The first thing people think of when a dog wags its tail is that he is happy. But, if you keep a close eye on your pooch you will find that tail wagging is done in various situations, and in various different ways, which would infer there are a variety of reasons for the wag of a tail.
For instance, when I’m petting my dog, and then my husband comes around, my dog is notorious for turning toward him (rear end toward me), and wagging his tail vigorously while swatting my face with it in the process. So offensive! Ok, all joking aside (he really does do this though…all the time!), let’s get down to the true reasons behind why a dog wags his tail and what it means.
While I’m at it, I may as well first say, that in the example above, that vigorous tail wagging was a sign of excitement (if you hadn’t guessed). 🙂
There are all kinds of body language that dogs use to communicate, and the position the tail is held, as well as the way in which it is wagged, is certainly one of them. When a dog is relaxed his tail will fall into what is a normal position for the dog. Each breed of dog has its own natural position for the tail which you can figure out by observing your dog when in a relaxed state.
A Common “Tail” Myth
A common myth is that when a dog wags its tail it means he is feeling happy and friendly. This can prove to be a dangerous belief because a dog can be wagging its tail but not be feeling friendly or happy at all. This is the kind of misinterpretation that can cause a person to approach the wrong dog, at the wrong time, and end up getting bit.
When a dog is wagging its tail it’s best to look not only at the tail, but at the dog as a whole. Does his body look tense? Are his ears pinned back, or standing erect? Are his pupils dilated? These can indicate that you should back off! In contrast, if the dog appears to be relaxed and natural, that wagging tail can mean all good intentions.
Let’s take a closer look at the details…
Dogs are able to pick up on the emotional state of other dogs partly through the motion of the tail. Not so simple for us humans. Lucky for us, lab experiments have been done on dogs that can assist us in correctly interpreting tail-wagging communication…sort of. I say “sort of” only because, while we now know that the below is true, it may still be a bit difficult for the average person to spot the difference…
- Dogs get anxious when they see another dog wagging its tail to the left side.
- Dogs stay relaxed when they see another dog wagging its tail to the right side.
What does this mean for us? Well, we now know that tail wagging is a way in which we can determine a dog’s emotions. If you see a dog wagging its tail to the right side, you can feel more confident that he is feeling relaxed and friendly vs a dog that is wagging its tail to the left side which may mean he doesn’t want to be bothered.
The tail wag to the left vs the right is determined when standing behind a dog facing the same direction that they are. This video will help you decipher the difference.
A Few More Interpretations of the Tail Wag
- A wag that goes around in a full circle is an indicator that a dog is extremely happy to see you.
- A wag that makes the whole body wiggle this way and that is an indicator of a happy, excited dog.
- A wag that is stiff, with the tail held high, and accompanied by a stiff body is an indicator of a dog that does not want to be approached.
- A wag that is slow, and accompanied by a stiff body, is also an indicator that a dog does not want to be bothered.
- A wag that is loose and calm, with the tail dropped just below the dog’s back is a friendly, relaxed dog.
- A wag performed with just the end of the tail while tucked between the legs, or very low, is a nervous or uncertain dog that would prefer his space not be invaded.
As humans we are used to taking our cues about other humans emotions through their body language and speech. Our dogs may not have the ability to speak, but they can tell us an awful lot through their body language. What have you noticed about your dog’s body language?