Your puppy wags his tail when he is excited and it is the cutest thing. Even if your dog has a stubby tail, you will see it wag. Sometimes it wags rapidly like it’s trying to move with his heartbeat. Other times its slower, trying to remain calm in a very exciting situation. He might be waiting for food, happy to see a friend, ready to play, or watching a squirrel through the window. The excitement stops when someone tries to pull his tail. Suddenly he goes from excitedly wagging to barking or even biting. It’s probably one of the first things you learn when you are introduced to a dog: don’t pull his tail!
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The Root of the Behavior
A dog’s tail is an appendage, not just a bunch of hair shaking from side to side like a cheerleader’s ponytail. Your dog’s tail has vertebrae, anywhere from six up to 23, depending on his size. The tail has muscles and tendons that make it possible for the movement of his tail. The tail is the end of Fluffy’s backbone. The muscles and tendons that make it move are connected to the rest of his body, particularly the anus, rectum, and pelvic diaphragm. In addition, anywhere from four to seven nerves are attached to these muscles. His tail also is responsible for balancing himself. It helps him balance when he jumps, traverses through narrow spaces like a small pathway, or climbs stairs. Without full use of his tail, he’ll have trouble navigating these situations and can put himself at risk for injury.
This wagging appendage is also a great communicator. Happy, sad, excited, embarrassed, or angry, your dog uses his tail to say a lot. Scientists in Italy were so curious about their dogs’ communication via tail that they studied it. A tail to the right means the dog is happy. A tail to the left expresses negative emotions. The scientists studied varied scenarios and measured heart rate and physical responses to different stimuli. They concluded that dogs naturally pick up the messages from each other’s tails, but it may not be sent as a conscious message. Dogs might just move their tail instinctively, similar to a human’s heart or unconscious body language.
The tail also can help a dog spread his scent. Dogs like to sniff each other’s butts and for good reason. It contains a lot of info for them. When a dog is confident and comfortable, his tail will be held high, exposing his tushie and his scent. When he is scared, embarrassed, or wants to hide his scent, he uses his tail to cover his bum. If Fluffy has a long tail, he might use it for warmth. Dog breeds who are used to colder climates have poofy tails and will wrap them around their bodies when they lie down or use them as a rudder when they’re sledding. So, if your dog’s tail is pulled, you are compromising all these functions that your dog needs to be comfortable and happy.
Encouraging the Behavior
Do you really think your dog wants this appendage yanked? Think about your arm being yanked. You have all those muscles and tendons in every joint and attaching your arm to your shoulder. When someone pulls on one of them, it hurts! And if it’s pulled hard enough, you might not be able to use it for a while. No writing, driving, baseball, typing. If you pull your dog’s tail, not only will it hurt, but he could lose an important function, either temporarily or permanently. Because the tail is connected by muscles and tendons and to his bum, pulling it can cause serious damage. The muscles he uses to relieve himself can be damaged if pulled too hard, which can cause constipation or loss of bowel control. Another potential problem is damage to the tail’s structure causing it to sag. If his tail sags, he cannot communicate his message or his scent.
If you try to pull or even just touch your dog’s tail, he might become protective and he could either bark or bite. This is why it’s especially important not to pull his tail and to teach children that as well. When you want to spend some quality time petting your dog, go for behind the ear scratches, belly rubs, back scratches, or just play with him. If you ever are near his tail, make sure you do not grip it or pull it. By playing with his tail you might be worrying him, which can cause your bond to weaken.
Other Solutions and Considerations
For little tails or long tails, the same rules and principles apply. Do not pull his tail for any reason! Even if your dog’s tail was cut off to just a stub, he can still feel it. There is no scenario where pulling your dog’s tail is beneficial for him and where it can be safe for you. If you need to get your dog’s attention and do not know how, go to a trainer to learn some techniques for call and response. The trainer can work with both of you to learn commands and how to establish your dominance in the relationship.
Your dog is not a canine version of Gumby or Stretch Armstrong, those popular 90s toys where you could bend and pull appendages to the limit. And his tail is not a human’s ponytail, where when you pull it the person’s head does not just move with it to reduce pain and prevent it from being yanked out. The tail is a complex appendage with muscles and tendons all doing their job to help your pup out. Keep his tail wagging by keeping your hands off it.