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“Tail” Me the Truth: Why Do Dogs Have Tails?

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What is one of the first features that you consider when picturing a dog? For most, it is the tail. The wagging of a dog’s tail is an iconic image. But what exactly does this body part offer a dog? Why do dogs have tails in the first place? This article not only seeks to explain just that but everything there is to know about dog tails.

Before looking at the back half of a dog’s anatomy, it is critical to fully understand how dogs came to be in the first place.

Where Did the Tail Evolve?

Dogs tail evolve

It is a well-known fact that dogs were domesticated from gray wolves somewhere near Europe, southern China and Mongolia. The Smithsonian pinpoints that this event occurred anywhere from 15,000 to 40,000 years ago through the interactions that took place between ancient nomads and an extinct wolf species.

Scientists have theorized different answers as to how a wolf started to peak interest in humans. One such hypothesis is the “survival of the friendliest”. Plainly put, the competition for food lessened when humans and wolves started exchanging protection for food. The wolves would keep other predators at bay, being fed the leftovers.

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Ideas don’t necessarily prove anything. Every theory must be tested. One of the most believable pieces of proof is molecular evidence comparing the genetic makeup of dogs to their supposed ancestors. This study was performed in 1999, where scientists were able to prove that the closest living relative of the domestic dog is indeed the wolf.

Why is it that domestic dogs do not have tails that look like that of wolves? The simplest and truest answer to this question is humans. We are the reason that dogs have so many different types of tails. Deciding to take morphology and function in our hands, artificial selection helped us breed dogs with curlier, multi-colored tails.

Tail Changes in the Fox

We all know that these canines are not domesticated, but an experiment involving them revealed interesting results that can be applied to our domestic dogs. BBC elaborates on a Russian geneticist, Dmitry Belyaev who attempted to domesticate foxes in the late 1950s. His goal was to only breed the individuals that did not seem wild. What he found instead was that these “tamer” generations started showing different morphological features such as curly tails and different coat colors, which occurred in the domestication of dogs.

Now that you are aware of the effects of artificial domestication, we can more closely understand the physicality associated with a dog’s tail.

Anatomy of the Tail

Anatomy of the dogs tail

As you would assume, a dog’s tail is made up of bones. On a basic level, it is their extension of the spine, though more flexible. They are able to move it so freely due to the various muscles and nerves that anchor it to the base.

Dog Tail Diversity

There are numerous different types of tails found amongst man’s best friend. They range in a number of ways including shape, length, size, thickness and color. Provided below is a list of the types of dog tails with an example of each breed associated with that physical feature to give you a better idea of the diversity.

  • Natural-born bobbed tails (Jack Russel Terrier, Welsh Corgi)
  • Curled or ring tails (Akita, Shiba Inu)
  • Sickle tails where it is curled back towards the head (Shih Tzu, Chihuahua)
  • Corkscrew (Pug, Shar-Pei)
  • Otter or rudder-like tail (Labrador Retriever)
  • Tapered or whip tail (Whippet, Great Dane, Bull Terrier)

Why Did a Dog’s Tail Change?

The tail of a dog did not change simply because they wanted to look a certain way. It was humans who shaped the tail into the various types that we have today. Initially, the biggest reason was because of the way it looked. But what do dog’s use their tails for?

The way in which a dog’s tail looks does impact the way that it is used. But when you look at the reasons behind why dogs need tails, there are common themes.

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Talking With One’s Tail

One of the most known reasons for why a dog needs their tail is to communicate, both with other dogs and their owners. What people don’t know is that they might be misreading the signs that their dog is trying to show them. The tail can be tricky when not properly educated.

When a dog wags its tail, people assume that it is happy. This is not always the case. Whenever you see a tail wag, look at how freely the hind end moves with this appendage. Dogs that are truly happy will have a wider wag while shorter, quick movement implies tension.

The placement of the tail is another great indicator when it comes to canine communication. Tails that stay above the height of a dog’s back indicate that he or she is either feeling dominant or threatened. A low tail lets you know that a dog is more submissive or fearful.

