Can a Dog’s Tail Give You Clues About His Heritage?

July 30, 2014

dog tail  Jon-Eric MelsæterBy Linda Cole

From my perspective, I don’t care if a dog is purebred or mixed. I’ve had both over the years and cherished each for their unique personalities. Mixed breed dogs, however, can garner interesting debates about what breeds are in their makeup. You might be able to figure out a few by looking at the face and overall body type, but one of the best places to start is at the tail. The shape, size, length, how it sets and whether the tail is bushy, feathered or smooth can all give you clues about your mixed breed dog’s heritage.

A dog’s tail is an extension of the spine and consists of flexible vertebrae that give the tail movement up and down or side to side. Muscles located in the lower back are attached to the tail by tendons. The tail gives us information that can indicate a dog’s mood. Recently, scientists discovered a subtle movement to the right or left can mean your dog is feeling negative or positive.

Many of the breeds that are members of the Spitz family of dogs have a bushy tail that forms a sickle and curls up over the back. Some Spitz dogs, such as the Shiba Inu, Akita and Norwegian Buhund, have an extra curl at the tip of their tail. Spitz dogs closely resemble the original body type and look of the first domesticated dog, the Peat Dog from the late Stone Age era, and scientists believe the sickle tail held over the back helped people tell the difference between domesticated dogs and wolves. Chihuahuas are not part of the Spitz family, but they also have a sickle tail type.

The Labrador Retriever, Chesapeake Bay Retriever and Otterhound have an otter tail. It’s thick at the base and tapers to a narrower point at the tip of the tail, and the hair on the underside is parted or divided. The thick tail helps the dog move efficiently through water and acts like a rudder.

Not all Terriers were bred to go  underground, but the ones that do hunt underground have a tail that is thicker at the base and tapers to the tip. Its purpose is to act as a handle for a farmer or hunter to grab and pull the dog out of a hole if necessary. The tail is held straight out or upward and is set high on the back. This includes breeds like the Manchester Terrier and Border Terrier. Other breeds, like the Dachshund, Dalmatian and some sporting breeds like the English Setter, also have this type of tail. dog tail steve webster

Beagles have a tail that is set fairly high and doesn’t have a curl of any kind. He carries it proudly like a flag. A white tip helps hunters find their dogs during a hunt. Foxhounds also have a tail that’s held high with a slight curve at the tip.

Great Danes, American Staffordshire Terriers, Greater Swiss Mountain Dogs and some Pointer breeds have a tail described as a sword. The tail is broad at the base, tapers down to the hock (ankle) and is normally held straight down.

Breeds like the French Bulldog and Pembroke Welsh Corgi have a naturally bobbed tail which isn’t the same thing as a docked tail. Some breeds, including the Boston Terrier, have a naturally short tail, but the other breeds we commonly see with a short tail are born with a longer one. Pugs have cute little corkscrew tails.

Herding breeds like the German Shepherd, Belgian Malinois and Cardigan Welsh Corgi have a long tail that’s held low and goes down to the hock. It hangs with a slight curve at the tip and resembles a saber.

Sighthounds, such as the Greyhound, Whippet or Wolfhound, have a long, narrow and smooth tail that is set low with a slight curve and normally held down. The tail acts like a rudder and brake during high speed chases.

The Border Collie and Briard have a bushy tail that’s long and drops down to the hock. It curls up to form a “J.” Border Collies have a white tip on their tail which has a specific purpose. It’s called the “shepherd’s lantern” and helped a shepherd see in the dark as he followed his dog home at the end of the day.
dog tail anne hornyak
Setter breeds have a feathered tail. It’s a moderate length set just below the level of the back and tapers to a point. The tail is normally carried at the same level or just below the back. The Golden Retriever has a thick, muscular tail at the base that is heavily feathered. It’s carried level with the back and can have a moderate upward curve.

It’s not easy to figure out a mixed breed dog’s heritage. Even dog experts can have a hard time identifying the breeds, but looking closely at the tail can give you important clues!

Top photo by Jon-Eric Melsæter
Middle photo by Steve Webster
Bottom photo by Ann Hornyak

Read more articles by Linda Cole

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  1. Elaine Bleecker says:

    My pup is supposed to be Border Collie and shepard . His color has changed and he looks more golden retriever with white chest.when he stands out in yard his tail is straight up like a flag. Hair standing straight out.

  2. Emil says:

    …and Ocho is a Jack Russell Terrier/Poodle mix with an underground hunting tail… grrr

  3. Ocho says:

    I think Emil is a Dalmatian/Pitbull mix, but his tail is a proud Wolf/Peat Dog! ayuuhh!

  4. Eric Nastav says:

    Good article. I have a Beagle/Papillon mix. At first glance she looks like a mini-Australian Shepherd. But upon examining specific traits such as the tail shape, we concluded she is definitely not a shepherd.

  5. Hillary Bednark says:

    Hello, we rescued our dog Gypsie from a Humane Society the day after Christmas almost 2 years ago. When we brought her to the Vet they told us she was a Beagle,Lab mix. I can see that much in her, but her tail is thick like a Lab but curles up over her back in a hook like position.
    So im sure they may be more to her mix then we think but the Vet has no clue.
    We really would like to know what is in her mix,not that would make us love her any less but we are just interested.

    Thanx so much,

  6. DMatsuura says:

    I must say I am very proud of my tail. I have the perfect “otter”tail that any good Labrador should have. It’s fat and round and straight. You won’t find a better tail anywhere. Breezie, a CANIDAE dog @ CANIDAE