Everyone knows that happy dogs wag their tails, but few people realize that the function of tails doesn't stop there. Dogs use their tails for all sorts of essential things that go far beyond merely conveying happiness.
Why do dogs wag and chase their tails, though? Each situation and each dog is unique, but there are some general guidelines that can help you better understand how your dog is feeling and why that tail is wagging.
The main reason that dogs wag their tails is to communicate with other dogs and people. A dog's vision is highly sensitive to motion, so moving things get their attention right away. That makes a moving tail one of the clearest ways for dogs to convey their comfort and emotional state to other dogs in the area. Unfortunately, people aren't always as good at reading those cues.
Happy tail wags are one of the most common types that people see. A happy dog typically carries its tail at about medium height, straight out from its body. The tail carriage is usually fairly relaxed, although an excited, happy dog may wag its tail very quickly. During quieter times, such as when an owner is quietly petting the dog, the tail movements may be slow and quiet instead.
When dogs are feeling excited or nervous about other dogs, they tend to lift their tails up high in the air. This signals to their discomfort to other dogs or people approaching them and can act as a way of telling everyone to back off and give them some space. Dogs in this mood may approach other dogs cautiously but watch them carefully as they may be more prone to fighting or aggressive behavior. A tense dog typically moves its tail in quick, short movements.
Even when they are very scared, some dogs may still wag their tails. Scared dogs hold their tails low and may even tuck their tails between their legs. When they wag their tails, the movements tend to be small and gentle. A dog wagging its tail with it held low is usually seeking reassurance or trying to convey submission or appeasement.
Most dog's tail movements aren't perfectly balanced from side to side like a pendulum. Instead, dogs usually wag their tails to either the right or the left side. Surprisingly enough, this can actually communicate their emotions as well. Studies have shown that when dogs are happy or experiencing other positive emotions, they tend to wag their tails to the right side. Nervous, scared or aggressive dogs wag more to the left.
Tail wagging may be an instinctive behavior, but dogs do seem to be aware that they do it for communication. Dogs that think they are completely alone generally do not wag their tails. Very young puppies also do not wag their tails. Tail wagging typically first happens when they're about a month old and have a little more independence.
Different breeds can have very different tail carriages, which can make it difficult to read a dog's emotion. Chows and pugs have tails that are always high and curled over their backs, even when they're not feeling aggressive or dominant, while greyhounds have an unusually low tail position that can make them appear more relaxed than they are. It is important to look at the dog's full body and posture to get an accurate understanding of how it is feeling.
Some dogs also use their tails to help them balance when making sharp turns by sticking it out in the opposite direction of the turn. This is often seen when dogs are herding livestock or doing agility and other sports that require sharp turns. However, dogs with short or no tails tend to do just fine as well, so the importance is debatable.
Most of the time, dogs chase their tails as a form of play. Young puppies do it to help them learn balance and get a feel for all their body parts, and for older dogs, it can simply be a convenient, fun thing to chase. However, excessive tail chasing can be a sign of problems. Dogs may become fixated on their tails if they are bored or anxious so it can be a sign that they need more exercise. It can also be a sign that the dog's tail is hurting, especially if the dog also licks or chews it.
Although tails serve an important function, most dogs without tails do just fine. They may struggle a little bit in social situations, but most dogs are good at reading other body language as well so they can figure it out. However, many modern breeders and owners are moving away from docking dogs' tails for aesthetic reasons due to a new understanding of how important tails are for canine communication.
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