Another Reason Not to Dock Tails

Jennifer Coates, DVM
By Jennifer Coates, DVM on Nov. 11, 2013

I am the proud of owner of a Boxer named Apollo. He is a beautiful dog — 80 pounds of solid muscle paired with one of the sweetest personalities you’d ever hope to meet. I just wish his tail wasn’t docked. He was a rescue, and since tail docking is usually performed when a puppy is just a few days old, we had no say in the matter.

I am not a fan of tail docking. Breed proponents often talk about how tail docking once served this or that purpose, but with the vast majority of dogs produced by breeders these days destined to become pets, I think docking is truly just a cosmetic procedure. Add this to the fact that the surgery is generally done without the benefit of anesthesia, and the downsides of the procedure outweigh any perceived benefit.

Here’s something else to think about. Dogs use their tails to communicate with each other, and we are only beginning to understand just how nuanced that communication can be. People oftentimes make the mistake of thinking that a wagging tail simply indicates that a dog has a friendly demeanor. It certainly can mean that, but tail wags can also essentially mean the opposite. The devil is in the details.

Researchers in Italy have been looking into exactly how a dog wags its tail under different circumstances and how dogs react when they see different types of tail wagging. The results reveal just how important a communication tool a dog’s tail might be.

In one study, dogs were faced with a dog who displayed obvious dominant-type, potentially aggressive behaviors, or with their owner, another person, or a cat. Presumably, most of the test subjects were somewhat leery of the other dog and wanted to avoid interactions with him. In these cases, the dogs wagged their tails mostly on the left side of their bodies. On the other hand, when presented with a non-threatening situations (i.e., the people or the cat), the dogs wagged primarily to the right.

The same researchers also looked at how dogs react when they viewed the silhouette or a dog, or an altered image of a dog who was wagging its tail primarily to the left or right. When watching a dog wag to the left, dogs became anxious and experienced elevated heart rates. When watching a dog wag to the right, the dogs appeared engaged but calm. Take a look at the video that is available on National Geographic’s website; the dog’s differing responses are remarkable.

All this makes me wonder how much Apollo’s stub of a tail hinders his ability to “talk” to other dogs. He does his best to compensate by doing what I call the “full body wag,” but I ran my own little experiment to see if he wagged what’s left of his tail mostly to the right when he was excited to see me, and it was just impossible to tell.

Dr. Jennifer Coates


Asymmetric tail-wagging responses by dogs to different emotive stimuli. Quaranta A, Siniscalchi M, Vallortigara G. Curr Biol. 2007 Mar 20;17(6):R199-201. 

Seeing Left- or Right-Asymmetric Tail Wagging Produces Different Emotional Responses in Dogs. Siniscalchi M, Lusito R, Vallortigara G, Quaranta A. Curr Biol. 2013 Oct 29.

Image: guillermo77 / Shutterstock

Jennifer Coates, DVM


Jennifer Coates, DVM


Dr. Jennifer Coates is an accomplished veterinarian, writer, editor, and consultant with years of experience in the fields of veterinary...

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