Ever been whacked by a happy Labrador Retriever’s tail? A Lab’s exuberance can also knock over a lamp, a coffee mug, a toddler, or a cat. But ever wondered why some dog tails are softer, harder, shorter, or longer than others? What’s the point of the tail anyway? And if it’s so important, where’s ours? Okay, I’m not actually going to answer that last one, but here are some tail tales:
- Tail tête-à-têtes: A dog’s tail communicates a wide range of emotions. A relaxed dog, for example, holds his tail in its natural position (caveat: it’s challenging to ascertain what a “natural position” is on a short-tailed breed).
- Bobbed breeds: Speaking of short-tailed breeds, some half a dozen breeds, including English and French Bulldogs, have naturally-occurring short tails. Other breeds such as Dobermans have tails that are docked (a rather controversial topic) for cosmetic or utilitarian purposes.
- Wagging means what? A wagging tail may evidence friendliness and happiness. Or it may not. A flagged, slowly wagging tail may indicate alertness, a response to perceived danger, or a threat. “A confident dog may even wag his tail before he bites,” says Lara Stonesifer of Lara’s Canine Solutions in New Braunfels, Texas. If he’s moving his tail stiffly, that’s often a clue he’s not feeling friendly. A tail wag can also indicate a social challenge to another dog: “Hey! You talking to me?”
- Social signals: Researchers have shown dogs only wag their tails when other living creatures are present. Apparently if your dog wags his tail when he’s alone, it’s akin to talking to himself. “When a dog wags his tail, he’s trying to tell you something,” Stonesifer says. Both the rhythm and position of the tail convey messages that are important to the dog. “Think of it as akin to a human handshake or wave,” Stonesifer says. “We wave differently, and a dog wags his tail differently, depending on the level of interaction sought.”
- Tuck tail and run: When a dog puts his tail under him, he’s generally nervous, submissive, or scared. “It’s all about the scent,” Stonesifer explains. “When a dog tucks his tail, he’s trying to hide his scent.”
- Tail heights: Different breeds hold their tails at different heights. A Greyhound, for example, carries his tail rather low even when he’s happy and relaxed. Before you try to read a dog’s tail, make note of his neutral tail position.
- Nose warmers: Dogs such as Siberian Huskies that live in cold climates use their bushy tails to keep their noses warm.
- History: Today because the majority of dogs are companions rather than working dogs, their tails are primarily communication tools. But tails originally evolved for purposes such as helping with balance or sporting endeavors. A Labrador Retriever’s tail, for example, can work like a rudder in the water. Other tails, such as the Dachshund’s, were at least in part designed for surprising reasons, such as to give humans a handle to pull out their burrowing dogs.
- Happy to the right? Scientists propose that dogs feeling positive wag more to the right side of their rears. Okay, so now I expect many of you are calling your dogs to see if they’ll right-swag their tail-wags. As for me, well my German Shepherd merely gave me an obligatory “you know you’re not a scientist, right?” tail wag. I couldn’t tell if it was to her right or left, and she had no interest in repeating the experiment. But if you truly want to figure this out with your dog, keep in mind you need to view the wag from the dog’s rear.