Understanding a dog’s body language separates good trainers from mediocre ones. A dog’s tail is one of the most expressive parts of his body and knowing how to read the tail is like looking through a window into his mind. Recently, I had an opportunity to observe a variety of tails when Maurice Lindley presented a pointing dog seminar at our kennel in Virginia. For three days, I watched Mo work a total of twenty dogs of different breeds, ages, sexes and levels of experience, and while their looks and actions were varied, their body language was the same. It was the universal language of pointing dogs.
On the first day, Mo evaluated the dogs by putting a pinch-collar and check-cord on them and walking them around the training field. Initially, some of the dogs tucked their tails as they walked indicating they were uncomfortable. As Mo began asking them to stop and stand still he stroked them a couple of times for praise before moving them on. After being stopped and stroked a couple of times, most of the tails began to come up. Mo explained, “When I first start walking a dog around on the check-cord and pinch-collar, I watch how he carries himself. A dog that isn't confident may tuck his tail until he figures out everything is OK. After I work with him a couple of times, the tail starts to come up at least to level with the back, which tells me the dog is becoming comfortable and ready to learn.”
Two of the dogs held their tails up in a more confident manner. As Mo began to walk them around the field and asked them to stop and stand still, both dogs stood still with all four feet planted on the ground except for their tails which were going around in little circles at ninety miles a minute. Mo explained, “Some dogs see everything that moves in the field. There is a lot of looking around and a fast circular tail action which tells me they are in a different world and not focused on me. These dogs take extra work to prepare for training. I’ll have to work hard to gain their attention and get them in a submissive state of mind so they accept me as their boss. A dog has to submit and buy into the training before I move him forward and this is before I get to bird work.”
On the second day, Mo planted quail and turned loose some of the older dogs, one at a time. Most of the dogs had tails that cracked with a happy animated action indicating they were thinking about birds and focused on hunting. One dog ran with a flat tail and acted like he was more interested in running than hunting or listening to his handler. Most of the dogs pointed with intensity but one dog was so jacked up and intense on point that his tail quivered with excitement. It came as no surprise that he charged in to flush the birds at the same time as the handler walked in. Another dog pointed staunchly but then his tail loosened up and began to flag in a slow back and forth action as the dog lost confidence that a bird was there. Once the handler asked him to move up, the dog went forward and pointed rock solid.
Reading your dog’s tail takes experience, but the more you pay attention to the tail, the better trainer you will become. As you go through the steadying process, your dog’s tail will tell you what is going on in his mind. You will start to see when your dog is ready to learn, when he’s happy, when he’s confused, when he’s not paying attention, and when he needs his confidence built up. And don’t just limit yourself to looking at your own dogs; go to a training day or a seminar or field trial and watch as many dogs as you can. I knew a National Champion that always ran with a high tail except when he was getting ready to knock birds. I used to chuckle when I was riding his brace and saw his tail drop because I knew exactly what he was about to do.