RSS Feed

The Language of Tails

 

Cricket’s tail was docked in puppyhood and the bit that’s left is about two inches long, maybe less, but she uses what she has to her fullest ability. If she has a poopy issue left over after a walk and I manage to catch her and carry her into the bathroom, she uses her stub of a tail to protect that poop from being removed. Slam! Tail down. If she’s angry and barking at intruders, she lifts her tail and shakes it like a fist. If she’s excited, her tail spins around in a tiny circle, like a propeller lifting her off the floor.

Cricket's little nub

Cricket’s little nub

Cricket’s groomer, the one we like, decided to give Cricket a puffy poodle tail one time, like a cotton ball attached to her butt. It made it very difficult to understand Cricket for a few days, until I took out the scissors and trimmed it down so she could speak clearly again.

Cricket is very bright and she can think and express opposing ideas at the same time. She can be waving her tail in great excitement, and barking as if the world is about to end. She can wag her tail, but rest her head on her paws like she’s bored. She wants to make sure that she has expressed every dimension of how she’s feeling instead of just a simple, Hello, or I hate you.

Cricket's tails says, "I've got my eye on you," and, "I'm seconds away from giving you a thousand kisses."

Cricket’s tail says, “I’ve got my eye on you,” or, “I’m seconds away from giving you a thousand kisses.”

The only time Cricket’s tail and head and whole body are in full agreement is when Grandma comes back after being a way – for one minute, ten minutes, ten hours. Cricket’s little stub is wagging in circles and she’s crying and jumping and licking. She tries to jump into Grandma’s arms and fly herself across the room. I’m sure she’s had minor tail strains from these greetings, because the whirling little stub gets an amazing work out.

I read an article that said a docked tail can limit a dog’s ability to communicate; that dogs who approach a dog with a docked tail will be more circumspect, because they have a harder time reading the docked tail for signs of aggression or submission. I wonder if this has been an issue for Cricket. Maybe she senses the other dog’s apprehension and interprets that as aggression, and so she’s aggressive right back. Would her life have been completely different, and better, if they’d never docked her tail?

I wonder if, having a full tail to swing around, Cricket wouldn’t have to bark so much to get her point across. Maybe she feels like she has to scream because part of her voice has been muted and dampened.

Is there such a thing as a tail prosthetic?

To be fair, I think her little tail is cute and at this point I wouldn’t recognize her as Cricket with any other tail. This is who she is and its an integral part of her identity. But who would she have been otherwise?

I know a Golden retriever with a long, bushy tail, and she uses it not just to express happiness or outrage, but to bar her little poodle brother from passing by. She can swing that thing like a bat and knock all the chotchkes off the coffee table, or she can carefully tuck her tail out of the way, to be polite and demure. But Cricket doesn’t have those options.

Look at that glorious tail! (not my picture, because Cricket would not let me take such a picture).

Look at that glorious tail! (not my picture, because Cricket would not let me take such a picture).

Butterfly makes more simple sentences with her tail. Her tail goes down when she’s resting or concerned. When she’s excited and happy her tail swings full out – she makes circles in the air to announce her happiness. She waves her tail as a way of saying, Yes, I want a treat, Yes, I want to go outside, Yes, I’m the cutest puppy in the world!          When she’s a bit more sedate and formal, her tail sits up on her back like a plume and you can tell she is proud. She walks her girliest walk at these times, with her hips swinging gently from side to side. She’s not inviting interaction so much as walking the cat walk, to be admired from afar.

Butterfly's curly tail

Butterfly’s curly tail

I’d like to have a long fluffy tail, like a Golden Retriever. I would love to wave my tail back and forth and be giddy and free in telling people that I’m happy to see them. I’ve never been good at unrestrained expression; I tend towards understatement and reserve. But there’s something so wonderful about a dog waving her tail when she sees you. I’d love to be that person. I’d love to feel so secure in myself that I could tell people how much I care about them.

The happiness blur!

The happiness blur!

I wonder if we’d lose our capacity for denial with a tail so earnest and open and easy to read. Because I think these tails, this earnestness in dogs, is a big part of what we love about dogs. Even the angriest dog, because he’s honest about his anger, is easier to love than a human who masks what he’s really feeling.

