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One of the biggest misconceptions about dogs is that a wagging tail means the dog is friendly. While it certainly can mean this, there are a multitude of reasons dogs wag their tails.

At the most basic level, a wagging tail simply means the dog is ready or willing to interact. However, the type of interaction the dog is willing to have can be either positive or negative. This means you can’t just assume a dog is friendly because they’re wagging their tail.

There are many factors that need to be considered when assessing a dog’s tail wag, including a range of behavioral clues.   

What Does It Mean When Dogs Wag Their Tails?

Dogs use their tails as a form of communication to convey different emotions. The emotion being conveyed depends greatly on the tail position and the speed of the tail wag.

While most dogs’ tails hang down by their heels, there are some breeds whose natural tail position is upright, and some dogs don’t have tails at all. Fortunately, despite these breed differences, the tail movements are generally the same.

If a dog’s tail wag is thought of as their way of talking, then the positions of their tail can be thought of as words. The speed at which they’re wagging their tail can then be compared to how loud their voice is. The faster the tail wag, the louder the voice.

Here are several emotions a dog can convey through wagging their tail.

Happy/Friendly

When a dog is expressing happiness or friendliness,dog_tail_wagging_guide their tail is often in a neutral or slightly upright position and wagging at a moderate speed. Their tail is more relaxed than usual and often wagging more freely. It may even be wagging in a circular motion known as a “circle wag” or “helicopter tail.”

The more excited a dog is, the faster their tail typically wags. When dogs are really excited and friendly, they will sometimes also wag their hips or even their whole body, from their shoulders down to their tail.

Curious

When a dog is curious about something, such as when they find a new smell, their tail is typically held straight out behind them. This may or may not be associated with a tail wag—the tail is often held still. They will also be standing with an alert posture with their ears perked up.

Relaxed

A dog that is relaxed will stand with a relaxed posture and hold their tail in a neutral position without a tail wag. They will only start wagging their tail when an emotion is elicited.

Submissive/Fearful

Before describing a submissive or fearful tail wag, it’s important to note that dogs can express two types of fear: submissive fear and aggressive fear. It’s important to pick up on the cues a dog is giving to avoid heightening the situation.

Dogs that are submissive will often lower their tail or tuck it between their legs. This is typically done because the dog feels threatened and does not want to be harmed. A submissive tail position may or may not be associated with a tail wag.

If a dog is wagging their tail with it tucked tightly between their legs, this is typically indicative of extreme submission and fear. Many dogs show signs of submission when they’re scared.  

Using the analogy that the speed of a tail wag equals how loud you are, a submissive tail wag can be thought of as a dog saying, “Please don’t hurt me!” If a dog is exhibiting this sign, it’s best to avoid petting them so the situation doesn’t escalate, as submissive fear can progress to aggressive fear.

Aggressive/Threatening

There are many different types of canine aggression, such as fear aggression, leash aggression, territorial aggression, and so on. However, the signs of aggression are generally the same.

An aggressive dog will move their tail into a vertical position that often arches over their back. The tail will be very stiff and may or may not be wagging. If a dog is wagging their tail while in this position, it  means they are ready to fight. The faster the tail wag, the more agitated and aggressive the dog is likely to be.

Dogs showing signs of aggression should be left alone because it’s likely they will attempt to bite if a human or animal tries to interact with them. Other signs they may exhibit include but are not limited to:

  • Staring

  • Lip-licking

  • Standing in a stiff or frozen posture

  • Pinning or flattening their ears

  • Yawning

  • Growling

  • Lunging

Avoiding

When dogs don’t want to interact at all, they typically stop wagging their tail, and their whole body freezes. A more direct translation of this behavior is, “Please leave me alone.”

At this stage, it’s not associated with aggression; it’s just the dog’s way of requesting to be left alone. However, if the dog is approached, the avoidance signals may transition to submission or aggression depending on the dog. Heed the dog’s request and to not approach unless absolutely necessary.

Right-Sided vs. Left-Sided Tail Wagging

Scientists have also discovered there is a difference between a more right-sided versus left-sided tail wagging. Dogs conveying more positive emotions will wag their tail slightly to the right, while dogs that are conveying more negative emotions will wag their tail slightly to the left.

Dogs that are wagging their tail slightly to the right tend to be friendlier and exhibit approachable tendencies. Dogs that are wagging their tails slightly to the left tend to be more stressed or anxious and exhibit withdrawal tendencies.

How Do Dogs Without Tails Communicate?

Since dogs communicate so many different emotions with their tail, how do dogs without tails communicate? Just like humans, they use their voice and body language.

Here are just a few ways that dogs use their voice and body language to communicate:

  • Vocalization: barking, growling, whimpering, crying

  • Facial expressions: retracting lips, smiling, furrowing their brow, lip-licking

  • Eye position: staring or direct eye contact, shifting eyes, side eye (also known as whale eye)

  • Ear position: flattened, perked up, relaxed

  • Stance/Posture: hunched, cowering, play bowing, hackles raised, stiff/frozen

  • Movement: stiff/frozen, lying down, walking around, lunging, “tip-toeing”

Learning how to speak “tail wag” can be complicated, but the most important thing to remember is that just because a dog is wagging their tail, it does not necessarily mean they are friendly. Always ask the pet parent before approaching and petting their dog.

 

References

  1. Siniscalchi, Marcello, et al. Seeing left-or right-asymmetric tail wagging produces different emotional responses in dogs. Current Biology 2013 23(22): 2279-2282.

Featured Image: iStock.com/willowpix

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