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Dog tails: they wag, they point, they tuck between legs, they thump-thump-thump on the floor, and sometimes they whack us in the face during playtime. They can tell us a lot about the personality and mood of the dog they’re attached to. But how much do you really know about your dog’s tail?
Here are some fun facts and important things to know about your dog’s tail, which is a communication tool, an important part of play and mobility, and an appendage that can even suffer from overuse.
Our Favorite Facts About Dog Tails
Your dog’s tail does so much more than just wag (though you gotta love that wag).
1. Dog tails are a communication tool
When we think of a dog’s tail, we normally think of it wagging in the air as a sign of happiness. But happiness isn’t the only emotion conveyed by a dog’s tail. Dog tails can communicate feelings all the way from curiosity to agitation. A tail tucked between the legs can indicate shyness or submission. And a tail sticking straight up in the air can be a sign of confidence or even aggression.
It’s not just the position that matters: the speed of your dog’s tail wag can carry many meanings. According to the VCA, “the faster the wag, the more excited the dog.” A slow or extra-gentle wag may show insecurity. And a very fast, high-up wag is a sign of alertness.
Of course, we all know the best wag of all: the relaxed, rapid tail wag accompanied by a butt wiggle that says, “I’m so happy to see you!”
2. Your dog probably doesn’t wag their tail when they’re alone
It’s true! Tails are primarily used for communication, so dogs don’t tend to wag them unless there’s somebody around they want to communicate with.
As Dr. Stanley Coren, author of How To Speak Dog: Mastering the Art of Dog-Human Communication wrote in Psychology Today, “When the dog is alone, it will not give its typical tail wags, in the same way people do not talk to walls.”
3. The tail is an extension of the spine
Here’s a quick dog tail anatomy lesson: tails are made up of vertebrae just like the backbone. Tails have 5-20 vertebrae that are bigger at the base and get smaller toward the tip. And like vertebrae in the back, tail bones are separated by soft discs that provide cushioning and flexibility (source).
Tail fractures can happen and can be minor to serious depending on their locations. A fracture at the tip of the tail may heal on its own, though the tail may be left with a bump or bend where it broke. Broken bones near the base of the tail can involve nerve damage and be more serious. Any tail injury should be evaluated by a veterinarian.
4. Your dog’s tail shape is distinct
There are several tail types, and you can probably guess a few off the top of your head: long, short, bobbed, corkscrew. These words generally describe the shape of the dogs’ tail. Spitz-type dog breeds like Shiba Inus and Akitas have “sickle” tails, named because they curl up over the dog’s back and point towards their head like a sickle.
Purebred dogs have been bred to have particular shapes for looks and practicality. For instance, Labrador Retrievers have “otter” tails that are thick toward the base and taper to the tip, covered in thick, short fur. The otter tail is named for its resemblance to an otter, and it also helps labs swim better.
You can learn more about breed tail types by taking our fun dog tail quiz.
5. “Happy tail” isn’t so happy
6. Your dog’s tail may help them move
Have you ever watched a dog take a fast turn while running? You may have noticed their tail sticking out behind them. For some dogs, the tail acts as a counterweight to help them balance and make their turns more precise.
Watch closely the next time you see a greyhound at the dog park, and you may notice their low-set tail acting as a rudder when they run! Similarly, tails can act as rudders in the water when dogs swim.
7. But dogs can move without tails, too
Some dogs don’t have tails, either because they’re born without them or had their tail amputated for medical reasons. And those dogs get around just fine!
Not having a tail simply means the dog will communicate in other ways. For example, Corgis have big, expressive ears that help convey moods.
And of course, just because they don’t have tails doesn’t mean they can’t wiggle their butts, as the enduring popularity of the Corgi bum shake proves. (Yes, you can own a mug that says “Corgi Butts Drive Me Nuts” and why not, really?)
Need to know more? Never fear. We’ve got you covered on all things dog tails.