What is the purpose of a dog’s tail, anyway?

So, if you are anything like me, you have probably wondered, “Just what is the purpose of a dog’s tail, anyway”?  What can we learn about what our pooch is thinking by paying attention to the angle of the tail, the direction of the wag, and if the tail is rigid or relaxed.  It turns out quite a bit.  But, there is even more to a tail than that!

Max’s tail always looks like this, except when there’s thunder, and then it’s straight down!


Why do dogs have tails in the first place?

Originally, it appears that tails were used for balance.  When dogs are walking a narrow pathway, they use their tails in that same way that we use our hands.  The dog uses it as a counter balance.  The dog will adjust the tail to the left or right depending on the perceived direction of lean.  Obviously, some dog’s tails make a much better counter weights than others (think Golden Retriever vs. Boston terrier).  The bigger and heavier the tail, the more effective the counter weight! 

Dogs also use their tails to counter motion when running and making sharp turns.  As the dog begins its turn, the front feet will point toward the dog’s desired direction.  However, the backside of the dog has a tendency to continue in the original direction that the dog was travelling. By utilizing the tail in the opposing direction the dog’s backside may be brought into alignment faster, making for a better turning radius, and a much better controlled rear end!

Some dogs, such as those that have an affection for water also use their tails as rudders.  Just as boats utilize a rudder, a swimming dog may alter their course by utilizing the tail to create drag on one side or the other.  If the dog moves its tail to the left, the dog goes more left, and vice versa. 

Angles Make a Difference!

This is probably not the most pleasant of discussions, but has to be entered into for a better understanding of our dog’s tail positioning.  Dogs have two glands, one on either side of his anus, called anal or rectal glands. Many of us are familiar with these glands as they sometimes cause discomfort to the dog, and have to be expressed at the Veterinarian’s office.  These glands fill with a fluid having a smell unique to each dog, kind of like a dog’s fingerprint.  Every time a dog relieves itself a small amount of this fluid is released.  This can then act as a territorial marker by announcing the dog’s presence.  However, when the dog wags its tail from side to side a small amount of scent can also be released.  Of course, the angle of the dogs tail can influence how widely the scent may be distributed.

  • Tail very low or between the legs A dog holding his tail in a manner such as this may be frightened or anxious.  A dog with its tail below or between its legs may be trying to hide by drawing as little attention as possible.
  • Tail below horizontal and relaxed When a dog holds the tail in this position, the dog is probably in a calm frame of mind.
  • Tail in a horizontal position  This can mean that the dog is tuned into the situation at hand, and alert to what is going on.
  • Tail held in a vertical position  A tail held in this position probably says the dog is very confident. This is the posture of an Alpha canine.  It can be a threatening position.  If dogs are gathered together or approaching each other, and holding their tail in such a posture, it possible there may be trouble. 

Realize, however, that the type of dog may influence how the tail is carried, with some breeds naturally carrying their tail higher or lower.  This should be taken into consideration when trying to “read tails”. 

Which Side of the Brain is Your Dog Thinking With?

Like us, opposing sides of the brain control the dog’s body, with the left side of the brain controlling the dog’s right side, and the right side of the brain controlling the left side.  Although not all the cranial nerves are reversed like this, many that control movement and feeling are.  Also like us, different regions of the brain are responsible for movement, memory, emotions, ocular functions, sense of smell, and so forth.

A common misconception is that a dog wagging its tail is a happy dog.  Although sometimes this is true, it isn’t always.  It turns out that the direction of the wagging tail is key to interpreting the dog’s mindset.  Dogs are able to translate the direction of wag, and determine if another dog has good intentions, or may spell trouble.    If a dog wags its tail more to the right side of its body, this is generally thought to be a more positive, happier pooch as it is controlled by the left brain, a side associated with more positive emotions.  A wag more to the left may mean that the dog may be less approachable, or even threatening as the left side of the brain is associated with fear and anxiety.  

The “Tail” End

As it turns out, a dog’s tail can tell us quite a bit about their emotional state.  Have some fun with your dog and see if the state of their tail matches what you think their mood is. 

If you liked this article, please leave a comment below and let me know!

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