Tail nubbins: the docked (also called bobbed) tails of certain breeds of dog. Usually done to meet breed standards or for “cosmetic” reasons. Controversial (obviously). Other animals, wild and domesticated – such as deer, elk, llamas and alpacas – have naturally short tails, which I also refer to as nubbins.
When I adopted Finn as a nine-month-old (or thereabouts) from an Idaho Border collie/Australian shepherd rescue in 2008, he became the first dog in my life with a docked tail. Finn is also my first herding-breed dog. And my first male dog. Lots of firsts.
I quickly learned that without a tail, Finn’s wiggly butt and smiling face communicate to me the same level of glee that a dog like Conall, with a happily-wagging tail, conveys. Other people, though, are less able to read Finn’s body language. The same is likely true for other dogs. That’s sad.
Conall takes advantage of Finn’s tail nubbin, gently nipping it when he wants to taunt Finn into a game of chase.
Finn is incredibly agile, and a great swimmer, so not having a tail doesn’t seem to have had any negative impacts on his life.
Still…I like seeing a tail on a dog.
But it was the nubbins of other animals – wildlife – that I was thinking about one recent morning as I was running trails with Conall. (Finn stayed home, nursing a sore shoulder sustained chasing a grouse down a long slope. Bad Finn.)
Wildlife Tail Nubbins
The particular trail Conall and I were running is one I discovered soon after I moved to Idaho. Starting on the side of a steep and forested hillside, it drops almost a thousand feet in elevation in the first 1.3 miles as it cuts diagonally across that steep face until it crosses a large creek, a sturdy stock bridge making the crossing possible. After that, one can go uphill or downhill for another couple miles in either direction. I usually go uphill, because the trail passes through sections of tall, dense trees and some stunning rock cliffs where aspens and wild dog roses grow until eventually coming to a clearing that in early summer is full of wildflowers. That rocky meadow offers views of a steep mountain face across a deep gorge created over eons by the fast-flowing creek that you can hear, a constant yet soothing background occasionally interrupted by the sound of a raven or raptor flying overhead. This is one of the places I’ve built a cairn memorializing the girls (Maia and Meadow, Alaskan Malamutes, like Conall), leaving some of their ashes here. They were with me when I first saw this beautiful place, and the three of us returned often, especially when the huckleberries were ripe. It’s peaceful, remote, and soothing.
“Hi girls,” I said on that recent morning as Conall and I visited their cairn. “I love you, I miss you, thank you,” I whispered, my usual mantra at every cairn. Conall and I continued up the trail, and on our return leg, passing the cairn again, I said goodbye to the girls with “We’ll be back!” And we will.
A bit later, as Conall and I climbed up that 1.3-mile section of trail toward the trailhead, I had a flashback of a surprising scene that unfolded while running this stretch with the girls way back, around 2006 or 2007. The memory put a smile on my face.
Maia, Meadow and I were just starting our early-morning run, descending that initial, mostly-steep section of trail. Suddenly both girls dashed ahead, then stopped, standing together at the edge of the trail, facing downhill. I hadn’t seen anything, but then, the trail is full of good-sized random rocks and I was watching where I was putting my feet. This particular stretch was open, between forested sections, with wildflowers and shrubs growing alongside the edges. As I caught up to the girls, both had noses in the foliage, near the ground, tails wagging. How odd! What had they found? My first thought was snake, and I was hoping it wouldn’t bite.
As I got close enough to investigate, Maia stepped back, but Meadow kept her nose in the shrubs. Crouching next to her, carefully moving aside some branches, I saw the white-spotted brown fur of the hind end of a fawn. Laying on the ground with its legs folded underneath, it was motionless except for a slight trembling. Meadow briefly looked at me, then returned to the fawn and oh-so-gently put the fawn’s tail nubbin in her mouth. Just a taste.
I called Meadow off – pretty easy, as she was always gentle with any wildlife she found – and quickly shooed the girls down the trail, a bit stunned by what I’d just witnessed. I’m sure the fawn was terrified; I apologized to it as I followed the girls, giving the fawn a chance to catch up with its mama. Most likely, mama heard us coming from above and dashed down slope across the trail to flee. Her fawn, though, wasn’t quick enough to avoid detection by the girls and instead did what fawns instinctively do: stayed motionless in the shrubs, hoping to go undetected.
Meadow, keenly aware and soft-mouthed, always gentle, simply wanted to taste the fawn without harming her, to learn more about the big, fast creatures she often saw in the forest or crossing our field. As I caught up with the girls, I was laughing, telling Meadow what a good girl she was for being so good to the fawn.
Not long after that fawn encounter, the girls and I were running a different trail in another section of the national forest. The trail eventually brought us alongside a small, alpine lake. I saw the tents of overnight campers up ahead, and even though it was fairly early in the morning, heard some voices and the sound of gas stoves running. I quickly put the girls on leash – a single leash with a coupler – so that they wouldn’t surprise anyone or beg for some of their breakfast. As we got closer to the tents, moving through thick foliage on either side of the single-track trail – so thick I had trouble seeing where to plant my feet, especially being pulled by the leash – the girls suddenly stopped. Across the trail, blocking it, stood a llama, calmly munching on foliage.
I called out, “Hello? Coming through with dogs!” My call roused a man who walked to the trail, greeted me and the girls, then said no problem, just go on by his llamas. He couldn’t have been more unconcerned.
This was a first for me and the girls, passing llamas on a trail, so I was wary. Will they kick? Spit? Pulling the girls close to me, I began negotiating a way around, off the narrow trail, stepping through the foliage past what turned out to be three grazing llamas. The first one, standing literally across the trail, wasn’t moving. It didn’t seem at all worried about us but still, I wanted to avoid dog-llama contact if possible. As we slowly moved around the butt-end of the llama, a real struggle for me with feet tangled in shrubs, pulling hard on the leash against the equally hard pulling of two 80-pound dogs sniffing the llamas’ scents for all they’re worth, I watched – horrified – as Meadow lifted her nose, opened her mouth, and gently took that llama’s tail nubbin into her mouth for a second or two before releasing it.
It seemed to happen in slow motion, disaster scenarios of dog-llama-camper conflicts flashing in my brain.
The llama didn’t flinch.
Once past all three llamas, I let the girls off their couplers and finally breathed again.
Letting Dogs Learn – Sampling Scat
After years of observation of all of my Malamutes in forests, allowed to do what they are naturally inclined to do, I have learned so much about the behaviors of these wolf-like dogs and wildlife. Dogs in general are different, more dog, when they’re able to interact with their environment without the restraints of leashes or overprotective humans. Based on my observations of my various Malamutes, I’ve developed several theories along the way to explain many of their behaviors.
Here’s just one theory, relevant to this post: when young, Malamutes spend lots of time sniffing wildlife footprints, stray bits of fur on shrubs, and scat. They also taste virtually everything within reach of their mouths (not unlike human toddlers), especially the scat of various wildlife such as coyote, fox, turkey, bear, deer, and elk. The sniffing and tasting help them better remember that animal’s scent the next time they see it or smell its scent floating in the air. The close-up sniffing and scat-tasting is their way of imprinting the essence of that animal on their brains, their way of learn about the various animals in their environment. They shouldn’t be discouraged from doing it.
In cities and suburbs, the animal scents to learn are mostly other dogs, cats, and squirrels, and maybe an occasional coyote or fox. Luckily, most dogs, even as puppies, are content to simply sniff the scat of other dogs. But a city dog gets pretty excited smelling the scat of a fox because it’s rare to him. In rural areas and particularly in the national forests, there’s a much wider variety of wildlife to learn about. Locally, that includes deer, elk, black bear, coyote, fox, gopher, turkey, grouse, squirrel and chipmunk. Lots to smell and taste in order to identify and distinguish. I think Meadow’s tasting the fawn’s tail nubbin was an act not too different – if just a tad more intimate – than one dog sniffing another’s pee, or their butt, to discern the health and status of the other dog. Meadow’s tail tasting was just another example, if an unusual one, of how dogs go about learning about wildlife if given the opportunity.
Of course, there’s a downside to all this sampling and tasting by young dogs. I spent a significant amount of money on de-worming medications for the first two years of Conall’s life because of all the scat he ate. How much coyote scat do you need to eat before you know by sight/smell that it comes from a coyote? I remember thinking. But I figured the meds were a small price to pay to let Conall be Conall, resulting in a dog whose knowledge of the wildlife around us is reliable. That knowledge helps keeps us safe in the forest. And now, at four, Conall no longer eats scat, unless it’s something really unusual.
Meadow’s tail tasting would not have been okay had she been a biter. Not every dog has a soft mouth. Meadow did, Conall does, Finn doesn’t, Maia didn’t. For example, running up a rocky, open trail one morning, Maia suddenly lunged into the short foliage alongside the trail. She’d found a fledgling bird, probably a grouse, and in catching it her bite was too hard; it was dead by the time I realized what had happened. She didn’t want to eat it, just catch it, but she used too much force.
Another time, on a different trail, the girls and I were running in our usual configuration: Maia in the lead, me in the middle (the “meat” in what I joked was a Malamute sandwich) with Meadow bringing up the rear. I could usually tell Meadow was right behind me by the sound of her breathing. When things got quiet, I would look over my shoulder to see what was holding her up. This day, I looked but didn’t immediately see Meadow so I stopped and turned around to see what she was up to. She dropped down several feet from the slope above the trail, landing back onto it, about ten feet away and facing me. With a look on her face that said, “Look what I’ve got!” she stood still except for a slight wag of her tail. Noticing she held something in her mouth, I said, “Meadow, drop it!” She did, and to my amazement, a pika fell to the ground at her feet. Recovering quickly, it scurried off the downhill side of the trail into some boulders. Meadow didn’t seem to mind that it got away; she didn’t try to catch it again. It was enough that I had noticed that she caught something wild. I praised her for dropping it, and told her I was proud of her (mostly for letting it go unharmed but I’m not sure she made the distinction). Meadow’s soft mouth left the pika uninjured and able to continue on with life with an amazing story of survival to tell.
For Meadow, a simple, educational taste was always enough.
Although, truth be told, both times Meadow took a taste of tail nubbins on the trail, I held my breath, unsure what she had in mind or how the other creature would react.
Photos: Cover photo of white-tailed fawns via Creative Commons. Unless otherwise noted in the caption, all photos are mine.