6 Fun Facts about Your Dog’s Tail

After having Australian Shepherds with docked tails for many years, I wasn’t used to dogs with full tails when I brought home Bones, my English Shepherd.

Bones’ tail is long and lush, and he uses it so well to express himself I found myself mesmerized. That fascination led to watching him use it as he runs; it makes a great counter-balance. Then I began paying more attention to my Aussies with their lack of a tail. How do they cope? Is there a difference between dogs with tails and without?

The Tail is Attached to Your Dog

As we all know, the tail is at the posterior end of the vertebral column, the end of the backbone. There are generally between six and 23 vertebrae in a canine tail if the tail isn’t docked, which we’ll talk about later. These vertebrae are wrapped in flexible muscles that make side to side, up and down, and even circular movements easy.

Tails vary widely from the long, sweeping German Shepherd tail to the curled, short Pug’s tail. A Greyhound has a long thin whip-like tail while a Labrador Retriever has a medium length, thick, otter-like tail. The American Eskimo carries his tail high over his back, curled, while the Border Collie usually carries his tail lower. The variations in tails are just as different as the breeds themselves are.

Communication is Key

The most visible function of the canine tail is communication. We know our dog’s smiling face, wiggling body and happily wagging tail expresses joy. The tail by itself is not the communication, though, but instead, facial expressions, body movement, body position and the tail’s motion all work together to communicate the dog’s feelings.

Although the tail is only a part of the dog’s communication, it can definitely add some flair. The speed that the tail wags, the position up and down, and where the tail is carried all convey the dog’s emotions. A worried dog will carry his tail lower while a fearful dog may tuck his tail tightly to his hips and between his back legs. An alert, confident dog will carry his tail higher but will usually hold it still while checking out something of interest.

Most dogs use their tail to communicate in a similar manner, but each dog has his own individual accent. Some dogs are more reserved and don’t move or wag the tail as exuberantly; think of a dignified German Shepherd greeting someone other than his owner. Other dogs are more enthusiastic; think of a happy Golden Retriever.

Dogs with naturally short or docked tails can still wag their shortened nubbins of a tail, but they tend to use more body language so their message is still seen. Australian Shepherds, for example, wiggle the entire back half of the body when happy. Aussie owners call it the Aussie wiggle butt.

The Counter-Balance Tail

Athletic dogs with a tail use it as a counter-balance when running, leaping and turning. The strong muscles in the hips, pelvis and tail all work together to move the tail as needed to keep the dog balanced as he’s moving. If you watch a dog running and jumping to catch a ball, you may see him abruptly move his tail from one position to another. This is to help him balance himself as he’s jumping or landing.

Dogs with short or docked tails can still be balanced, especially if they have had a short tail since puppyhood. These dogs have grown up using the body they have. However, if a dog injures his tail in adulthood and loses part or all of the tail, his athletic skills change; his balance will be different. He can re-learn those skills but it does take some time.

©istockphoto/yangchao

©istockphoto/yangchao

The Swimmer’s Rudder

While watching a friend’s Newfoundland swim, I could see how he used his tail as a rudder. While swimming straight, the tail was directly out behind him. It looked as if his tail wasn’t serving any purpose at all; it was just hanging out behind him. However, when he was making a turn during his swim, his tail distinctly moved from behind him to one side, depending on how he was turning. His tail is an efficient rudder.

At the same time, the tail also helps the swimming dog maintain his balance. When a wave hit Kodi, the Newfoundland, the tail moved to help him keep his balance. Since the Newfi’s tail is long and heavily coated, it’s an effective counter-balance.

The Tail as a Scent-Spreader

When we think of scent, we may think of our Mom’s perfume, our Dad’s cologne, or Grandma’s sugar cookies baking in the kitchen. For example, my Dad did wood working so the smell of cut lumber is a positive smell for me.

Dogs, however, think other scents smell good and some of those scents originate under the tail of other dogs. Movement of the tail spreads those smells. A confident dog who holds his tail high will spread more scents than a worried dog who tucks his tail close to his hips.

The Long and Short of Tail Docking

Dogs’ tails have been docked for thousands of years, although the origins are shrouded in legends and myths. The Romans believed amputating the tip of a dog’s tail would protect him from rabies. Of course, they also believed that amputating the tip of the tongue did the same thing.

At one point in European history, the tails of the dogs belonging to poor peasants were amputated to differentiate them from the dogs belonging to landowners who were allowed to hunt. At another point in time, working dogs had their tails docked to make them look different than other dogs. Long-coated dogs were docked to help keep their hind parts clean. Terriers were docked so they were easier to grab to pull out of a burrow. There were many, many reasons why dogs’ tails were shortened, even if sometimes the reasons seemed to contradict each other.

At some point during more recent history, the tails of many breeds of dogs were docked for traditional and cosmetic reasons. Breed standards (the written description of the perfect dog of that breed) include a description of the tail: long, short, natural or docked.

In many countries around the world, including much of Europe, tail docking is illegal. Although still allowed in most of the United States, it is looked upon with less favor than in the past. Many veterinarians and professional veterinarian associations have spoken out against the practice. It’s not unusual now to see an Australian Shepherd or Rottweiler with a long natural tail, although you may do a double take at first to see what’s different.

Meet the Author: Liz Palika

Liz Palika is a Certified Dog Trainer, Certified Animal Behavior Consultant, and the co-owner of Kindred Spirits Dog Training in Vista, CA. Liz is also an award-winning author and writer specializing in pets. She writes about cats, cat behavior and health, dogs, dog behavior and health, living with pets, and pet nutrition. Liz’s works have been recognized with many awards, but her most recent book, “Idiot’s Guides: Dog Training” (Penguin Books, 2014) recently won the Best Nonfiction book category in the San Diego Book Writing competition. Liz shares her home with two dogs; Bashir, an Australian Shepherd, and Bones, an English Shepherd. Three cats, Spock, Scottie, and Kirk, provide motivation for her articles about cats. And yes, she is a Star Trek fan. For more information go to www.kindredspiritsk9.com.

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