A dog-trainer’s eye takes a look at tails

September 16, 2009 at 8:40 pm Leave a comment

wagwagwagMy husband and I have shared our home with Australian Shepherds for more than 25 years. We’re used to dogs without tails. Our dogs have wiggling stumps of tails, or what Aussie owners call, “wiggle butt.”  I love wiggle butt; I find my dogs very expressive without a wagging tail — their happy face, cupped ears, bright eyes and wiggle butt says it all.

The other day I was talking to a friend who has Labrador Retrievers, and I thought her happy Lab was going to bruise my shins –  that powerful tail of his was whacking my legs something fierce -  enough that I actually got up and stood behind a chair.

That got me thinking (I know, I know, it’s dangerous for me to think but I do it anyway once in a while) about tails. As a trainer and behaviorist I watch the whole dog –  from nose to tail –  to try and discern what’s going on.  I also tell people all the time that a wagging tail means emotion and not necessarily happiness.

But I also thought about the variety of tails that our dogs’ have. From the German Shepherd’s long sweeping tail to a Pharoah Hound’s whip-like tail. Every breed standard describes the perfect tail for that breed; for example, the Lab’s powerful tail is called an “otter” tail. It’s thick at the base and should follow the dog’s topline when the dog is in motion.

The breed standard for Australian Shepherds calls for a straight tail that is either docked or a natural bob. A couple of my dogs have had natural bobs, and those tend to be slightly longer than the docked tails — but both are equally expressive.

I also found it interesting how some tails match the breed’s perceived disposition or character. The Bichon Frise should have a merry temperament with a tail to match. It should be well-plumed and curve gracefully over the back. If the tail were carried low and close to the hind legs, I think it would change how I see the breed. Interesting.

I checked out some rare breeds that I don’t see too often. The Cane Corso’s tail should be an extension of the backline, thick at the root, docked at the 4th vertebrae or natural. The Chinese Crested’s tail is slender and tapers to a curve. The Boykin Spaniel’s tail is docked at 3 to 5 inches, is carried horizontal and is active. The English Cocker should also have an active tail. The breed standard says the tail should be in motion when the dog is in action.

Some breed standards give far more detail than others. The Keeshond’s tail is long, well feathered, tightly curled over the back and should be tight to the back. The Irish Water Spaniel’s tail is strong, level with the back, thick at the root, and should taper to a fine point. It is called a rat tail because it has curls at the base but smooth hair to the point. The Finnish Spitz has a curled, plumed  tail that is carried over the back with the tip pointing towards the thigh. However, the standards goes into far more detail than that! It is quite detailed as to the tail’s position.

I was also pleased to see that a few standards are allowing both a docked tail and a natural tail. There have been quite a few discussions regarding docking and I think in the future more breeds will be allowing both types of tails, but I was pleased to see more already are. The Field Spaniel standard says docked tails are preferred but natural tails are allowed.  The Swedish Valhund, though, took the prize. Tails can be bobs, stubs, or long; natural or docked.

How fun!


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