A wagging tail has long been associated with a friendly and excited dog, but the more research done into why dogs wag their tails, the more it’s become apparent that that isn’t always true. Dogs wag their tails in order to communicate – and not always positively!
Canine behavioral specialists are now in agreement that dogs use their tails as a communication tool, to convey their emotions to other dogs, humans and even other animals. They know this because dogs don’t wag their tails when they’re alone.
Some experts liken a wagging tail to the social cues that humans use to communicate their feelings to each other: smiling, for instance, or shaking our heads. Celebrity dog trainer Cesar Millan describes a dog’s tail as “one of the most expressive parts of its body” – just like our faces are in the human world.
In the canine world, however, the tail is one of the most prominent parts of the body, especially when it’s moving. Dogs are much more likely to notice and take account of another dog’s wagging tail than they are a small facial adjustment because, like all animals, their eyes are very sensitive to movement.
Different tail positions and different wag speeds indicate different emotions from your pup. Let’s find out more…
What Do Different Tail Positions Mean?
Most owners will be aware of the difference in their dog when they have their tail up prominently in the air, and when they have it skulking around beneath them. Exact tail positions will vary from breed to breed but its ‘natural’ position (i.e. the position you most often see your dog’s tail in) shows when your dog is at their most relaxed.
When your pup brings their tail beneath them, it shows that they may be feeling nervous or uncertain. Dogs have scent glands near their anus that will perpetually release their scent. By bringing their tail down low, they’re showing that they want to hold back and be undetected by trying to mask the release of their scent.
Owners often assume that their dog is showing confidence when they strut around with their tail held high, thus exposing their scent glands as much as possible, but experts think that a high tail is more likely to indicate curiosity or arousal. A tail held very high and tense in the air is indicating hostility and even aggression, so make sure to tread carefully if you see a dog like this.
What Do Different Wagging Directions and Speeds Mean?
It’s not only about the position of the tail that tells a story: you can also gauge your dog’s emotional state by observing how fast they wag their tail and in what direction they’re wagging.
Which way they wag their tail is determined by which side of their brain is currently in control. The left side of the brain promotes feelings of positivity, warmth and familiarity while the right is more commonly associated with uncertainty and fear. As the sides of the brain control the opposite side of the body, that means that a tail wagging to the right is usually positive, while one wagging to the left is more negative.
This video shows one owner put this wagging direction research to the test on his own dog to see if it stacks up against his video evidence:
Speed is also a factor in determining how your dog is feeling. Fast wagging usually indicates happiness and excitement, particularly if the tail is in the natural position and bending slightly to the right.
A slower wag, particularly if it is held either higher or lower than normal to the left, might be showing that your dog is feeling hostile or unsure of his surroundings. Regardless, care should be taken to relax dogs wagging their tails in this manner.
Tail Wags to be Aware of
Now that we know your dog isn’t necessarily happy and excited every time you spot them wagging your tail, it’s good to be aware of the handful of different tail wags that indicate something negative.
We’ve already discussed how a tail held almost vertical high above a dog’s back is indicating a degree of aggression. This doubles down if the tail is wagging only very slightly at its tip. Experts say this indicates “high arousal” and that care must be taken that the dog only engages with humans and other dogs in a controlled manner.
If your dog starts wagging their tail to the left and is keeping their tail low under their body, this suggests that they’ve come across something unknown that is giving them cause for concern. This could be something innocuous like a new person coming to visit, or perhaps they’ve spotted another animal in their territory. Again, take care to relax them as much as possible.
Other Ways to Understand Your Dog’s Emotional State
While the tail is certainly one of the more expressive parts of your dog’s body, it’s definitely not the only one, and there are a few other features you can check to get a good idea of how they are feeling.
Ears are another highly expressive part of the canine body, and can provide a good indication of your pup’s mental state. When they’re standing up to attention, it shows that your dog is alert and waiting for sounds, for instance, if they’re waiting for the doorbell to ring or for their owner to return home.
When their ears are pulled back against their head, particularly if they are also displaying another sign of aggression like a high tail or bared teeth, they are showing hostility and that they may become defensive.
A relaxed dog on the other hand, will have their mouths slightly open, their ears relaxed and their tail in the natural position. They probably won’t hold eye contact for too long, in order to indicate their submission to you as the Alpha of your family pack.
The best way to understand how your dog is feeling is simply to observe them and discover what body language is normal for them and what is out of the ordinary. Never take for granted that a wagging tail means a happy dog, and try to analyze the smaller movements to get a better picture of their emotions.