A dog’s tail is a special thing. You notice it when your dog is happy or when he or she is sad, but you also notice it when your dog is running through the house and knocking everything off of your tables. It’s a part of your dog to be sure, but it definitely stands out from the rest of your pet.
At a very basic level, we probably all know why our dogs have tails. They’re descended from wolves and wolves have tails, so it just makes sense that our dogs would have them as well. If we take a much closer look, though, we can see that our dogs’ tails are actually fairly amazing body parts that can serve many different purposes for our four-legged friends.
Why Do Animals Have Tails?
From a strictly anatomical perspective, it’s not weird that dogs have tails; instead, it’s very weird that we do not. The vast majority of vertebrates have tails, after all, and we’re one of the very few exceptions that that rule. There are a few other creatures (mostly other primates) that are also tail-less, but virtually everything else with a spine also has a tail. The tails all look different, of course, and can serve many different functions, but tails are usually a part of animal life.
In the animal world, a tail can be an important tool. It is used by many creatures to keep balanced while moving, while others might primarily use their tails to communicate. Some use tails in order to defend themselves from predators, while others might even use them as part of their own personal propulsion system. It’s really a rare body part that can do more than we often assume.
Animals in the canid family, which includes not only dogs but also wolves, foxes, and coyotes, all use their tails for communication reasons as well as to help them stay balanced as they run. Dogs are a little unique among canids in that they can also use their tails while they swim, but they’re otherwise right in line with the rest of their genetic forebears.
How Dogs’ Tails Have Developed
Where dogs differ from the rest of their canid brethren is in their relationship with humans. Dogs are domestic animals, which means that humans have been largely guiding their breeding processes for thousands of years. While wolves and other canids have evolved due to the needs of nature, dogs have largely evolved due to the needs of humans. As such, even a dog’s tail is a result of human interference.
As you might expect, the shape and function of a dog’s tail have a lot to do with his or her breed. Humans have used dogs for a variety of different jobs, something that has given both dogs and their tails a variety of different shapes. There’s a huge amount of diversity present today in the shape of dog tails, something that is entirely due to the ways that various breeding attempts have managed to create the current breeds of dogs that we know and love.
It’s remarkably easy to look at a few different dogs to see the difference in their tails. Greyhounds, for example, have long, tapered tails that tend to curl under them when they’re relaxed, while Basenjis tend to have tails that tend to curl over their backs when they are at rest. There are breeds that have big, fluffy tails and breeds that have virtually no hair on their tails; there are even breeds that might as well not have tails at all, as they have genetic mutations that lead to naturally bobbed tails. You can see this in Welsh Corgis among other breeds, but it’s as natural among modern dogs as any other type of tail.
Communication 101: What Your Dog is Trying to Say With His or Her Tail
Since we know that canids have always used their tails to communicate and that this particular trait hasn’t been bred out of dogs, we should definitely look to our dogs’ tails when we’re trying to figure out what they’re thinking. In fact, it’s fairly easy to learn about our dogs’ moods if we just observe their tails.
If your dog is holding his or her tail high in the air and wagging vigorously, there’s a good chance he or she is happy. It’s almost a sure thing, though, if your dog also has an open mouth and perky ears at the same time. If your dog has his or her tail down but slightly wagging, he or she is probably nervous; if your dog has a tail down with no wagging at all, he or she is likely quite frightened.
An excited dog’s tail wags just as hard as a happy dog’s tail, but his or her mouth isn’t likely to be open at the same time. A dog who is trying to be dominant, however, will tend to lean forward and hold up both his ears and his tail as high as possible to look bigger. As you might expect, then, dogs who are trying to be as submissive as possible are going to keep their tails tucked between their legs, usually as they roll over on their backs so that they can show the other dog that they are vulnerable and at the other dog’s mercy.
Communication 201: The More Subtle Signs
The behaviors above can all give you the broad strokes of what your dog is trying to communicate, but there are actually some subtler signs that can help you to figure out exactly what your dog is trying to say as he or she is wagging his or her tail.
The biggest thing to look at is the height of your dog’s tail. A tail that is held up high is a tail that’s trying to communicate that your dog is confident and enthusiastic. A tail that’s held lower, though, is trying to communicate that your dog is nervous and a bit timid.
Speed matters, too. Fast tail wagging tends to mean excitement, while slower wagging tends to be more sedate. You’ve probably seen this at work – your dog might slowly wag his or her tail while getting a little bit of praise in the morning, but his or her tail might start to pick up more speed as soon as he or she starts to smell breakfast.
The stiffness of your dog’s tail is another thing to which you should pay attention. If your dog’s tail is flexible and floppy, he or she is probably very comfortable. If his or her tail is rigid, though, he or she isn’t feeling too confident about his or her surroundings. With this said, there are definitely dogs who completely wiggle their butts when wagging because their happiness outstrips the flexibility of their tails.
Direction is probably the newest factor about which we’ve learned, as a major study was done not too long ago that’s told us that the direction in which your dog’s tail wags actually matters. In fact, it turns out that whether your dog is wagging to his or her left or right can tell you a lot about how he or she is feeling.
If your dog is wagging his or her tail to the right, he or she is feeling something positive. If the dog is wagging to the left, though, he or she is feeling something negative. While this is nice for humans to know, the most surprising part of the study has shown that other dogs can actually pick up on this directional difference quite well.
What this means isn’t that your dog is picking to wag his or her tail in a direction in an attempt to communicate with you, but rather that your dog’s brain processes things on different sides of the brain depending on what he or she feels. A dog who is feeling nervous is mostly processing information on the right side of the brain, while one who is feeling relaxed is processing more on the left. As such, the dog’s going to express movement on the other half of the body, which leads dogs who are using the more nervous left side of the brain will wage on the right and relaxed right side processors are going to wag on the left.
As you can see, your dog’s tail can tell you a lot about how he or she is feeling. Try to use this information to learn a little more about your dog and to cater to his or her needs a little better. After all, you now know that your dog is trying to tell you something – this means that it’s time for you to listen.
Frequently Asked Questions
1. Do dogs know that they have tails?
While it might seem like some clumsy dogs don’t realize that they have tails, dogs do know that they have tails. Dogs not only are aware of this body part, but they use their tails to communicate both with other dogs and with humans. Though the movements of a dog’s tail aren’t necessarily all that easily controlled, your dog definitely does know about this body part.
2. Is it cruel to dock a dog’s tail?
This is a bit of a loaded question. There are definitely places in the world – including some parts of the United States – that consider unnecessary docking of a dog’s tail to be cruel. In fact, there is definitely no good health or behavioral reason to do so, as docking a dog’s tail is something that is absolutely done for aesthetic reasons. Is it cruel, though? That’s really a question that’s up to the individual, but one thing’s for sure – there is no particularly good reason to ever dock a dog’s tail.
3. Can a dog live without a tail?
A dog can certainly live without his or her tail. With this said, doing so can be more difficult than you might think. Not only do dogs use their tails to communicate with both people and with other dogs, but dogs do use their tails for balance. As such, dogs who have their tails completely removed may end up having some mobility problems as they get older.
4. Do dogs as their tails touched?
This is really down to the individual dog. Some dogs absolutely love having the base of their tails touched, while other dogs will recoil whenever you get near their tails. This actually has a lot to do with how the dog was socialized and the experiences that the dog has had in the past, like a dog who has had his or her tail pulled or hurt will be more likely to shy away from having someone touch his or her tail.