A wagging tail is commonly associated with a happy dog, but this isn’t always the case. Sure, a peppy tail wag can be a sign that your pup is excited to play; another tail wag could mean that your four-legged friend is ready to fight.
Similar to human facial expressions, your dog’s tail is a key indicator of how he’s feeling. Even if he can’t speak, Fido can still communicate through his body language. While we humans may not be fluent in “tail,” we can definitely learn about what our pups may be trying to tell us through their wagging tails.
Generally speaking, humans listen and communicate through our words. Dogs, on the other hand, watch and communicate through movements. According to Dr. Stanley Coren, professor emeritus in the department of psychology at the University of British Columbia, “tail wagging serves the same communication functions as a human smile, a polite greeting, or a nod of recognition.”
A dog’s vision isn’t his strongest sense. Instead of looking for colors and details, dogs will watch for movement—in this case, moving tails. Next time you see a pooch with a poofy tail, consider how that tail was made to be visible for the purpose of canine communication.
Dogs don’t wag their tails when they’re alone, which further proves that those bushy behinds are moving for a reason. It’s similar to how humans don’t talk to walls when no one is around… usually.
Types of Tail Wags
Okay, so we’ve established that your dog’s wagging tail means that he’s trying to tell you something… but what? The most general analysis is that he wants to interact. This could mean a lot of things ranging from playing and snuggling to fighting and biting.
There are three main things to look for in the tail when trying to assess your dog’s current mood: position, movement, and the side being favored.
The position of your dog’s tail could mean several different things:
- Happiness. A happy pup will keep his tail neutral or slightly raised, and may even add a brisk wag.
- Curiosity. A curious canine will typically hold his tail out in a straight, horizontal position.
- Submission/Fear. When the tail moves to a lower-than-neutral position, it means Fido is feeling submissive, but not threatening.
If he tucks his tail between his legs, it’s a sign that he’s feeling scared—either he’s asking not to get in trouble, or he wants another threatening dog to leave him alone. Because dogs rely heavily on their sense of smell, this lowered tail position can cover up some of the scent released from the anal glands, making them less noticeable to others.
- Aggression. A tail that has moved to a higher-than-neutral position may be a sign that your dog is feeling aggressive. Contrary to a dog who may want to cover his scent with his lowered tail, a dog with a raised tail releases more of his scent and establishes dominance.
- Negotiation. A dog who suddenly stops wagging his tail may be trying to diffuse a situation without aggression. This is common in dogs who don’t want to be pet by a stranger, or are feeling uncomfortable in their environment.
Alertness. A perked up tail—and ears—means that something has caught your dog’s attention, like a squirrel across the street or the sound of a leash being taken out of the closet in preparation for a walk. Basically, it’s your dog’s way of saying “I’m ready for whatever comes next!”
The speed of your dog’s wagging tail could mean different things depending on the position it’s paired with. For example, excitement is indicated by a fast wag. The more excited a dog becomes, the faster his tail will wag! Aggression, however, can look very similar. If a dog is holding his tail up high and wagging his tail quickly, it’s probably a good idea to take that as a warning in order to avoid getting bitten.
Along with a lowered tail, an anxious, insecure dog may also wag his tail. This type of wag is much more subdued, and not as obvious. Pet Honesty’s Hemp Calming Chews can help with pet anxiety, from travel anxiety to separation anxiety.
Right vs. Left
Like humans, the left and right sides of a dog’s brain are quite different. If Fido’s tail is wagging to the right, he’s more relaxed and happy. If he’s wagging to the left, he may be feeling more negative feelings like fear, stress, or anxiety.
Not All Tails Are Created Equal
Of course, there’s no “one size fits all” formula for analyzing a dog’s personality. Even more so, there’s no “one size fits all” tail out there for dogs.
Many dogs have tails that hang low when they’re in a neutral state; others have more naturally vertical tails. Some have tails that curl tightly and hardly wag; others may not have a tail at all! Don’t worry, tailless dogs can still communicate—they just need to rely more heavily on other forms of body language such as ear position, facial expressions, and stance.
Make sure you take your pet’s unique personality into consideration, along with what a neutral tail looks like for that specific breed, before using our guidelines as a strict handbook for understanding your pup’s emotions.