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Of Sweet Tales and Happy Tails

At A Glance

Ever wondered why do dogs have tails? Well, tails are more than just beautiful appendages that dogs use to convey their feelings. They have more functionality than that.

So, what’s a dog’s tail for? Whether short, long, medium, bobbed, or any other type, the tail serves three primary purposes.

  • It helps a dog maintain its balance
  • It helps in movement
  • It is a tool for communication

Tails have been part of the evolutionary package for nearly all four-legged mammals, including dogs. But, apart from being an incredibly adorable feature of our four-legged friends, do dogs’ tails have any real purpose?

Well, as it turns out, they do.

Dog expert Natalie Hughes says that a dog’s language is mostly body language, and “the tail is a huge part of this language.” They convey various messages and cues, like the excited wag when they see their human is home at the end of the day or a stiff tail held high that says “back off.”

But that’s not all. These adorable tails have more practical uses. Let’s look at what they are.

Movement

Dogs have an innate desire to run. Some large dogs like the Greyhound can run at speeds of 45 mph, while a medium-sized dog like the Jack Russell Terrier can go as fast as 38 mph.

When dogs run at such fast speeds, their tails prevent them from spinning out of control or rolling over. A dog’s tail acts as a stabilizer and offsets its body when the dog makes abrupt turns and changes direction while running at high speeds, thus helping them avoid accidents or injuries.

 

Balance

When dogs jump or move through tight places, their tails function as a counterweight and help them adjust their center of gravity.

“Dogs maintain their balance, much the same way a circus tightrope walker uses a balance bar”, says Dr. Matthew McCarthy, veterinarian and founder of New York’s Juniper Valley Animal Hospital.

For example, on a narrow surface, dogs will tilt their tails to one side or to the opposite direction of their body’s tilt.

On the other hand, when dogs jump or leap high, their tails are typically thrust downward to help the direction of the jump. It elevates as they land, acting as an air brake, slowing their motion and allowing them to land safely.

And while climbing, a dog’s tail helps it maintain balance or footing on uneven surfaces like rocks or ledges.

dog's tail

Communication

Just like humans visually express emotions, dogs express theirs through their tails. Michael, a dog owner, says that his dog’s tail wags whenever he talks to him and often signals defiance. “A slight wag from him often seems to mean, “yeah, I heard you, but I don’t feel like doing what you want.”

So, do dogs actually control their tails?

Well, yes. Dogs can essentially control their tails, but sometimes they move them reflexively, especially when emotional. So, owners can look to their dogs’ tails to spot any signs of distress.

Rapid wagging of their tails is often understood as your dog being very excited, but it can also be an aggressive response to a threat.

In addition to using their tails to communicate with humans, dogs also use their tails to communicate with other dogs. For instance, when approached by an aggressive and unknown dog, a dog will typically wag its tail to the left more than when it is happy. Sometimes, they might also tuck their tail between their legs to convey submissiveness.

A study by Leaver and Reimchen found that a longer tail conveys intraspecific information better than a short tail.

The scent of a dog’s anal glands is carried in the tail. So, when a dog wags its tail or holds it high, it communicates dominance and superiority by spreading its natural scent. On the other hand, when a dog holds its tail low or between its legs, it demonstrates submission because it’s trying to hide its odor or mask its scent.

Dogs also learn about each other by sniffing their butts. So, if they don’t trust another dog, they’ll cover up the area with their tails.

A follow-up 2013 study by Vallortigara and colleagues showed that tail wagging is such a strong indicator of emotional intent that dogs would respond positively or negatively to the movement of another dog’s tail.

What Are Dogs’ Tails Made Of?

Although a dog’s tail might look soft and squishy, it is made up of muscles, nerves, and many bones that extend from its spine.

“It is basically an interlocking, flexible core of bone that is an extension of their backbone”, explains veterinarian Matthew McCarthy, DVM, founder of Juniper Valley Animal Hospital. “Within, there is a rich supply of blood vessels and nerves”, McCarthy adds.

So, the tail essentially comprises about 15-25 vertebrae or small bones that progressively get smaller from the base to the tip. These bones are covered in muscles, nerves, and skin that allow movement.

four dogs showing their tails

Do All Dogs Have Tails?

