What Is My Dog’s Wagging Tail Saying?

By Linda Cole

Understanding a dog’s body language can sometimes be like trying to learn a foreign language. Obvious signs are easy to recognize, and knowing your pet as an individual helps you understand how he might react in different situations. Reading a dog’s body language can also give you insight into how an unfamiliar canine might react. The tail is an important communication tool that reveals his emotions. How he wags his tail matters, and scientists have found a subtle clue in a dog’s tail wag that tells you if he’s feeling anxious or happy.

Dogs use their tail much the same way we use a smile when greeting someone. It’s a polite way of expressing acknowledgment. A smile, however, doesn’t always mean you’re happy to see someone. Subtle changes in our smile can show trustworthiness, cover up embarrassment or negative feelings or hide a lie. Humans can flash fake smiles too, but canines don’t hide their feelings. What you see is what you get when it comes to their mood. Dogs give an honest response to a situation, to other animals and to us.

Most dog owners know just by looking at their dog’s tail if he’s feeling happy, confident, upset or unwell. You aren’t going to be fooled by a fake tail wag. Dogs use the wag like we use a smile – as a social signal. The difference is that humans will sometimes smile when they’re alone (in response to a good movie, book or memory, etc.) but tail wags are reserved for us, other animals or something that piques their curiosity, such as you standing there with a bag of CANIDAE treats in your hand.

The height of the tail tells you his emotional state of mind. A relaxed dog holds his tail in his natural position, which can be curled over the back, high or low depending on his breed. Alertness or interest is conveyed with a motionless tail held higher than normal. If he’s standing his ground or threatening, his tail will be held high with a stiff wag. When the tail sinks lower, your dog is showing submission, is worried or not feeling well. The tail tucked between the legs is showing fear.

Add in the movement of the tail, and you get more information. A friendly greeting has a wide wag, and when the tail is wagging the dog he’s extremely happy. The slow wag is a guarded signal and can indicate he’s feeling insecure. A vibrating tail moves very fast and means the dog is getting ready to flee or fight, and how high or low it’s held will indicate his intentions.

The subtle part of a tail wag was discovered in a recent study that shows there’s an emotional right/left component to the message being sent by a dog. Researchers tested 30 family pets, all mixed breeds. Each dog was put into a cage with cameras to precisely track the angle of the wag. They were shown their owner, an unfamiliar person, a friendly cat and a large, unfamiliar dog.

Their owners were greeted with eager wags that veered to the right side of their body. The unfamiliar person was also to the right, but with a more moderate angle, and seeing the cat caused the tail to go right, but was more subtle than the other two. Seeing the unfamiliar dog caused the tail to go to the left.

According to the researchers, if the dog was feeling positive, curious or interested, he wagged his tail slightly towards the right. Wagging to the left shows negative feelings like caution, concern or apprehension. Looking at your dog from the front, the subtle positive wag is to your left.

A corresponding study tested dogs to see if they can pick up the subtle movement of the tail and understand the message being sent. Researchers fitted 43 dogs with special vests to monitor their heart rate. They created images of dogs that put the focus directly on the wagging tail. Some of the dogs watched a video of the silhouette of a dog, and the other canines watched a video with the image of a real dog that was manipulated to show only the moving tail. In both videos, if the dog wagged his tail to the right, the canines watching remained calm and relaxed, but when the tail wagged to the left, the monitors recorded an increased heart rate along with a concerned and anxious look.

So  the next time you want to see if your dog is feeling positive or negative, watch his tail for a subtle movement towards the right or left side of his body. When you put it in context with the rest of his body language, you can read him like a book.

Top photo by It’sGreg
Middle photo by Evan P. Cordes
Bottom photo by Sam Lavy

Read more articles by Linda Cole

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