By Author Laurie Plessala
A Tale Of Tails
One of the most quintessential ways a dog tells us they’re happy is by wagging their tail or their whole body plus their tail. But the tail tells more tales than that!
Many of us just don’t think much about tails because we don’t have one, and even vets can be guilty of overlooking tail problems.
A dog’s tail has many purposes and transmits a lot of information to other dogs and people. So “bone” up on your tail knowledge!
Here’s a little true/false quiz about dog tails! See how you do!
1. A dog wags his tail when he’s happy, even if no one is around.
False! A dog usually only wags his tail if other living beings are around. You won’t find your dog home alone playing with a toy and wagging his tail. Tails are all about communication, so your dog has no need to wag his tail if no one is around to see it, or smell it!
2. The main purpose of a tail is to transmit pheromones to other dogs.
True! When a dog wags his tail, he is spreading pheromones emitted by the anal glands to other dogs. Technically this happens when a dog contracts his rectum, which in turn presses on the anal glands and lets off scent. (Which is why dogs smell each others’ butts when they meet.) The scent from anal glands is a bit of a business card with vital information. It tells other dogs his gender and whether he is fixed. That high wagging tail fans out the pheromones for all to smell. On the other hand, when a dog tucks his tail in submission, he is inhibiting the range of his pheromones.
3. Puppies wag their tails from the day they’re born.
False! Puppies aren’t born wagging their tails. They start wagging at about three to four weeks and are usually wagging regularly by 49 days old. As you probably know, when they’re born, puppies haven’t opened their eyes. And in those early days, they’re focused mostly on nursing and sleeping, rather than playing. Wagging comes later when siblings are communicating with each other and playing.
4. If a dog’s tail is going in a circle like a propeller, they’re nervous.
False! The most unambiguous tail sign a dog can give you is their tail going around in circles. It means that they adore you! Other tail wags can be ambiguous – a dog wagging his tail isn’t always happy. But propeller tail is always a joyful tail. Dogs communicate a lot of information through their tails as well as overall body position, so it’s important to know what different tail gestures mean. For example, did you know that a dog is more likely to wag slightly to his/her right when they are seeing someone they know, but more likely to wag left when they are alert or unsure?
Check out this chart to refresh your knowledge about tail wags.
5. Amputating or “docking” a puppy’s tail is beneficial in some breeds.
False! Tail docking has a long and sordid history. Decades ago, some working breeds’ tails were docked to supposedly prevent injury in the field. In today’s society, there is no medical reason to dock a puppy’s tail. Docking became popular to achieve a certain “look” in some breeds. It is painful. It’s never necessary to amputate or “dock” a healthy tail. And the act of amputating the tail can lead to other problems such as urinary incontinence. A dog’s tail isn’t an “optional” body part. It is part of their spine and serves important functions.
6. Dogs can get arthritis in their tails.
True! The tail is an extension of the spine. It has vertebrae and dogs can develop arthritis in their tails, which can be painful. Additionally, if your dog’s tail wag changes – specifically she doesn’t lift her tail high anymore – it can be a sign of spinal/nerve problems like chronic disk disease. So pay attention to that tail. It can give you important information about whether you dog is in pain and needs medical attention.
7. “Happy Tail” is a great sign.
False! Happy Tail isn’t happy – it’s a reflection of an injury to the tail from a dog whacking his tail into objects and injuring it. Sometimes they split their tail open doing it, and rarely stop wagging despite it. Similarly, dogs can have sore or injured tails from swimming too much.