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    Tale of the tail


    They all have one: some are long and fluffy, some are short and stubby, some are curly, but all of them are an extension of the spine. Yes, dogs’ tails. So why do dogs have tails?

    There are a variety of reasons but the main one is to allow dogs to communicate. We are all familiar with waggy tails showing a happy dog but there is a lot more to the tail than that. In fact, even a wagging tail can be misconstrued sometimes by us dumb humans. Let’s explore wagging tails and try to clarify what’s going on:

    •A slight wag, with each swing of only small breadth, is usually seen during greetings as a tentative, “Hello there,” or a hopeful “I’m here.”

    •A broad wag is friendly: “I am not challenging or threatening you.” This can also mean: “I’m pleased.” This is the closest to the popular concept of the happiness wag, especially if the tail seems to drag the hips with it.

    •A slow wag with the tail at half-mast is less social than most other tail signals. Generally speaking, slow wags with the tail in neither a particularly dominant (high) nor a submissive (low) position are signs of insecurity.

    •Tiny, high-speed movements that give the impression of the tail vibrating are signs the dog is about to do something, usually run or fight. If the tail is held high while vibrating, it is most likely an active threat.

    Confused yet? Let’s add another layer. A paper published by Giorgio Vallortigara, a neuroscientist at the University of Trieste in Italy, and two veterinarians, Angelo Quaranta and Marcello Siniscalchi, at the University of Bari, suggests that when dogs feel generally positive about something or someone, their tails wag more to the right side of their rear ends, and when they have negative feelings, their tail wagging is biased to the left. It’s important to understand that “left” means the dog’s left side, NOT you looking at your dog front on.

    Dogs are very alert to movement so they pick up on other dogs’ tail movements quickly, particularly as the tips of tails can be very distinctive. Furthermore, being a means to communicate, dogs will only wag their tails in the presence of humans, dogs and other animals and will not wag their tails when alone.

    For those dogs with short, stubby tails they are at a disadvantage as they do not have the opportunity to communicate through their tail. This can lead sometimes to miscommunication with other dogs or you might find such dogs being more tentative when approaching other dogs as they have been unable to communicate their own feelings through their tail.

    Newborn puppies don’t wag their tails as they are born blind and, as such, do not have to master the art of body language. Only at around six weeks of age will the majority start to wag their tails as a way to communicate with their litter mates and mom.

    Tails are also used to spread their natural scent from their anal glands. Each dog has a scent that’s unique to him or her. A dog that carries his tail high will release more of his scent than a dog that carries his tail lower. Often, when we see a dog holding his tail between his legs, he’s frightened and doesn’t want to release his scent. This is his way of flying under the radar.

    Finally, tails help dogs maintain their balance, whether when cornering at high speed or walking along narrow structures.

    Never underestimate the power of the fluffy extremity!