chase one's tail. var. tail chasing. To run in circles, to chase one's own shadow: a pointless pursuit of a nonexistent object, probably a glimpse of one's self or one's imagination.
As a metaphor, to chase one's tail is to travel in circles, to follow one's self instead of the thing being tracked, as when Pooh and Piglet track themselves in the snow, thinking they are following a Woozle. It can speak of futility or a failure to see crucial evidence. When employed thoughtfully, it suggests that the one doing the chasing cannot distinguish self from others, and is unaware that the very action that is of interest is his own doing.
Most times, however, the term is invoked to dismiss the significance of an event. When George W. Bush’s ratings fell in polls, Nicolle Devenish, then White House communications director, “dismissed the significance…saying Mr. Bush believes that following polls is equivalent to a dog chasing its tail.”
Sometimes the metaphor is used to convey the Sisyphean nature of a pursuit in which steps forward take you no closer to your destination. Marvin Singer, jailed for failure pay spousal support which he says he cannot afford, describes his plight this way: “Every time we go to court, the meter is running and I’m paying, I’m like a dog chasing his own tail.”
Tail chasing is a common play behavior in puppies and some kittens. The phenomenon is more common among some breeds of adult dogs than in others. It is pathological when the behavior becomes so obsessive that a dog injures itself or is too distracted to live a functional life. Such pathological whirling can be the result of psychological or medical (specifically neurological) conditions. It’s likely that there is something about a dog's perceptual system that finds the movement of its own tail to be a trigger for response. It is as if the quality of this visual experience is closely related to ones requiring action. Shadows or flies can trigger comparable responses.
1. Milne, A.A. 1954. Winnie-the-Pooh. New York: E.P. Dutton.
2. Toner, Robin, and Marjorie Connelly. 2005. Bush's Support on Major Issues Tumbles in Poll. New York Times, Jun 17. Accessed Jan 3 2008 from http:// www.nytimes.com/ 2005 /06/ 17/ politics/ 17poll.html.
Vitello, Paul. 2006. Suozzi's Run: Bold, Energetic, but Still Stuck around 12%. New York Times, May 21. Accessed Jan 4 2008 from http:// www.nytimes.com/ 2006/ 05/ 21/ nyregion/ 21suozzi.html.
Stookey, Joseph M., and Jon Watts. 2001. Tail Chasing in Dogs.Applied Ethology. Department of Herd Medicine and Theriogenology. Western College of Veterinary Medicine. University of Saskatchewan. Accessed Aug 26 2001 from http:// www .usask.ca/wcvm/ herdmed/ applied-ethology/ behaviourproblems/ tailchase.html.
| The tendency is surely the result of neoteny in dogs. That is to say that even as full adults dogs, like most domestic animals, retain the characteristics of the young of the “wild” species from which they derive, in this case, wolves. In comparison with mature wolves, full grown dogs have shorter snouts and larger eyes, looking much like wolf pups. Behavior is also more like that of wolf pups: dogs remain playful throughout their lives and their development, especially predatory behavior, is arrested in various ways. Tail chasing is triggered by latent predatory responses that remain undeveloped.
Such cyclic behavior is not always a source of frustration. Ouroboros, the serpent which eats its own tail, is an ancient symbol in the West, with counterparts in the East and indigenous traditions. It is a reference to the cycles of nature or to infinity. In contemporary Anglo-American society, with our emphasis on and desire for production and progress, tail chasing seems pointless. Yet, is not the cyclic nature of existence very much like chasing our tails? Fall is followed by Winter, which is in turn followed by... ad infinitum. And while we may seek to grow in wisdom, perhaps the knowledge that can be uncovered in this existence is actually very limited. Surely those in the Auruvedic tradition would agree.
McCoy, Chris. 2000. Ouroboros.Dragon Spirit Magazine. Accessed
Sep 5 2001 from http:// www.dragon.org/ chris/ ouroboros.html and
Wayne. 2000. Ouroboros.Abacus. Accessed Sep 5 2001 from http:// www.best.com /~abacus/oro/ ouroboros.htm.
|About the illustrations: I have long been fascinated by the images of the serpent swallowing its own tail, especially since the time I entered college and the institutional seal included a very happy looking snake in this pose.
Figure 1 is more recent, probably from late Medieval Europe. While the serpent does not look especially happy here, the overall effect is one of joy. Courtesy of Dover Press.
Figure 3 is among the more commonly presented images of ouroboros. This snake also looks happy and is Egyptian in origin. It is considered relatively ancient. Public Domain
Figure 2 on the other hand, is probably more useful. It depicts a dog chasing its own tail. Photo by Jeremiah Owyang, taken on July 8, 2007.