We tend to think that if a dog’s tail is down, then they’re feeling pretty down. If their tail’s wagging, they must be happy, and the faster the wag - the happier the dog, right? Well, not necessarily. Tail signs are actually pretty complex and just like us humans, dogs have all kinds of emotions, not just happy and sad!
Like a picture, a wag paints a million words.
Variables such as how high the dog carries his tail, how quickly the dog is moving his tail, and even whether the tail is being wagged more to the left or right side of the body can convey a lot of information about how the dog is feeling, their mood, and even their intentions.
While a dog's message can only be fully understood by looking at their entire body, the tail is still a huge part of their body language and can offer some significant clues to how they are feeling.
Dogs are individuals, and so have their own unique tail-wagging language. Like any other language, tail wags have a vocabulary and grammar that needs to be understood. They’re communication devices, and with some careful observation, they’ll tell you a little bit about how a dog is feeling.
In this blog, we will provide you with insight inside a canine’s mind and help you to understand what your best friend is really trying to tell you.
The Tale of The Tail
It turns out that there are several good reasons why tails are a useful piece of apparatus for our dogs. Tails originally evolved to help dogs stay balanced. They serve as a counterweight to the front part of the body, ensuring that they don’t spin off course or tumble around.
Tails also spread scents, are used as rudders when swimming and help dogs communicate, only with us, but also with other dogs too.
Did you know: Puppies don’t wag their tails until they are about 30-50 days old. That’s because this age is the time the littermates start playing and interacting with each other, learning how to communicate between themselves and every other dog they’ll meet as adults!
Before You Interpret Tail Signals
It’s always important to consider context and a dog’s breed and individual character when interpreting their tell-tail signals. The majority of dogs have tails that hang down near their heels when they are relaxed. However, some dogs, such as Greyhounds and Whippets, curl their tails under their bellies. Others, such as Beagles, hold their tails more vertically and some dogs, like pugs, have tails that coil tightly against the body and don’t really wag at all.
A truncated tail may make it more difficult for dogs to communicate with their owners and with other dogs. Your ability to spot the dog’s signal will be reduced. However, despite their limitations, tailless dogs and dogs with short or stubby tails still know how to communicate!
These dogs mimic the same signals as those with long tails but may not be able to exaggerate this expression the same. A key component to reading tails that are stubby or curly is to look at the base of the tail. Since the tail is attached to the spine, any movement of the tail starts at the base, so if you look at the base of the tail, you can see when a stubby tail is raised straight up, in the air, or tucked down.
These types of dogs approach others cautiously to avoid miscommunication. They also depend on other aspects of body language such as ear position, facial expression, and stance to communicate their intentions.
The tail's position, specifically the height at which it is held, can be considered a sort of emotional meter.
High Straight Tail
A high tail indicates that they are watching and ready to confront whatever caught their attention. This tail posture signals that your dog is feeling confident, but it may mean that they’re considering showing someone that they are the alpha. High tails can also show excitement.
But if the high stiff tail is in combination with any teeth, an open mouth and a wrinkled nose, it’s a cue to back off.
Tail Sticking out Horizontally
This ‘neutral’ posture suggests that the dog is curious and exploring something.
A low tail indicates submission or that they are concerned. This tail position reduces the amount of scent emitted from the anal glands and allows the dog to remain in the background or fly under the radar. It is best to give a dog with a low tail position some space.
Tails Tucked Between Legs
This signifies uncertainty and vulnerability. Your dog may be wary or anxious. They might also display this behavior if they have been scolded and are sad or scared. Give your dog lots of love, but be sure to approach them calmly with caution, as nerves can sometimes escalate to defensive aggression.
Did you know: the tail is the most expressive part of the canine body!
Movements give additional meaning to the signals. The speed of the wag and the breadth of each tail sweep reveals a lot about your dog's emotional state.
Fast Sweeping Wag
Typically, a fast wag is a good sign that a dog is friendly and wants to interact. A happy, relaxed dog holds his tail in a neutral or slightly raised position and adds a sweeping tail wag that moves from side to side. This gesture is usually accompanied by lots of jumping, and bright eyes.
Slow Short Wags
Slow wagging can be an indicator that a dog is wary and nervous. An insecure tail wag is usually held low and may tick back and forth. Other signs of anxiety include avoiding eye contact, refusing food or ignoring what's happening around them.
Give your dog some reassurance to help their self-esteem, and maybe separate them from any other dogs until their tail starts wagging in earnest. PET CARE Sciences Calming Aid chews are ideal for dogs suffering with anxiety.
Did you know: Research has shown that when a dog is wagging his tail to the right, he's more relaxed. Whereas a wag to the left is exhibited when facing something unfamiliar!
You will soon be fluent in wag!
In time, you will be able to read the strange shared mammalian language and see comparisons with our own. Even if humans don’t always get it, dogs totally understand other dogs’ tail signals!