the dogs' respective owners also differed. Traits assigned to the presumed owners of modified dogs included more aggressive, more narcissistic, less playful, less talkative and warm than the owners of natural dogs.

Additionally, participants perceived the female owner the of modified dog as more dominant, aggressive and competent than the female owner of the natural dog. Interestingly, the participants perceived the male owner of the modified dog as more narcissistic, less warm and less competent than that same man when paired with the natural version of the same dog.

But if these results will surprise few clinicians, why bother writing about them at all? Like all studies, this one has its flaws.

However, it does further support the notion that some people will make snap judgments of a dog's temperament and the person with the dog based solely on the dog's looks. And because dogs and their people routinely may congregate in veterinary practice waiting rooms, this may directly or indirectly affect how other clients interact with those animals and their people. And that, in turn, may affect the dog's behavior in the examination room as well as the waiting room.

Hopefully and regardless of their personal views, practitioners and their staff members know that cringing in response to every cropped-eared, docked-tailed dog that enters the veterinary clinic won't enhance the dog's behavior. And although it superficially might appear that more positive responses to naturally eared and tailed canines and their owners would be a win-win for everyone, that approach also can backfire.

Just as modified dogs and their owners may dwell anywhere on the spectrum of temperaments and personalities, so may natural dog-owner pairs. And some of these may be nicer and better behaved than others.