No, not every dog has a tail. Some dogs have very short stumpy tails called a bobtail resulting from a genetic mutation, while some dogs are born with no tails at all.

Dog breeds born without tails include Braque du Bourbonnais, Brazilian Terrier, Brittany Spaniel, Croatian Sheepdog, and the Pembroke Welsh Corgi.

Some dogs may also appear to have absent tails or only have a nub because of alterations done to them by their owners or breeders.

Why Do Dogs Have Tails Cut Off?

A dog’s tail may be cut off due to various reasons. Way back, the ancient Romans cut off dogs’ tails because they thought it would prevent the spread of rabies. Today, dogs’ tails are typically cut off for health reasons, mainly because their tails may cause them pain.

A dog can break their tail from over wagging, resulting in a traumatic injury to the tail. Dogs who overwag their tails suffer from “Happy Tail Syndrome”, causing their tails to hit solid or abrasive objects and split open.

Because the dog doesn’t understand that it shouldn’t do this, it may persist and cause further tail trauma. “It may be medically necessary to amputate the tail to the level of the injury”, says Dr. Freyer.

Some of the most common reasons pet owners remove their dogs’ tails are:

  • To prevent feces buildup on the dog’s behind and reduce matting
  • To prevent briars and burrs that might hurt hunting dogs
  • To alter their appearance

dog that has no tail

How Do Dogs With No Tails Communicate?

Dogs with no tails, shorter tails, or nubs have a harder time communicating and tend to use other areas of their bodies, such as their ears, eyes, and mouth. At times, the entire body!

“The wiggle starts at the chest or shoulders, and if it’s a French bulldog, the wiggle starts at the ears”, says Dr. Freyer, DVM.

Dogs may even shake their bodies due to hormones being released from intense emotions such as excitement and fear. They will also shake their body after stressful experiences like getting hugged (commonly noticed in dogs that have been abused) or when interacting with a dominant or aggressive dog.

Dogs with nubs or stubby tails will often carry out the same movements as dogs with longer tails, but you’ll need to pay closer attention. The base of the tail can be raised up, straight, or tucked down, indicating what your dog is thinking.

Tail Docking: What Is It?

Tail docking, or caudectomy, is a surgical process that involves severing and removing the distal end of the dog’s spine to amputate all or a portion of the tail.

This surgery can be performed for medical reasons, such as to relieve pain from a damaged tail or to avoid the spread of infection from an infected wound. However, it is most often performed for cosmetic reasons, as many owners find their dogs’ tails too long or bushy.

Docking of dog’s tails can be done in two ways. One is to “band” the tail where circulation is cut off from the area, and the second is using surgical tools. The procedure is usually done on puppies; the tail lengths to be removed depend on the dog breed standard.

docked tail

Negative Impacts Of Tail Docking

Even though tail docking is permitted in the United States, many organizations, like the American Veterinary Medical Association (AVMA), strongly oppose it because of the risks it poses for the dog.

Some of these risks are:

Complications

All surgeries entail risks like severe bleeding, infection, delayed healing, and necrosis.

Chronic Health Issues

Docked dogs may have weaker levator ani and coccygeus muscles or underdeveloped pelvic muscles.

Behavioral Issues

Scientists at the University of Victoria found that docking a dog’s tail can make it more aggressive. Since tails are vital for communication and conveying emotional and social status, their behavior may be negatively affected in the absence of one.

Tail Docking In Practice

Tail docking is often done to preserve a breed’s unique appearance or for medical reasons like tail injuries.

In an extensive study on dog tail injuries, researchers surveyed more than 138,000 dogs and found a mere 0.23% risk of tail injuries to dogs who did not have their tails docked. This meant that about 500 dogs would need to have their tails cut off to prevent just one injury.

Most veterinarians around the world consider routine tail docking of dogs objectionable, and countries like Australia, South Africa, Iceland, Norway, and Switzerland have banned docking or imposed strict regulations on it.

However, many breeders still continue the tradition. For instance, working dogs and breeds in some parts of the UK can be exempt from docking restrictions but will need a surgeon’s certificate, and the dog will have to be microchipped. These dogs are also banned from appearing in public paid events.

dogs at the fence

How To Read Your Dog’s Tail

Before you can interpret what your dog is trying to say with its tail, you should first know the neutral position of its tail.

