Dogs and Science
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Why Do Dogs Have Tails?

Ah, dog tails — they're so cute! But, why do dogs have tails in the first place? And why do different breeds have different tails?

Sassafras Lowrey  |  Dec 14th 2017


When people think of dogs, the feature that often first comes to mind is their tails! For many of us, a dog’s tail is part of what makes dogs, well, dogs! From the tightly curled tail of a Shiba Inu to the feathery tail of a Golden Retriever to the stubby tail of an Old English Sheepdog, there’s a lot of diversity in how dog tails look. So, why do dogs have tails in the first place? Let’s take a look:   

Dogs Have Tails for Communication

Closeup of a dog tail.

Closeup of a dog tail. Photography ©ulkas | Thinkstock.

The most obvious answer to “Why do dogs have tails” is that dogs have tails for communication. A wagging tail is synonymous with a happy dog, but not all dogs who wag their tails are actually happy. A study published in Current Biology discovered that the direction of your dog’s tail wag has more meaning.

Researchers found that dogs wag their tails in different directions based on their moods. A dog wagging her tail to the left may be more anxious and stressed, while a dog wagging her tail to the right is likely to be more relaxed. These are social cues that dogs read in each other.

A low-set or tucked tail may indicate that your dog is anxious or afraid. And a dog whose tail is erect may be alert, but not necessarily happy.

Why Do Dogs Have Different Kinds of Tails?

Another answer to “Why do dogs have tails” has to do with what that particular dog was originally bred to do. A tail helps Newfoundlands and Labrador Retrievers swim. Many types of terriers, including Carin and Border Terriers, were bred to go underground to hunt vermin. These dogs have a thick base to their tails so that the hunter was able to grab and pull the dog out of the hole if they needed support.

Beagles were bred to have high-set tails with white tips to help with identification during a hunt. Pugs are an example of a dog whose tail has been selectively bred into a corkscrew. Many sighthounds like Wolfhounds and Greyhounds have long, narrow and low-set tails that they can utilize as air rudders while running at high speeds.

Some herding dogs like Border Collies have drop-set tails referred to as “shepherd’s lanterns,” and were specifically bred so that shepherds could see their dog guiding them home after a long day of working with livestock. Siberian Huskies and Alaskan Malamutes have thick, plumed tails that they carry over their backs. The tails are not just visually striking, they actually are part of what kept these sled dogs safe in extreme weather conditions. When sleeping outside, they will wrap their tails around their faces to protect their noses and eyes from blowing snow and freezing temperatures.

Some breeds of dogs, including Old English Sheepdogs and Australian Shepherds, have naturally bobbed tails, meaning they are born with very short tails or no tails. Other breeds of dogs commonly have their tails docked or cut when they are very young puppies, such as Miniature Schnauzers and Rottweilers.

Can You Identify Different Dog Breed Tails?

There are 202 breeds of dogs recognized by the American Kennel Club, and the different breeds have very specific breed standard requirements for the shapes and sizes of tails, as well as information about the reasoning behind the desirability for a particular sort of tail, based on the work that kind of dog was bred to do.

Think you can you identify the breed of dog based just on the tail? Take this fun quiz on akc.org and see how you do!

Thumbnail: Photography ©Mike Watson Images | Thinkstock. 

Sassafras Lowrey is an award-winning author. Her novels have been honored by organizations ranging from the Lambda Literary Foundation to the American Library Association. Sassafras is a Certified Trick Dog Trainer, and assists with dog agility classes. Sassafras lives and writes in Brooklyn with her partner, a senior Chihuahua mix, a rescued Shepherd mix and a Newfoundland puppy, along with two bossy cats and a semi-feral kitten. Learn more at www.SassafrasLowrey.com.

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