I remember hearing about all kinds of human body modification surgeries that were becoming popular over the past few years – pointy ears were the most obvious, or the ear lobe expanders. I wonder if anyone has come up with a way of adding a tail, to be more like a dog. You’d probably have to take classes (from a dog?) in how to express yourself with your tail, and, knowing humans, we’d probably add a lot of complicated nonsense to get in the way of what we are trying to say. But it’s an interesting idea. On the down side, you’d have much more trouble finding clothes that fit, or a comfortable place to sit down.

 

About rachelmankowitz

I am a fiction writer, a writing coach, and an obsessive chronicler of my dogs' lives.

100 responses »

  1. the second photo of Cricket- looks like a little lamb

    Reply
  2. Rachel, your post has caused me to never take dog tails for granted ever again. It’s nice to have one’s eyes opened again, especially to the doggie world. Thanks!

    Reply
  3. Your puppies are so cute and adorable.

    Reply
  4. Terrier tails are very expressive and mostly held pointed up. I know you didn’t dock Cricket’s tail but I’d like to see those who dock tails have their tongue amputated.

    Reply
  5. thoughtful and true…… humans forget [or they just don't know] that dogs speak with their bodies and all the bits get a look in.

    Reply
  6. Cricket doesn’t know any different .I am sure he is having his best life dispute the short tail. Fun post thanks.

    Reply
  7. We need to speak the language of tails. Charlie’s is long, though many Jack Russell Terriers have docked tails but Charlie and his brother Bodee have what they came with. Our late Dobie came with docked tail and normal ears. We decided to crop his ears, but if given the chance again I would not. Each time our German Shepherd wagged her tail over the top of the pup’s head he grimaced! He did not learn to play as a baby either and I think it was because his ears hurt him.

    Reply
    • Oh no! I wonder if the ear cropping is part of what makes some dogs so serious. They’re in pain. Cricket doesn’t seem to feel pain in her tail, but she’s uber-sensitive to pain, so it’s hard to know.

      Reply
  8. When Max was young his tail was woefully small. All the other Maltese pups had fluffy flags but poor Max had a piggy tail. He has since grown a nice fluffy appendage that we call his emotional barometer. One look at the altitude of the tail and its movement or lack thereof and we know immediately the Malt’s position on just about everything.

    Reply
  9. I have always wanted a tail. Once I awoke from a dream where I was a werewolf, disappointed that my lovely swishy tail was gone.

    Reply
  10. I can’t stand when puppies are mutilated. I’m very pleased to have my ears. They often dock and crop Pits. I’m so very grateful that did not happen to me. I am sure Cricket keeps you busy with her happy tail! Woof!

    Reply
  11. That’s a great post. I often wonder why people dock the tails of certain breeds of dogs. That is one of their greatest features and they have many. :-)

    Reply
    • I’ve heard all kinds of reasons for docking the tails, but I still don’t really understand. I hope that, at least sometimes, there are solid health reasons for doing it, otherwise…who thought of it?

      Reply
  12. Yes, tails are essential in the dog world, and I too would love to dock some fingers from those who would dock dogs’ tails or ears, as well as those who declaw cats. But that’s another story.

    Reply
  13. You made me laugh about the “tail down”- my cocker spaniels always did that, which I had forgotten until I read it. How are you feeling this week?

    Reply
  14. You made me laugh about the “tail down”- my cocker spaniels always did that, which I had forgotten until I read it. How are you feeling this week?

    Reply
  15. Tails are very important for communication. We can tell a lot about our Chicki’s mood just by looking at it.
    I once had a dog called Bessie, a Kelpie cross Border Collie, and she had a deformed tail. It looked as though it had been docked, but it hadn’t: it had coiled around and around, making it look only a few inches long. But she certainly used to wag it. :)

    Reply
    • Was it like those old telephone cords? Or more like Princess Leia’s hairdo? I wonder if other dogs were able to read her tail as clearly as usual, or if, like Cricket, she was at risk of being misunderstood.

