It may seem like a dog’s wagging tail is conveying something very simple, such as happiness. However, the language that tail is communicating and the way the dog is using his tail, may be telling you more than you realize. Tail wagging is another way your dog communicates with you; he uses this particular type of body language to convey specific feelings which mean much more than just “I am happy.”
A wagging tail has many meanings, ranging from happiness and excitement to fear, nervousness, a friendly greeting, or simply an acknowledgement that the dog knows you or accepts you. The position of a dog’s tail – when they are wagging it or it is stationary, or if they are reacting to something such as praise or verbal scolding – gives you information on what they are feeling and communicating.
High vs. Low
The position of a dog’s tail can carry meaning with it as much as the actual motion does. A high wag is exuberant and excited in some way. A low wag may be a more subdued and unsure way your dog shows pleasure, or even pain. A wag in the middle is more relaxed. Think about a dog who has done something naughty or is fearful and tucks their tail between their back legs. This is a submissive or fearful gesture. It can also mean your dog is not feeling well.
Wagging tails are held in different positions for different reasons. For example, a wagging tail held high may be a sign of anger or aggression. Conversely, a low held wagging tail is a much more submissive gesture.
Although dogs do not speak the way humans do, they have no problem expressing their feelings and needs in other ways. Their emotions are simpler than those of their human companions. Understanding them is a matter of paying attention, training and getting to know your dog in order to comprehend what they are trying to tell us with any particular action or behavior.
Much of a dog’s behavior is based on instinct and not necessarily feeling in the way we think of it as humans. Ask anyone who loves a dog though, and they can tell you instances of their dog exhibiting what seems like almost human behavior and definite emotion, but it is different than ours. Dogs are very good communicators when we take the time to understand what they are saying to us in their own way.
Body language is a more subtle way of communicating, but everything from the position of your dog’s ears, what they are doing with their tail, their body stance, or their eyes can relay feeling and need depending on what they are doing.
A frightened dog or one who has done something they know is wrong may tuck their tail between their legs in submission. An angry dog might put his ears back and exhibit an in-your-face offensive stance. A relaxed, happy, secure or submissive dog may roll on his back exposing his belly to you. A hungry dog might pace back and forth, or anxiously stand or sit near their bowl. Eye contact or lack of it can be a challenge or sign of submission or respect. A dog’s body language communicates a great deal of what they are feeling. Read More »
Since dogs cannot communicate the way humans do, they let us know how they are feeling through body language and their own style of vocalizations. If you learn the cues your dog gives, behavior during situations they see as fearful or threatening may be more easily understood and dealt with.
Barking or Whimpering
Excessive barking or constant whimpering is one way a dog shows fear. What may be misconstrued as the dog misbehaving may merely be an expression of fear at the appearance of a stranger, being in new surroundings, experiencing pain or an injury, or the presence of something new and unknown in their territory. If you help your dog understand that whatever is upsetting them is something you can assist them with, your dog will calm down. Barking and whimpering are not just signs of a dog being territorial, angry or even excited and happy. They may be feeling fearful, and looking to you for reassurance and a solution.
Running Around or Pacing
If you have ever felt anxious about something in your own life, and pacing or walking around seemed to help release some of the tension caused by that fear, that is how a dog feels too. Dogs worry in their own way when they are scared or unsure of a situation. When your dog won’t sit still or paces nervously, pay attention. They may be telling you they are frightened about something. Working together, you can help your four legged companion through the situation.
Children are curious and fascinated with everything. Unless they have a fear of dogs, naturally they are curious about them as well. They are likely to simply walk up to a dog that is wandering around or being walked by a human companion, without understanding that there are etiquette and safety issues involved when approaching an unknown dog. It’s important to teach children the ins and outs of their own behavior around unknown dogs, as well as how to interact with both the dogs and dog owners.
Approach or Not Approach?
Unless an adult is accompanying a young child, it is a good idea to teach kids not to approach a dog out for a walk with its human without knowing if they should or not. So they won’t be tempted if they come across a dog when you are not around, make sure your child understands not to approach a dog that is running around loose unless they know the dog and the dog knows them. They won’t be bringing home any stray dogs that way either. Sure, the pull is powerful when a child sees a cute dog that they want to meet or play with, but for safety’s sake it is best to teach them not to approach strange dogs on their own, or as an alternative to find an adult they know who will help them.
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.
Most dog owners are familiar with the play bow dogs use to invite another dog or people to play with them. But that’s not the only signal a playful dog uses to communicate what they want. As important as it is to understand a dog’s body language to prevent problems before they start, it’s just as important to understand when your dog is playing and just wants to have some fun. A stare isn’t always meant to intimidate.
For those who may not know what a play bow is, it’s the body language dogs use to communicate to other dogs and us they aren’t a threat. Their intentions are friendly, and they are inviting us to play. The dog making the invitation puts his front legs out in front of him as if he’s getting ready to lie down, but his butt stays up in the air. His tail is held above him in a relaxed wave, and you can almost see a smile spreading across his face. Everything about his demeanor is puppy-like, happy and friendly.
Watching dogs play is an interesting expression of socialization. Playful canines love to engage in bumps, body checks, rushing at each other, growling, barking, staring and wrestling. It can appear at times like an all out battle is close at hand. This can happen if one dog has had enough play or feels a bit too intimidated by a more aggressive playing dog. Paying attention to each dog’s body language can help you determine if it’s all just play or if you need to step in and stop the game before it gets out of hand. Read More »
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