Dogs communicate with their tails, so why don't they all have one?

  • Animals
  • Tuesday, 24 Apr 2018

Some dogs, like the French bulldog, are born with a tiny stump instead of a long tail. Photo:

Our street is pet-friendly, so when I walk along it, it’s a social occasion.

There’s the brown pup down the road who is nervy and snappy (bad early life experiences have soured him), the little Pittie look-alike, Giant the Chihuahua, and then I’m in the friendship zone meeting up with Mojo, Pica and her fellow wolves, Tara, the little pug, and the Gremlins, the silky terriers.

Their rich variety of size and fur types are fascinating but the one doggy feature that always interests me are their tails. Tails function very much like a “fifth limb”.

Physically, tails provide balance. If you see a greyhound racing down a field, you’ll see it throw its tail to the right when executing a hair bend curve. Without that tail, the dog would be smashing off-course in no time.

For dogs like Labradors who jump into water when out duck-hunting, tails act as rudders. As the paws paddle, the tail is swishing back and forth, propelling the dog on and providing counter-balance for rolling and any incidental water waves.

The most important reason dogs have tails, however, is a social one. Tails are man’s best friend’s No.1 communication device. Usually, a stiff tail signifies, “Caution” and a waggy tail says, “Friend”.

Curiously, tail signals are learned. When dogs are born, they roll about the nest with their brothers and sisters, learning to co-ordinate their bodies. It isn’t until they’re big enough to play with each other, that they start to use their tails.

Pups will have mock battles, growling and wrestling, but when they approach mum for their milk, they wag their little tails at each other to signal a time-out. From there, they learn to signal all kinds of things among each other, from who is senior to who wants to play.

Tail talk is not just for dog-to-dog communication either. I really like the look of that little Pittie down the road, but I haven’t introduced myself because of the way he holds his tail. When he sees me, his body is stiff and his tail is up. That’s the pose that screams, “Caution, intruder! I am a loyal guard, determined to repel you!”

Usually, a stiff tail signifies 'caution'. Photo:

There is no way I’m going to approach that dog, because it would treat me as a threat.

When I walk past our neighbour Tara’s gate, she does an excellent deep-chested guardian bark. Her body is stiff (okay, as stiff as it can be for a little roly-poly) and her tail is straight and tense too. She looks very much like the little Pittie.

But the second I call out, “Tara, you daft mutt, it’s me!” she’s wagging that little tail as fast as she can. Tara is blind as a bat, you see, but there’s nothing wrong with her hearing.

When I see that wag, I go straight over and we have a chat by the gate. I rub her chin and her ears, and she snuffles and snorts and licks my fingers.

Tara and I are mates because of that tail. When she first moved in, I just said hello to her. Over the days, she got to recognise my voice. When her bark changed from “Intruder Alert” to “Hello Friend”, and that tail started going, I went over and introduced myself.

So, given that tails are super-important, how come some dogs don’t have them? Some breeds – like the Australian Stumpy Tail Cattle Dog, Jack Russell Terrier, English Bulldog, French bulldog and Welsh corgi – are born with a tiny stump. It’s a natural adaptation, ruled by genetic inheritance.

Most bobtail dogs, however, were born with them but someone cut them off.

We seem to have an endless appetite for messing about with Mother Nature and when breeding doesn’t give us the results we want, practices such as “docking” evolve. There is no rhyme or reason for this practice, and there are several rather nasty consequences.

Apart from the health aspect that comes from messing about and cutting off that fifth limb, studies show that dogs who lose their tails are more likely to lead violent lives.

Sadly, they can’t signal to other dogs when they’re feeling happy or challenged. That means they are more likely to end up in fights with their fellow dogs.

Worse, they can’t signal to their human friends. When a dog signals “Intruder”, and then bites the person who doesn’t see it, the dog is usually blamed.

Thankfully, docking is now illegal in some countries, and there is a popular movement to reject docked dogs at dog shows. Hopefully, this will push breeders and kennel clubs around the world to support docking bans as well. The major push, however, will have to come from ordinary people.

Ending docking will mean dogs have happier lives and it will also lead to fewer cross-species misunderstandings. Surely that’s a good move.

Happy tails when dogs are at play. Photo:

Why Docking A Dog's Tail Is Not A Good Idea

Generally speaking, a stiff tail that’s upright signals that a dog is feeling defensive. That means it’s unsafe to approach. A tail that’s stiff but down, signals a dog is feeling defensive but not awfully confident. Again, it’s best to assume it’s not safe to approach.

A wagging tail doesn’t necessarily mean a pet is happy. What you need to look for is a relaxed posture. Happy dogs who are dying to talk to you will have loose body language. Often, they’ll also skip around and loll their tongues.

Basically, to keep safe you don’t talk to a dog unless you have been introduced and are friends. However, if I’m at the park or at someone’s house, with a super pampered socialised pet who’s wagging and wriggling away, then I take the risk and say hello.

I am careful, though. I talk softly, and let the pet sniff the back of my hand. I watch their body language, so that if they’re a nippy kind of dog, it won’t be a problem. If you’re dealing with a docked dog, then be super careful because you may be missing signals.

FYI, docking is banned in Australia, Spain, the Netherlands, and a dozen or more European countries. Surprisingly, it is only restricted in the pet-loving Britain and New Zealand. There is no legislation in Malaysia.

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