      Reply
      • It was like those old telephone cords, Rachel. Vets used to comment on it: I think it must have been very unusual. Bessie was a rather timid dog, but very loving towards us. She got on very well with our other dogs — we had two female Maltese, litter sisters and younger than Bessie — but she seemed rather guarded about coming into contact with canines that she didn’t know.

      • That swirling tail must have looked wonderful when she was happy to see you!

  16. Lily’s marvellous tail does the crazy circles when she sees me too! It’s so adorable and heartwarming. She creates a breeze with it! Poppy has an extraordinarily long tail and boy do you feel it when it hits your calves! Like a whip! My girls say hi to your girls! X

    Reply
    • Butterfly’s tail is just the right length to whip around and dance, but not long enough to cause physical harm to others. I feel lucky about that. The Golden Retriever tail is magnificent, but much more dangerous.

      Reply
  17. I could never understand why ‘experts’ dock a dog’s tail, unless for medical reasons.
    It is so nice to see rottweillers, springer spaniels, dobermans, jack russells, bull dogs and any other breed usually docked with a tail in full working order. Maggie’s sire was a springer, and both he and his mate on the farm had their tails.
    We were watching Maggie swim one day, and the water was so clear, we could see how she was using her tail as a rudder. Absolutely fascinating.

    Reply
    • That’s so interesting! I wonder if Cricket is afraid of the water at the beach because she doesn’t think she has all the right equipment. Her cousin Lilah, a black lab with her tail, loves to swim. She seems to be in training for a triathalon. I’ll be curious to see how she manages the bicycle.

      Reply
  18. I only wish Honey’s tail was as expressive as Cricket’s clearly is. I fear Honey is an outstanding example of how little a tail can say. Like a Victorian virgin, she is largely ignorant of anything that occurs below the waist.

    Reply
  19. I use my tail alot, I can not imagine not having one. I have started wagging it alot more now that I know I will not be sent back to the jail. I have short hair so my poop does not stick. Ol Cissy gets a smear once in a while and she scrubbs it off on the ground

    Reply
    • Cricket has tried the poot scoot to remove the extra stuff from her butt, but she ends up spreading it around. And then she sees that we’re headed towards the bathroom for clean up and she panics and tries to escape. If she had a longer tail it would be all the way between her legs.

      Reply
  20. It’s absolutely worth to ponder about this topic. The most dogs of Easy’s breed are docked, it would be interesting to find out if there is something different in their behavior. btw: Easy’s long tail is sometimes a little like a sword or a billy club… :o)

    Reply
  21. I really enjoyed reading this post.
    Our Spud (a golden retriever/labrador cross) wags his tail constantly, even in his sleep. I think he’s the happiest dog in the World.

    Reply
  22. Tails are remarkable things. I use mine as a revenge weapon against my humans – does horrible things to full coffee cups, vases with lowers, plates of fudge, etc., etc., etc.

    Reply
  23. I’m too used to a long tail… I do have difficulty reading short tails.. :)

    Reply
  24. It sounds to me that what Cricket loses in tail length, she makes up for with enthusiasm. Perhaps she is harder to read by other dogs, but even with her stump you have it figured out…
    I think you are right by the way, the world I feel, would likely be a much better place if we wore our emotions like dogs do! Such a great post, as always!
    Hugs, Carrie and Pups x

    Reply
    • Thank you! The only danger to wearing our emotions on our sleeves is if there are too many of us with Cricket’s style of emoting, meaning “barkety bark bark barkety bark barky barky bark!”

      Reply
  25. With respect to your interest in the acquisition of a tail, I can recommend the BBC America series Orphan Black which is a science fiction drama in which one of the characters has a tail as part of a scientific experiment. Apparently tails would generate a thousand follow up questions for us, although I personally like the idea of finding a more accurate form of communication than words and hand gestures. :)
    Your dogs are adorable, as always, and I loved your post.
    Sheila and The Red Man

    Reply
  26. Too funny about not understanding Cricket because of the poodle tail! Bailey’s tail is curled back and sometimes people ask if he doesn’t have a tail. :D

    Reply
  27. Reblogged this on Annabelle Franklin, Author: Messages from Millie and commented:
    We love this post by our bloggy friend Rachel, who has a real talent for translating dog language.

