I was walking Sirius yesterday, and someone complimented his tail. This happens frequently—it is an amazing tail—and wouldn’t be worth mentioning, except for what she said next: “What a great communication tool.”
I’ll admit it. I just stared at her in dumbfounded silence for a moment and then kept walking. Why was I so taken aback? Because Sirius’s tail is one of his worst communication tools, at least when it comes to communicating with new dogs, and has, in fact, caused him trouble on multiple occasions.
Let’s start with a word about body language. Dogs communicate through vocal signals, of course, but they depend much more heavily on body language. (If you want to learn to better understand dogs, you can’t do better than to start with body language.) Tails, both in movement and position, are one form of this body language. A very broad brush explanation of tail position follows.
Dogs have a neutral or resting position, which is where they characteristically carry their tails if nothing particularly interesting is going on. The tail position moves from this neutral more and more as emotional intensity increases. When the tail goes down, this indicates decreased confidence, including nervousness and fear. The extreme of this is the recognizable tail-curled-between-legs that characterizes a very scared dog. When the tail goes up, this indicates confidence and, in combination with other body language signals, potential aggression.
Every dog has his or her own characteristic neutral position, and the raised or lowered tail is derived from that. With some dogs, such as my roommate’s Pembroke Welsh Corgi (right), it’s hard to read tail position, unless you are standing behind her watching her butt. For a dog like Sirius, with a long tail, it’s easy to see his tail position, but it’s not always easy to read it.
Look at his “neutral” position in the photo at top and compare it to the tail descriptions above. Which position would you say it most closely resembles? I would say the “upright” or high arousal position. Now, six plus years of observing Sirius has told me that’s not what it means. In fact, his tail straightens out when he is in a high arousal state, but what would you expect a strange dog to think?
Experience indicates that many strange dogs are nervous about approaching Sirius, and this tends to be more pronounced for dogs with better skills at reading body language. Some happy-go-lucky friendly to greet anyone dogs seem to completely ignore his tail, but other dogs will approach hesitantly, at least until they get close enough to read other body language cues.
I don’t want you to read Sirius’s tail as a tremendous social detriment. Dogs, and people, who know him well can ready his tail position easily, but I am always aware of it when we approach a new dog, and I am always watching that dog to see how he or she will perceive the tail.
A great tail? Yes. A great communication tool of a tail? Perhaps not.
What does your dog’s tail tell you?