Dog tails: we often take them for granted, sometimes we even chop them off as if they were useless appendages at the end of the vertebral column, when instead they have many functions that go far beyond the classical tail wag.
Dog tails are indeed full of life! Their muscles allow a wide range of motion so to allow the dog to lift the tail upwards, move it side-to-side, or lower it between the hind legs. Tails are composed of skin, nerves, tendons, muscles and bones consisting of several vertebrae. Think dog tails are just for wagging? Think again! Following are six surprising ways dogs use their tails that your dog wants you to know. Yup! Straight from your dog’s mouth!
It’s true, you likely won’t ever see me at a circus walking on a tightrope, but rest assured that my tail plays a big role in maintaining my balance. Just like the tightrope walkers use that horizontal pole, my tail helps me out when I am accelerating, braking, walking along narrow structures (think agility A-frames, catwalks and teeter-totters) and turning at fast speeds.
If you were to watch me in slow motion as I jump up to catch a Frisbee or jump over an obstacle, you may notice how may tail lowers as I take off, then flicks up in mid-flight, and ends up lowering again as I touch the ground. All these well orchestrated tail movements are meant to adjust my center of gravity so I can balance myself and avoid drastic falls. Sure, my friends with bobtails may still be able to jump, but they’ll need to make some adjustments in their jumping styles to make up for the balancing effects our tails provide.
Boats aren’t the only things that comes with rudders, us dogs have tails that act like rudders too! Many of my doggy friends, who were selectively bred to swim a lot, have webbed feet and these thick, strong tails that are also very flexible, allowing them to effectively thread through the water at a nice pace. You see, when we swim, we keep our tails straight out just below the surface of the water, but the moment we decide to turn, our tails swing to our sides so that we can turn effectively. Pretty amazing, huh? We sure are proud of our rudders! Just make sure though that after we swim, you keep us safe from cold drafts. Limber tail is a painful condition that results in a flaccid, limp tail that’s sometimes seen in dogs after swimming.
You may use hand gestures to add some emphasis to your speech, us dogs instead rely on our tails. Keep an eye on my tail’s position and movement, and you may get a glimpse on how I may be feeling. Many of my emotions are indeed expressed through my tail. Is my tail moving side-to-side in fast sweeping motions? Most likely, I am happy, but don’t just take my word for it. When looking at a dog, look at the rest of his body. Does the dog look overall relaxed and friendly? Not all tail wags are friendly!
Relying on a wagging tail as a sign of friendliness is a big mistake that causes many people to get bitten! If you’re unsure and no owner is around to ask if it’s fine to pet me, you might not want to approach. Oh, and that day you take me to the vet, don’t worry if my tail goes missing in action. I may tuck my tail tight because I might feel frightened, and while I’m at, I may also try to keep my private area protected from that invasive thermometer!
Did you know? A recent study suggested that dogs tend to wag their tails to the right when looking at something they wish to approach and wag their tails to the left when confronted with something they wish to back away from!
You see us dogs wag our tails often, but have you ever wondered why dogs wag their tails in the first place? Well, you know those two anal glands we have under our tails? They’re not there just because. My sweeping tail wags help these anal glands give off scent so that I can use it for communicative purposes. Most likely, you don’t smell anything when I do this (if you get a whiff of fishy smell though have me see the vet to get those glands checked), but rest assured, my doggy friends at the dog park know all about it. Dogs who are reserved and wish to fly under the radar instead, will often keep their tails tucked as a way to cover up their scent.
“Most people think when a dog wags its tail it means its friendly and happy – but, in fact, experts will tell you it’s about scent communication. Dogs wag their tails to spread their scent around.” ~Sarah Whitehead
If you think all this isn’t enough to prove how important my tail is to my physical and emotional well-being, take a peak at dogs who have suffered damage to the nerves in their tails. These dogs may have trouble with fecal and urinary incontinence. In other words, they poop or pee on themselves. You see, my tail is an extension of my spine, and those tail muscles and nerves play a role in the correct functioning of my hind body as a whole. When my nerves that control urination and defecation are injured, my tail gets flaccid and I risk losing bladder and bowel control.
When it comes to urinary incontinence, our tails also play a big role. According to a study by Holt and Thrusfield urinary incontinence mostly seems to affect my old English sheep-dog, Rottweiler, Dobermann, Weimaraner and Irish setter friends the most. Why is that? It looks like docked breeds are more likely to develop urinary incontinence than undocked dogs of the same breed.
“The movement of the tail during the act of defecation has a direct
influence in evacuating the rectum and anal canal of the last part of the faecal bolus. If the tail is removed from an immature puppy the muscles of the tail and pelvis may fail to develop to their full potential.~Anti-docking Alliance.
OK, not all of us may rely on our tails to stay warm, but some of my good arctic friends have found a way to put their tails to good use when they want to take a nap. Those nice bushy, plumed tails you see in Siberian huskies and Alaskan Malamutes are covered with long dense fur. When sled dogs sleep, they sleep curled up in a ball and use their tails to cover their noses, trapping the heat against their bodies, explains Dr. Susan Whiton, a veterinarian and owner of Dream a Dream Iditarod Sled Dog Kennel.
As seen, there’s more to wagging a tail, and us dogs sure have many uses for it! If we didn’t, wouldn’t you think Mother Nature would have turned our tails into a vestigial structure and our tails wouldn’t have made it so far? Instead, our lovely tails are still here, lively, strong and proudly carried over our backs! Yes, tails are here to stay!
A dog wags its tail with its heart. ~Martin Buxbaum
- Seeing Left- or Right-Asymmetric Tail Wagging Produces Different Emotional Responses in Dogs, Current Biology, Vol. 23, Issue 22, November 2013
- Peak Performance EBook: Coaching the Canine Athlete, by Canine Sports Productions, September 15, 2011
- Pet Place, Structure and Function of the Tail in Dogs, retrieved from the web on February 26th, 2016.
- VCA Animal Hospitals, Tail Injuries in Dogs, retrieved from the web on February 26th, 2016.