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.
Dogs show us affection in many different ways. Most pet owners recognize their own pet’s love in his body language, and some dogs have unique ways of showing us how important we are to them. One way my Border Collie mix, Keikei, shows her affection is by holding her paw up so we can “hold hands.” There are, however, some common ways dogs show their love.
Some canines give kisses more readily than others, and licking is a common way for them to show their love. Your dog may lick your legs, feet, hands, arms or face. If you have a dog that shows affection by licking your hands, make sure to wash them before preparing or eating food. Don’t allow your pet to lick open wounds you may have. A doggy kiss is fine, but his tongue can transmit bacteria to your hands or an open sore.
The Pied Piper Effect
One sure sign of love is wanting to keep you in sight at all times. Sure, your dog may follow you to the kitchen just in case there’s something in it for him, but he’s more likely following you because he cares. Dogs have an innate protective nature when it comes to pack members, and to our canine friends we are a member of their pack. His natural desire is to follow you and wherever you lead – he will follow. But tagging along because he wants to be near you can also be a sign of separation anxiety. If you notice increased levels of stress before you leave and when he’s home alone, talk to your vet for advice on how to help ease his anxiety. A checkup can rule out any medical issues that could be causing him stress.
You know when your dog is happy by the way he excitedly wags his tail. For some dogs, all you have to do to get their tails whipping back and forth is to look at them. My dogs wag their tail a mile a minute when I talk to them and when we’re playing. A dog’s tail is one way they communicate with us. You wouldn’t think a happy, excited tail could be a problem for your dog, but it can. A medical condition called Happy Tail syndrome can cause serious injury to your dog’s tail.
What is Happy Tail Syndrome?
When a dog is excited and wags his tail rapidly, like most dogs are prone to do when happy, they can injure their tail knocking it against a hard surface like a table leg or wall. Happy tail syndrome is also known as kennel tail, splitting tail and bleeding tail. A dog can whack his tail hard enough on a hard surface that it causes a small cut or split on the tip of his tail. The cut tends to bleed a lot and as he continues to wag his tail, blood is splattered around the area.
It may not sound like a serious condition, but because it’s on the tip of his tail, it doesn’t heal fast, it can be hard to stop the bleeding, and it can be recurring if the dog wags his tail against a hard surface. Infection is a concern; antibiotics should be given to help prevent infection, and pain medication may need to be prescribed. In a worst case scenario, a portion of the tail may be amputated.
We all know what a dog’s tail looks like. We know the tail starts at the end of a dog’s vertebral column and extends beyond his body. We know a dog wags his tail when he’s happy. Other than that, we’ve probably never thought much about it.
There are some types of dogs that are born without a prolonged tail, and there are dogs whose tails have been altered. Some herding and working dog breeds have their tails docked short when they are young; a long tail can be a disadvantage to a working dog because it can interfere with his specific responsibilities and duties. But we’re talking here about the tails of dogs that are long and unaltered, and the many purposes these tails serve.
I can tell what my dog is feeling by the way she holds or moves her tail. Her ears speak volumes as well, but that’s a story for another day. Her tail tells me if she is happy, stressed, aggravated or scared. When she holds her tail high and wags it back and forth, she’s happy. A CANIDAE dog treat never fails to elicit that happy tail wag! When she’s both happy and excited, her tail is high and she moves it in a circular manner which always makes me smile. When something captures her attention, her tail is parallel to the ground.
When my dog is aggravated or feels challenged, she holds her tail a bit higher than her attentive position but not as high as her happy position. I know she feels especially provoked when her tail is held upright and it’s puffed up and rigid.
Too often, our shy girl tucks her tail between her legs, which lets me know she is scared or feeling submissive. And when she keeps her tail low and wags it quickly, she’s nervous or insecure.
Tail wagging is part of the body language of dogs. Children, as well as adults, have been bitten by dogs who were wagging their tails. The position of a dog’s tail not only shows how he is feeling, mentally and physically, but also signals impending danger to the pack from outside forces or from the dog himself.
A dog uses the tail as a social statement to greet their owners, other dogs, cats and situations they may encounter. Just as we greet a friend or acquaintance with a smile or handshake, so it is with dogs. We may smile as we shake hands with someone we consider to be an adversary and a dog’s wagging tail that we take as a friendly greeting can be the same. It’s important to pay attention to the dog’s entire body language to understand the full meaning of the tail.
So just what does all this tail wagging mean? Anyone who has had the pleasure of their dog’s excitement upon returning home has seen the “Oh boy, I’m so glad you’re home” wag. The dog’s tail wags fast and can even move in a circle. He’s extremely happy to see you and his excited tail says he likes you a lot. The tail moving in a circle when dogs are playing also means that if they are fighting, it’s nothing more than play.
A light wag is considered to be their normal greeting when they aren’t excited and a slow, short wag simply lets you know they are pleased with what’s going on around them. A dog’s tail that is relaxed reflects just that – contentment and a relaxed state of mind.
It’s easy for us to see our dog’s excitement with happy tail wags, but a dog’s tail will also alert us to possible aggression towards us or another dog. The position of the tail in this instance is important to understand.
A tail standing tall and erect that is flipped over the dog’s back is a clear sign that the dog is in control and trusting. An upright tail not curled over his back is saying this dog feels he is dominate and is also a sign of authority. This is one clue to watch out for when meeting an unfamiliar dog. Just because a dog’s tail shows dominance doesn’t mean he is a threat, it only means you should watch him if you aren’t familiar with this dog. Pay attention to his entire body language to determine the true state of mind in deciding if the dog is a threat.
The same caution applies to a dog whose tail is tucked between his legs. This tail position indicates an animal who is fearful, insecure or not feeling well. Approach carefully if the tail is between their legs because a fearful or sick animal could lash out if they feel threatened. You can tell if your dog doesn’t feel well when his tail hangs down and is close to his back legs with a slow wag. If you see his legs bent slightly with his tail tucked between his legs, this is a sign of insecurity as well as being afraid. Dogs are like us and can get snippy if they don’t feel good or are scared of something or someone.
If you see your dog’s tail hanging straight out behind him, he is watching something that interests him which has his full attention. When the tail is straight out and rigid, this guy is on alert. He’s seeing something or someone he doesn’t know or he is faced with something he believes may be a threat to himself or his pack.
Dog owners know that really excited dog tail wag with his hind quarters wiggling in anticipation of a long awaited walk or game of catch. This is a wag that shows just how happy our dogs are to be near us. A dog who wants to play will invite you to join in with a smile and a bow. His eager tail is waving high as he stretches out his front legs and lowers his head. That’s a sure sign he wants a little “me time” with his favorite pack member, so reward him with a game. He doesn’t care which game you choose, he just wants to play.
The tail can show you the mood your dog is in as well as give you hints if you confront a dog you don’t know. Watch the dog’s tail along with the rest of his body language for signs he can be trusted and does not pose a threat to you or your family. A dog’s tail doesn’t lie. We just need to pay attention to what the dog’s tail is trying to communicate to us.
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The personal opinions and/or use of trade, firm, corporation or brand names, in this blog is for the information and convenience of the reader. Such use does not constitute an official endorsement or approval by CANIDAE® Natural Pet Food Company of any product or service to the exclusion of others that may be suitable. All opinions in this blog are those of the individual authors and not necessarily of CANIDAE® Natural Pet Food Company.