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This is why dogs have tails, according to science

A dog's tail serves a greater purpose than just balance

Close up of a dog's tail
iRichPhoto / Shutterstock

Our pets bring us huge amounts of joy with their wet noses, adorable pointy ears, and happy tails. While the ears and nose both serve pretty similar functions in humans, we don’t have the benefit of a tail. But why do dogs have tails? It all comes from the evolution of their ancestors millions of years ago, and these appendages still prove quite useful to pups and other animals today. Here’s everything you need to know about tails in dogs.

How did tails develop?

Corgi in a fall forest
ElfinFox / Pixabay

Early fish may have sprouted tails to better swim in the ocean. But when those ancient creatures first stepped out on land, they kept their tails, which changed shape and size depending on their specific needs. Truly, nearly every vertebrate species in the animal kingdom has a tail, with very limited exceptions, including us.

Humans and apes like chimps are some of the few that have lost their tails to time. This probably happened because Homo sapiens walk in a very different way from our four-legged friends. Tails do a lot for our pets and help them in all kinds of ways that we don’t benefit from.

Why do dogs have tails?

Dog stands on a pedestal
MabelAmber / Pixabay
As we discussed, tails occur on many animals and help with several different things, including balance, swimming, communication, and even grip. Dogs, in particular, need tails to assist with many of these activities, although they are unfortunately unable to pick up objects with them. Here are the things dogs need tails for.

Help them move

Your pooch might need their tail even more than you think. Dogs frequently use this appendage to help them run and change direction, for example. As the American Kennel Club describes, “What you’re likely to see is your dog’s tail working to assist with skillful movement. As our dog needs to change direction while running, his body needs a little extra help. You’ll notice that your dog’s front legs will go in the direction that he intends to go, while the rear legs continue in the original direction. The tail, however, will also turn in the new direction.” That enables our buddies to turn on a dime and pull off the maneuvers you might see in a dog agility show.

Improve balance

Lots of animals use their tails for balance — you might picture the kangaroo as a superb example of this. But even though pup pups can’t stay upright on their tails, they still need them to move around successfully. In addition to our earlier running examples, a tail can help walk on a small ledge (cats are known for this ability in particular) and climb up a rocky slope. You might see their tail wagging in either of these scenarios as an extra aid, but of course, the biggest reason for that movement comes next.

Facilitate communication

Dogs didn’t evolve tails to communicate, but they have certainly added this to their tail repertoire. It’s one of the main things that they’re known for. Our little guys don’t just use their tails to talk to us either, they communicate with each other by tail as well. In fact, they tend to use their behinds in this manner even more with other animals, since part of their tail wagging is to spread their scent.
Wagging usually means that your dog is happy, but some pets have a nervous wag as well. Additionally, a tail down between their legs can indicate they’re afraid or acting submissive. Lastly, sometimes you can figure out your dog’s mood from their tail, whether they’re on the hunt, want a treat, or are excited for playtime.

Can a dog live without a tail?

A dog with no tail stands in front of a blue background
Karsten Winegeart / Unsplash

Certainly, and many get by tailless with no problems. Historically, some dogs have had their tails docked to fit breeding standards, though that’s no longer recommended by vets. But if you adopt a sweet furry friend with no tail, like a Corgi or a French bulldog, which are frequently born without full tails, you don’t have to worry about your beastie getting along in their life. Our pets adapt quickly and won’t have any memory of needing their extra length to get on.

We probably would do better with a tail, but actually, we’re one of few mammals that lack this. Our dogs use theirs for numerous things including balance and communication. It’s important to allow your sweet pet to keep their tail if at all possible but plenty of dogs live successfully without one and adjust easily. Don’t worry too much if you bring home an animal that has no tail — you’ll learn how to interpret their moves no matter what.

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Rebekkah Adams
Rebekkah’s been a writer and editor for more than 10 years, both in print and digital. In addition to writing about pets…
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