And Thereby Hangs a Tail

If we see a dog, a tail should be hanging thereby! However many breeds don’t have much of one! Though there are a few, like the Australian Shepherd, born with little or no tail, almost all “bobbed” breeds get that way through human intervention. I’m not going to discuss the issues concerning pain and trauma to the dog in this post. Even if the process was totally painless — even if it does indeed save a working dog from damaging its tail (as is the excuse for many of these cosmetic changes) — I would still consider docking a dog’s tail to be cruel to the animal.

Dogs depend on their tails to communicate. No wild canine species is tail-less. Most have large, well-furred caudal appendages! A tail adds weight to carry around, and growing thick fur requires lots of good food that could be used by the brain or kidneys!. Natural selection has a way of eliminating structures that are unimportant, that do not contribute to a species survival. If the luxurious tails of wild dogs didn’t help them stay alive, the ones with smaller tails would have won the evolutionary race until dogs were naturally tail-less.

But that isn’t the case. In cold climates, wolves and foxes curl their tail around their noses during sleep to keep warm. A tail can act as a counter-balancing rudder when making quick changes of direction. Even though domestic dogs don’t need a tail to keep warm or hunt, they still need it to COMMUNICATE.

Canines are social animals and all social animals need to share information and keep track of relationships within the group. If they could not, they would not survive long in or as a group. Their language, unlike ours, is primarily one of posture, gesture and body language. The tail is one of the most expressive body parts a dog possesses! Dogs do not wag or make other moves with their tails if they are alone, so a tail is clearly used to communicate with other animals.

My comprehension of “Doglish” is no better than an English-speaking adult trying to master a complex, unrelated language like Mandarin Chinese. Even though I can’t begin to see, let alone interpret even half of what a dog’s tail tells another dog, it tells me a lot!

Clipped beneath the belly, the dog is afraid and afraid to the point of protecting against injury. Hanging limply straight down, the dog is nervous and doubtful, especially if the tail gives a tentative wag. Clamped tight over the anus, the tail tells another dog that it is NOT welcome to sniff butt — the dog may be fearful or be a dominant dog denying an inferior into his personal space. Hanging low, but slightly curling and wagging just a bit, the dog is friendly, but wonders if you are. Held motionless, straight out, level with the spine and stiff means the dog is hunting — it might be a little furry creature or a playmate or the dog next door who has come too far into his domain. Held high over the back, with the fur fluffed out says the dog is trying to establish dominance, even if the tail is wagging it will wag stiffly from the base like a metronome. A loose, easily-moving tail making big swishy swooping wags is relaxed and pretty happy. A tail whipping from side to side, carrying the hips with it means the dog is very happy and excited and seeing someone he likes. A tail that goes around and around like a propeller says the dog has nothing else on his mind except being your friend.

Those are only the meanings I came up with right off the top of my head out of my poor, broken-Doglish patois! A canine probably would detect three or four times that many meanings besides! (Also, please note that the tail only tells part of the “tale” and with each position above, a change in ears, muzzle, body, vocalizations etc. can further shade the translation.) My point is that if I, a mere human with no caudal appendage, can get that much information from a tail, a dog without one must be handicapped much like a deaf human using sign-language would be if he lost a hand.

Take the Rottweiler, for example. They are big, smooth-muscles dogs with a sleek coat — and if not docked — a long, somewhat bushy tail! I’m sure that is why the tail is docked. Having something pretty close to a GSD’s tail looks mis-matched “hung” on the sleekly-furred rump of a Rottie. However, docked down to a couple of vertebrae, the tail cannot give the signals I described above. I don’t think it’s a coincidence that Rotties are one of the most difficult dogs to “read.” We’ve taken away their means of communication. I think much of their reputation for aggression stems from humans and other dogs misunderstanding their signals. Signals that a Rottie thinks he’s sending, but doesn’t have the tail to put across.

In most breeds, tail-docking these days is really for cosmetic reasons.  Breeders couldn’t accomplish everything with genetics alone, and resorted to snipping off the bits (usually ears and tails) that didn’t match.  Yes, there were some reasons to trim vulnerable parts when dogs were out in the field all day, getting their tails ripped up by the brush, or to keep them from being chewed up in a dog-fight. To deprive a dog of his means of communicating just seems wrong to me and I wonder at the promotion of the practice by those who are advocates for a particular breed and (one presumes) the welfare of that breed. And thereby hangs another tale!

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