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Why Do Dogs Have Tails?

The Dodo logo The Dodo 8/9/2021 Lauren Taylor

a dog sitting on a bed You probably assume your dog only uses his tail to let you know he’s happy to see you, but did you know it has a bunch of other uses, too?

Besides just greeting you after a long trip (or a short trip to the store), dogs use their tails to help them balance, communicate and mark their territory — so they’re super important.

The Dodo spoke to Dr. Sarah Wooten, a veterinarian and veterinary journalist, to find out why dogs have tails and what else they use them for (besides just looking cute).

Movement and balance

Tails act as a counterweight to help with dogs’ movement and balance.

When dogs are running, their tails can actually help them change direction. As a dog turns, his front legs go the way he’s headed, while his back legs keep going in the original direction, and then his tail helps course correct.

If your dog is walking on a narrow surface, he’ll also use his tail to help with his balance in the same way you would use your arms as a counterbalance.

Communication

Dogs also use their tails to communicate with people, other dogs and other animals.

“Dogs are largely nonverbal communicators, which means that they use their bodies, including their tails, to communicate,” Dr. Wooten told The Dodo. “The position, speed of wagging and even direction of wagging all communicate something.”

Dogs learn to use their tails to communicate when they’re puppies.


Video: Rescued dog can wag tail again (Reuters)

“Puppies learn to wag their tails around 1 month of age. They learn from their mother, and they use it to communicate with their mother and siblings,” Dr. Wooten said.

A wagging tail can communicate a lot of things, and it doesn’t always mean that your dog is happy.

“Sometimes it means that the dog is agitated, submissive or aggressive,” Dr. Wooten said.

Here are some typical tail body language signs to help you understand what your dog is trying to tell you:

 

  • Happy: Your dog will hold his tail in a neutral position or slightly raised with a lot of wagging. “Some dogs get their hips involved and wiggle with happiness,” Dr. Wooten said.
  • Submissive: Your dog will hold his tail low with a small wagging motion.
  • Scared: Your dog’s tail will be tucked and wagging.
  • Wants to be left alone: If a dog freezes and stops wagging his tail, that’s “usually a communication that the dog doesn't really want to be touched and wants to be left alone,” Dr. Wooten said.
  • Aggressive: “The higher the tail, the more aggressive the dog,” Dr. Wooten said. The tail will be higher than a happy tail and may even arch over your dog’s back.
  • High alert: Your dog will hold his tail up high without any wagging.
  • Curious: The tail will be flat and straight out with no movement.
You should also think about what your dog’s neutral tail position is. Some dogs naturally hold their tails high, while others typically keep their tails lower.

“Beagles, for example, tend to hold their tail straight up,” Dr. Wooten said. “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. You have to know the neutral position before you can interpret what your dog is trying to say with their tail.”

The direction a dog is wagging his tail can show how he’s feeling, too. Scientists have recently found that dogs will wag their tails more to the right side of their bodies if they feel positively about something.

Because a dog’s tail is used to show so many emotions, docking a dog’s tail can have negative effects on his ability to communicate.

“Docking likely hurts and can cause ghost pain (the same as in people who still feel a limb that has been amputated). Furthermore, it impacts that dog's ability to communicate with their tail,” Dr. Wooten said.

So docking tails isn’t the best practice.

Marking their territory

Not only does your dog’s tail provide visual clues about his emotions, but it also spreads his scent.

A dominant dog who holds his tail high will release more scent than a more submissive dog who keeps his tail lower. “This position also releases pheromones from the scent glands located at the base of the tail that mark the dog's territory,” Dr. Wooten said.

So a dominant dog will make his presence known, and a submissive dog will draw less attention to himself with less scent.

Other than just looking cute, your dog's tail helps with movement, balance, communication and marking, making it pretty essential for him in his daily life. (But it's pretty cute, too.)

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