    Reply
  28. Your observations are wonderful!

    Reply
  29. If a dog is wagging it’s tail more to the right they are happy or relaxed. Everything is happy, happy, happy. to the right not so happy, maybe even very agitated. Here is a story all about it including texts done to confirm it. It includes videos

    http://www.npr.org/2013/11/01/242126859/the-tails-the-tell-dog-wags-can-mean-friend-or-foe

    I have what they call a vestigial tail. It shows up on X-rays as a little stub. Must be a few millennia ago our soon to be humans did have tails.

    Our Boxer Mastiff mix had her full tail and knew how to use it. She also got a knot in it after a swim in a lake. We figured she must have hit a tree branch with it since it was a man made lake. If I came home and we were the only ones in the house I got the usual tail wagging, circling all around happy dog treatment. If any one else was in the house she added rapid barking to that as if making a formal announcement to every one that I was home. We knew not to put anything at tail wagging height.

    Reply
    • I’ve been watching the right and left tail wags carefully, because I read some articles about that too, but I haven’t been able to see a connection. Maybe my girls didn’t get the memo.

      I wonder why our tails would have been lost over the generations. Maybe it really is because of the difficulties with finding clothes and comfortable seating options.

      Reply
  30. Oops I meant to say to the left not so happy. That is right but in the comment right about not so happy is wrong, there left is right.

    Reply
  31. I’m always comforted by the fact that dogs truly live in the moment and tail movement is a huge part of that expression. I say wag away, little Cricket. BTW, great observations!

    Reply
  32. Thank you for reading, Rachel. I do this so infrequently that my learning curve doesn’t really exist. Please help! I thought I had triggered the post to show up on Facebook but see nothing so far. Any ideas? Thank you, and wags from Jack and Roux.

    Reply
  33. The Newfs have serious tails. Memphis has an up-tail and George, like her predecessor Ellie Mae, has a down-tail. Both wag with a swagger to express their confidence and love of life.

    Reply
  34. I am so happy that Jack’s previous owner did not dock his tail. I love the way his tail wags so hard and fast that he hits himself on his sides. Tails are great, I don’t know what I would do with a tail but thank goodness dogs know what to do with their’s :) Our German Shepard Rex had such a strong tail that it could have been classified as a weapon. lol

    Reply
  35. I have never given tails a second thought but how am I going to live without one now? Love it.

    Reply
  36. Wow you brought back memories! I have had 15 surgeries. Not fun !
    Hope you are good to go

    Reply
  37. Pingback: Family, fish taco & mango salsa | An Original Foodie

  38. Great post. Sparked a very interesting conversation on-line, and now I will pay more attention to the lovely tails on Jack and Roux.

    Reply
  39. My dog Winnie has almost no tail. The person who cut her tail did a bad job. I think all dogs should keep their beautiful tails : )

    Reply
  40. runningwithellen

    Just a thank you for reading my post. Love yours.

    Reply
  41. What an entertaining–and wholly informational read. I totally agree that the tail is an expansion of expression for our hounds and feel that having a docked tail might be a bit like having half your tongue removed. Not impossible to communicate, just challenging.
    Lovely post. Cheers!

    Reply
    • Thank you! I’ve been watching tails even more since I posted this and there are some Golden Doodle tails out there that are absolutely magnificent! It would be like having a whole Cricket added onto the back of another dog!

      Reply
  42. I grew up with rotties before docking was made illegal in Australia, and the dogs I have now possess some very expressive tails. I love my rotties with their tails, and I’ve also noticed that people are more willing to approach and say hello- they look so much friendlier when you can see that happy tail. My rescue girl, Abby, has an oddly developed tail – it’s clubbed, a little crook at the end. Not sure if she lost the end due to injury or if it’s a developmental issue (which can happen), but it’s nearly full length and she uses it like a cricket bat. Of joy.

    Reply
  43. Tweeted this very interesting and beautifully-illustrated post. :)

    Reply

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 3,262 other followers

%d bloggers like this: