By Daryl Conner
In a book I used to read to my wee daughter was a fox pup named Sammy who had difficulty getting to sleep. He asked his mama for a night light, for a bedtime story, for a glass of water. At one point he called to his patient mother, “My tail is being troublesome!”
The illustration showed a darling little fox tucked into bed, with his tail waving wildly outside the covers. It seems that, to some groomers, tails are indeed troublesome. But they don’t need to be.
Tails can be docked or natural. And to make matters more complicated, they can either be docked correctly so that they nicely balance the dog, or too long or short, creating challenges for groomers. Let’s look at the common types of tails we encounter in both pure and mixed breed dogs.
Most traditional poodle styles include a shaved band on the base of the tail, and then a full pom–pom is scissored with the remaining hair. Many groomers find placing the shaved band to be a challenge.
Here is a wonderful tip for where to set the band: Lower the tail so it is lying flat down against the body. Holding your comb horizontally, place the spine of the comb so it lies at the lower edge of the dog’s anus. Where the spine of the comb touches the lowered tail is approximately where you set the clipper line of the band, and then work it up towards the base of the tail where it joins the body.
This results in a much smaller band than many groomers are used to. This narrower band will help you shape a proper pom–pom and make the groom look far more harmonious with the overall body shape than if you leave a wider band. If the band is too wide, you end up with the dreaded “palm tree” tail; a large shaved space topped by a funny little fringe.
If you find you have been leaving your bands too long, merely tell the pets’ owners you are going to update the style and it will take a few grooms to get it where it should be. Then you can set the band properly, shorten the hair on the pom–pom quite a bit and let the tail hair grow in. You will be pleasantly surprised at how changing the band placement can update the look of the overall finished style.
If the poodle’s tail has been left undocked or the dock is long, your pom–pom will be oblong. But it can still look nice and balanced. If the tail has been docked too short, it can be a real challenge to shave any sort of band at all. On some tightly cropped tails I have resorted to using scissors to trim just the suggestion of an indentation rather than shaving a band, then let the tail hair grow a bit so I can scissor a soft puff that resembles a pom–pom.
Many mixed breeds as well as pure bred dogs such as Shih Tzu, Bichons and lots more have plumed tails that arch up over the back and boast long hair that drapes beautifully, if properly cared for. In the pet breeds, most groomers see these tails often quite matted. But due to the slightly coarser texture of the tail hair, they usually can be dematted so that enough coat is saved to create a pleasing appearance.
In dogs prone to matting, I always use a dematting tool to remove as much dead coat as possible. This helps reducing matting in the weeks between grooming visits. Using a high–quality conditioner and dematting spray helps a lot on these tails. Once any tangles are removed, comb all the hair so it hangs evenly. Then, slide your hand from the base of the tail towards the tip. Protecting the bone tip with your hand, use curved shears or chunkers to remove excess length and dead ends, shaping an attractive and neat line. Next, comb the tail again and hold it up in its natural position and use thinners or chunkers to tidy up any straggling hairs to create a lovely and natural look.
Portuguese Water Dogs and the more unusual Löwchen sport lion tails, but this style can also be great on many mixed breeds that carry their tails up over their backs. The rule of thumb is that two–thirds of the tail, starting at the base, is trimmed closely, with a longer plume of hair left at the end. If you arch the tail over the dog’s back, the spot where the tail begins to bend is approximately where the plume should begin.
Hairless Chinese Crested have a similar tail, but two–thirds of the tail is plume and one–third is naturally bare or clipped closely.
Setters and spaniels that are un–docked have tails referred to as flag tails. Often there is a suggestion of shorter hair at the base, the topcoat blending with the length of hair on the animal’s rump, and the underside of the tail shorter for an inch or so to keep things tidy. After that little gap, the hair is longest close to the rump and shorter at the tip.
An easy way to make a flag tail tidy is to brush and comb all the hair smooth, then wrap your fingers around the base of the tail and slide your hand to the tip, gathering up the hair. Use curved shears, chunkers or thinners to trim the desired amount off, then re–comb so the hair lies naturally and tidy up any straggly bits.
Look at a photo of a beautifully groomed Scottish or West Highland White Terrier and you will see good examples of how a carrot tail should look. Normally the underside is stripped, clipped or scissored close to the skin, and the sides and top are balanced to blend with the body coat, leaving the tail to appear as a smooth continuation of the body. The tail will appear to be wider at the base, tapering tighter towards the tip to follow the structure of the bone. Some groomers leave flags or even (gasp!) pom–poms on terrier tails, ruining the look of an otherwise proper pattern.
If you have any doubts as to how a certain breed’s tail should appear, scan your favorite grooming guide or look that breed up somewhere like on the American Kennel Club website, where you can find a good written description of how each part of that breed should look, as well as excellent photographs.
As with all grooming, excellent prep work is key to achieving good results in your finished tails, as well. Don’t be like Sammy the fox pup, having trouble with tails. Do a little homework and send the pets you groom home wagging well–groomed tails behind them. ✂️