Dog Talk 101: Tail Wagging

What Does That Tail Wag Mean?

Tails in heart shape
Puppy tails express all kinds of emotion, including love. Image Copr. GK Hart, Vikki Hart/Getty Images

Puppy tail wagging is part of dog language and is a complex system of (mostly) sign language, some vocalization, and even scent cues people can’t detect. Many of these signals define and reinforce your puppy's social position within the family group. That includes other dogs, humans, or other animals.

Why should you care what your puppy’s tail talk means? Misreading a dog’s clear signal can get you bit.

Even if the bite isn’t serious, it can result in the pup losing his home—or even his life.

Signals that ask for attention seek to decrease the distance between individuals while warning signs are designed to increase distance between individuals. For instance, a warning growl means, “stay away!” while most folks interpret a wagging tail as invitation to approach.

But puppies don’t just “talk” from one end of their body. They use the same signal—a wagging tail—to mean very different things depending on the context. For instance, they may “pretend” to be aggressive with lots of growls, but use a wagging tail to tell you it’s only play.

The whole repertoire of signals that must be read together, from nose tip to tail, to understand what your puppy really intends. What the tail says depends to a great degree on what the rest of the body is doing.

Examples of Basic "Tail Talk":

  • A relaxed pup's tail curves down and back up in a gentle U. The more interest he feels, the higher the tail.

  • Dominant and confident pups hold their tails high, and wag rapidly in tight sharp arcs.

  • Aggressive dogs also hold their tails high, often tightly arched over their back with just the end jerking very quickly back and forth.

  • A high-held stiff tail signals imminent attack. The dog may or may not include aggressive facial or vocal expressions such as snarls and growls. Many dominant or aggressive dogs use very subtle warnings—or none at all—before they bite, especially if the puppy has been taught NOT to growl a warning.

  • Holding the tail in a low position indicates submission or fear. A dog shows his low standing relative to you (or another animal) with loose, wide low arcing wags that often include hip wags as well.

  • Tucking the tail between the legs signals submission and fear. A tucked tail is the canine equivalent of hiding his face because it covers the genitals, and interferes with the sniffing behavior that identifies him to other dogs.

  • Fearful pups also bite, though, if they can’t escape the frightening situation. Watch for fluffed fur along the back (hackles), and a show of teeth with or without growls.

  • A research article in the March 20, 2007 issue of Current Biology by Giorgio Vallortigara, a neuroscientist at the University of Trieste in Italy, and two veterinarians, Angelo Quaranta and Marcello Siniscalchi, at the University of Bari, also in Italy, suggests tail wag directions also have meaning. When puppies feel positive about you, the tail wags more to the right. Negative feelings prompt more tail wags to the left.

  • Remember that tail shape and display (conformation) also influences how and what dogs say. Northern breeds such as Alaskan Malamutes with curled tails automatically “signal” dominance to other canines, whether they truly feel that way or not. Tailless dogs literally have one avenue of communication cut off and other dogs may not understand them as well.

    Educate yourself—and especially your children—to the many “faces” of your puppy’s wags. In almost every instance, King very clearly tells us that he wants petting, or fears you, or warns strangers to keep their distance. Problems arise when humans either don’t understand—or don’t listen. And always remember that it is better to be safe than to be sorry - if you are in doubt, leave the dog alone. You will both have a better day.

    [Edited by: Margaret Jones Davis]