The concepts of evolution and the survival of the fittest need to be considered when studying anatomy. Last month I discussed dewclaws and strongly suggested that the first digits, or dewclaws on the dog’s front legs have a very valuable purpose. There is an evolutionary aspect to the dog’s first digits, they have intrinsic structure and strength, the dog uses them and as such they must be central to the dog’s fundamental needs otherwise they would become of little or no use just as the dewclaws of the rear legs have become defunct.
So what has this to do with the tail? The tail is another appendage which is not very understood, there is a limited understanding of the purpose of the tail in relation to the dog’s movement and overall balance. I think most people would agree that the tail acts as a rudder which steers and balances the dog during all forms of movement. It is clear to see that during running movement the dog moves the tail for stability and counterbalance when turning, enabling faster and tighter turns.
Perhaps the tail has additional fundamental functions. On our DVD Tongue to Tail – The Integrated Movement of the Dog, we look minutely at how the whole of the dog’s body, from the tongue to the tail, is involved in balance and movement. We can clearly see how the dog moves their tail to balance, but we were surprised to see what happens when the dog stops. Stopping suddenly is as important as acceleration; not only sudden stopping but stopping and then remaining balanced to facilitate the next manoeuvre.
In the footage on the DVD it is evident that the tail acts in a similar way to a parachute, easing the stop and potentially taking the compressional pressure off the pelvic region. The tail is actually extended high into the air for a split second. This occurs when the dog wishes to brake suddenly or make a fast change of direction. The hind legs are also a powerful part of the dogs’ braking system but the tail also seems to have a full role in the stopping mechanism.
Perhaps the tail has additional fundamental functions?
So the tail seems like it is vital for movement and braking, but what happens if the function of the tail is impeded? How could its function be obstructed and what would it look like? For the answer to this we need to go back to anatomy.
The tail is a continuum of the vertebrae so it would stand to reason that if the vertebrae are compromised, especially the lower back or lumbar region, this would affect the action and potentially the ‘look’ of the tail in relation to its position or set. You can empathise with a painful or uncomfortable tail if you yourself have a compromised lower back. Think of your tail, and then of a lever (the tail) being wrenched upwards or indeed side to side – that would definitely have a knock on effect through your back, and it might make you less inclined to use it as we all try to avoid pain if possible! Muscles can and do affect the integrity of the vertebrae and therefore it follows that the tails’ action, look and function will be affected to some degree when the lumbar and pelvis are not working as they should.
How else can the tail be affected? The tail joins the sacrum (vertebrae) that joins to the top side of the pelvis (see picture left). The pelvis is a dynamic component of the dog’s physical makeup; dynamic meaning that the pelvis is moving all the time when the dog moves. It freely rocks from side to side and tilts up and down rather like a board on a ball with much more movement than you may imagine. It also has many attachment points involving long muscles that span from the pelvis and extend to the hind legs and also from the pelvis to the vertebrae (the long muscles are involved in movement). These long muscles use the pelvis for leverage. If they are pulling in an uneven manner because the dog is lame, just unbalanced or the muscles have shortened through injury then the whole of the pelvic region will lose some of its integrity and its ability to function normally. This then has an effect, of varying degrees, on the tail which may be visible in its carriage or how the dog uses it.
Within the conformation show arena tail carriage is of great importance and can be an important part of the breed Standards. Could a dog’s tail carriage be too high, carried over the back or the tail set is incorrect because of an extrinsic reason, ie tight muscles that attach to the pelvis?
I see many dogs that have suffered (and I mean suffered) from ‘drop tail/wet tail’ mainly post swimming, although it can occur at any time. This seems to me to be like a cramp of the muscles that support and give movement to the tail. In all of these cases that I have seen I have also found that the dog has got a muscular stability problem within their pelvis, and these same muscles lie over and very close to the caudal muscles, which are the muscles which operate the tail. When I’ve treated these lumbar/pelvic muscles the dog seems to be able to swim as regularly without a reoccurrence.
In understanding the uses of the tail and looking again at anatomy it’s interesting that where the tail arises is a maze of nerves and a very condensed area of muscles that support and move both the pelvis and the hind limbs, and nerves and blood supply for the whole area are intertwined with the muscles of the base of the tail. Perhaps unbalanced muscles in this region can have an even bigger effect on the dog’s balance and movement because that will also influence the position and function of the tail, with all of these implications!
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