For instance, “some breeds like Beagles naturally hold their tails vertically and others like Pugs coil their tails tightly.” Dr. Wooten, a veterinarian and veterinary journalist, further shares that “other dogs have a long swishing tail that hangs down in neutral, and sight hounds, like whippets or greyhounds, hold their tails between their legs.”

Movements That Give Additional Meaning To The Signals

The direction of the dog’s tail and its speed can provide different meanings in dog language.

Stops Wagging

If a dog’s tail stops wagging and it freezes, it may be trying to deflect a perceived threat. Petting a dog who doesn’t like it may cause it to stop wagging its tail.

Raised Upward

This could signal that your dog is aware and paying close attention to whatever has piqued its interest. Apart from the tail, your dog may also raise its ears.

Moves Downward

When the tail goes down from the neutral position, it can indicate that the dog is being submissive and does not view you as a threat.

On the other hand, a 2018 report by veterinary medicine researchers suggests that dogs might lower their tails to appear smaller and avoid confrontations with other dogs in stressful situations.

Moves To A Vertical Position

A neutral to vertical tail might mean that they are preparing to fight. Dogs typically do this to expel more of their natural scent and to mark their territory. The higher it is, the more aggressive they become.

Slightly Raised

If the tail stays in a neutral or slightly raised position with a bit of wagging, it is often a sign of happiness. The faster the wag, the happier the dog is.

Veterinary researchers believe that knowing the emotional meaning behind particular tail positions is essential for truly understanding your dog’s behavior.

cute dog wagging his tail

Types Of Wags

Full Body Wag

This often happens when dogs are happy and excited such as when their owners come home from work or when they meet someone they like. The tail wags in big circles while the body shakes loosely, almost dragging the hips. The more they sway and bobble near the head, the friendlier they are.

Quick And Shaky

If a dog’s tail appears to be shaking or moving too quickly, it should be left alone or avoided, as this signals that the animal is highly agitated and may act unexpectedly.

Slow Wag

A dog’s slow tail wag suggests it is being cautious and planning its next course of action. Avoid interacting with the dog if you are unfamiliar with it.

High And Stiff

A high, stiff tail indicates dominance, which means you should leave the dog alone. It can also be taken as a sign of alertness.

To The Right

A study showed that dogs’ tails would wag to the right when they saw their owners. When a dog wags its tail to the right, the left half of its brain, responsible for positive and social responses, is stimulated.

To The Left

On the other hand, a wag to the left indicates that the right side of the brain is engaged and is more associated with a dog’s fight-or-flight response.

Tucked In

Concealing its genitalia with its tail is a defense mechanism, probably indicating the dog feels threatened.

Tiny, High-Speed Movements

A dog may be about to rush or engage in combat if its tail makes small, very fast, and almost violent movements. If the dog’s tail is held high during all these, proceed with caution because the dog is an active threat and may bite or attack.

cute puppy in the grass

Why Does It Take So Long For The Puppy To Start Wagging His Tail?

A puppy’s tail might not wag early on as the tail itself is still developing, and the pup hasn’t yet learned to.

Like children mimic their parents’ speech patterns, puppies pick up their tail wags from their mother or the other puppies in their litter.

If your pup is not with their mother for any reason, it is essential to socialize them with other dogs early on so they can learn “dog language” and become accustomed to communicating with others. It will also make them less fearful of other breeds.

Tail wagging varies across breeds but often starts at about 3 to 4 weeks.

cute dog in the grass

What Are The Different Shapes Of Dog Tails?

Dog tails come in all shapes and sizes. They can be short, long, bobbed, or curled. The shape and length of a dog’s tail are often a clue to the kind of lineage they may have.

No Tails/Bobbed Tails

Some dogs are born without a tail, while others have only a small nub or a “bobbed” tail. Instead of wagging their tail, they might often look like they are wiggling their body or their butts to communicate.

Breeds, including Australian Shepherds, Brittany Spaniels, Jack Russell Terriers, and Schipperkes, are some examples of those who naturally have no tails or have bobbed tails.