Communication is a pivotal reason why dogs have tails, yet it is not the only one. Tails aid dogs in a multitude of ways that are physical and psychological.

Using a Tail for Balance

Tails are a great balancing aid for animals of all shapes and sizes. The dog is no exception. Dogs use these appendages in a variety of situations to prevent them from falling.

Working dogs use their tails as a counterbalance while out in the fields. These environments are filled with uneven ground and challenging obstacles. When taking sharp turns to herd sheep, their tails allow them to move swiftly.

Puppies rely on their tails to help maintain balance. During the younger years, a dog is not yet able to walk with full coordination. Although puppies take a few tumbles, the tail prevents even more.

You are able to see your own dog balance with the use of its tail. A dog does not need to be completing an agility course to use its tail in this fashion. Even simply taking your dog on a walk or job allows you to see just how they use their tail for balance. Taking tight turns when playing with friends is another sign of proof.

The Warmth of a Tail

Looking at their closest living ancestor, the wolf, it is easy to see that the tail can provide added protection from the cold elements. Foxes, another distant relative, are also known to use their tails as a blanket, as a domesticated dog would do. Of course, not every dog is able to use his or her tail in this way depending on the type of tail.

Spreading Scent

The spread of one’s scent is important to various species, including the dog. With smell being such an important sense, a dog uses these pheromones to leave behind a message. But how exactly do they go about wafting the scent with their tails?

After a dog partakes in it’s scenting, they will wag their tails. This is not out of excitement, but rather dominance. When a dog’s tail is up in the air wagging, it allows the scent to spread, communicating to other dogs that they are nearby and may want to claim that territory as their own.

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Why Did Humans Want to Change Dog Tails?

There are reasons as to why a dog’s tail changed so largely in diversity, each of which contributed to the function and purpose of the dog being used.

Humans began to explore the use of dogs in hunting down birds, eventually changing the tail to combat these excursions. This is when the rudder-like tail became a phenomenon. Dogs used for hunting developed tails that allowed them to quickly and effectively steer towards a bird that was shot and landed out of reach in the water.

Another popular sport was hunting vermin in the fields. Humans decided to use dogs for these events, but could not seem to find them as they blended in with the grass. This is where a flag-like tail came into play. Breeds such as the Basset Hound and Beagle are iconic for their long, tails with a white dipstick on the end so that hunters could easily locate their dogs while out in the fields.

Another example of artificial selection was when people decided to use dogs to brave the coldest climates. In Alaska, sled dogs became a commodity. An unfortunate discovery made involved dogs that could not survive the winter months due to short tails. Huskies are bred for their double coats with thick tails that can be draped over their nostrils while sleeping, preventing them from freezing to death.

Docked Tails

Dogs docked tail

Looking over the ways in which a dog uses its tail makes you wonder about those who do not possess this appendage. There is a difference between tails that are bobbed or docked.

There are a few dog breeds that are naturally born with a bobbed tail such as the French bulldog, Welsh corgi and Boston terrier. As for those who have docked tails, humans perform this surgery.

The way in which a tail is docked has become controversial in more recent years, as it may not be entirely humane. The process involves removing some or part of a dog’s tail, typically in the earlier stages of life when it is less painful. Some think that the advantages outweigh the cons.

Some herding breeds such as the Australian shepherd have their tails docked to help prevent future injuries. With the loss of a tail, the dog is unable to use this appendage for balancing. Instead, they learn how to use their hind legs to balance, making for a stronger, more capable herding dog. There are risks involved in tail docking.

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One way in which a docked tail can become problematic is when they develop nerve tumors or neuromas. Other risks involve chronic pain, inflammation and infection.


A dog’s tail is used for a variety of reasons including, but not limited to communication, warmth, spreading their scent, and balance. It has changed over time with the domestication of the wolf, ranging in shape and length. Overall, it is evident that a man’s best friend has a little friend of their own.

Last update on 2020-11-25

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