Ringed/Curly/Sickle Or Corkscrew Tail

The hereditary condition where the vertebrae are fused together to form a wedge-shaped tail causes curly or corkscrew tails. A ringed tail is a short tail that curls into a single ring, whereas longer tails that extend beyond one ring are known as corkscrews.

Breeds adapted to cold climates like the Akita, Siberian Husky, Alaskan Malamute, Spitz, Shiba Inu, Keeshond, and American Eskimo Dog, have curly tails which help keep their faces warm when they are curled up sleeping.

Otter Tail

These are thick and tapering, with thick, dense fur enveloping them. Because of the thickness of the coat, otter tail ends appear rounded. It’s common in retrievers and acts as a rudder when they swim.

Otterhounds, Labradors, and Chesapeake Retrievers are a few breeds that most likely have these tails.

Whip Tail

This tail appears very much like its namesake because of how it tapers. It resembles an otter tail quite a bit, but because it is from a breed of dog with short hair, it is thinner and covered with less hair.

These tails belong to canine breeds that used to be working dogs that would hunt underground. Their slender tails made it easy for people to pull them out of the hole.

Manchester Terriers and Border Terriers, Dachshunds, Dalmations, and English Setters are examples of dogs with whip tails.

Tail Injuries To Watch Out For

When was the last time you saw your dog’s tail wag? If it’s been a while, changes in tail movement are often an indication of an underlying medical problem.

Scrapes/Cuts

Tail injuries are common and can be caused by scraping the tail on abrasive surfaces like fences or concrete steps. Scrapes and abrasions to a dog’s tail are not only painful but can lead to infection.

If you notice any minor scrapes and cuts, use warm water and mild soap to clean the area. Check with your vet for possible treatment if the bruise is too large.

Fractures

When a dog’s tail breaks, it can result in severe pain and discomfort. Fractures typically occur due to trauma, such as being hit by a hard object.

When this happens, your dog will likely experience extreme pain. This is because the tail contains many nerves — similar to those in your spine.

The good news is that broken tails can regrow with time and proper care. However, you should always check with your veterinarian before assuming your dog’s tail will heal on its own — some injuries are too severe and may require surgery.

Happy Tail And Limber Tail

Some dog breeds enjoy wagging their tails rapidly and persistently, occasionally smacking them repeatedly against hard surfaces like walls, which can result in serious injury.

Known as Happy Tail syndrome, it results in the nerves of the dog’s tail being exposed, causing extreme pain. Occasionally, the injury fails to heal properly because the dog cannot stop wagging.

In severe cases, surgery is recommended to prevent further damage.

As opposed to over-wagging, a limber tail is when the tail seems limp or flappy. Also known as a cold-water tail or a swimmer’s tail, it is a typical condition in dogs that have been swimming or playing for extended periods.

Dogs with limber tails will hold them between their legs, where they will hang loosely.

Limp tails tend to recover on their own, usually after a week’s rest.

Nerve Damage

If your dog’s tail appears to be hanging limply and your dog has trouble defecating properly, it could mean nerve damage.

While medical treatment may restore nerve function most of the time, in severe cases, some dogs may never recover and remain incontinent.

dog lying in the grass

Frequently Asked Questions

Do Dogs Have Feeling In Their Tails?

Your dog’s tail is loaded with nerves and tendons that allow them to feel its tail. If you accidentally step on your dog’s tail, it will yelp in agony since it has nerves that send pain signals.

Do Dogs Like Their Tails Being Touched?

Most dogs do not, and there are various reasons for this.
Some dogs just do not like being touched in any way. For others, it could be due to sensitivity in that area or insecurity issues.

Also, since a tail is located so close to the anus, it is extremely sensitive.

Some dogs may be afraid of having their tails touched since they were tugged too hard as puppies.

Do Dogs Have Tail Bones?

Yes. The dog’s tail is made of bones, or coccygeal vertebrae, which extend from the spine.

General dog tails why do dogs have tails

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Paul Andrews
https://www.linkedin.com/in/paul-andrews-172490189/

A digital marketing expert by profession, Andrews is a gifted writer and animal lover at heart. A self-confessed "pawrent", Andrews is well-versed in all things dogs. He uses his years of experience of raising puppies into show-quality dogs to help guide first-time pet parents. He believes in spreading the joy that comes with being a dog dad and advocates more families to adopt pets.