Tail wagging is part of dog language for both puppies and adult dogs. It 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 dog's social position within the family group. That includes humans, other dogs, and other animals. Misreading a dog’s clear signal can lead to a bite. Even if the bite isn’t serious, it can result in the pup losing his home—or even his life.
Interpreting Your Dog's Tail
Some signals ask for attention and seek to decrease the distance between individuals. However, warning signs are designed to increase the distance between individuals. For instance, a warning growl means, "Stay away!" while most folks interpret a wagging tail as an invitation to approach.
But dogs 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 the tail and the rest of their body to tell you it’s just time to play.
The whole repertoire of signals must be read together from nose tip to tail to understand what your dog really intends. You'll need to look at what the rest of the body is doing in order to properly interpret tail position and motion.
Examples of Basic Tail Talk
There's no way to create an exact translation guide to tail wagging and tail positions. Your dog's tail and body signals may vary based on the way the dog was raised and socialized. Tail shape and display (conformation) also influence how and what dogs say.
Northern breeds such as Alaskan Malamutes with curled tails automatically signal confidence or assertiveness to other canines, whether they truly feel that way or not. Dogs without tails literally have one avenue of communication cut off and other dogs may not understand them as well.
Bearing all of this in mind, here are some ways to interpret what your dog means to say:
A relaxed dog's tail typically curves down and back up in a gentle U shape. The rest of the body will also appear relaxed. The mouth may be closed or slightly open but will appear relaxed.
Confident dogs hold their tails high and wag rapidly in tight sharp arcs. The more interest the dog feels, the higher the tail. The dog will stand tall with their head held high and ears perked up. The mouth may be slightly open and the dog may pant if excited.
Defensive dogs also hold their tails high, often tightly arched over their back with just the end jerking very quickly back and forth. This is a warning that the dog feels threatened and may respond with aggression if the perceived threat continues.
A high-held stiff tail signals an imminent attack. The dog may or may not include aggressive facial or vocal expressions such as bared teeth or snarls and growls. A defensive dog may use very subtle warnings—or none at all—before they bite, especially if the dog has been taught not to growl in warning.
If these signals seem directed at you, give the dog space. If you see your dog acting defensively or aggressively towards another person, animal, or object, remove your dog from the situation as soon as possible.
Holding the tail in a low position usually indicates fear or submission. This may include cowering and loose, wide low arcing wags that often include hip wags as well. The ears are often flat and they may lick their lips or yawn. Dogs in fear will usually avoid making eye contact with the source of their fear.
Tucking the tail between the legs is basically the canine equivalent of hiding the face because it covers the genitals and interferes with the sniffing behavior that identifies it to other dogs.
Fearful dogs may bite 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. Try to remove the source of fear or take the dog away from the frightening circumstances.
Does Tail Direction Matter?
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. The research implies that when dogs feel positive about you, their tail wags more to the right, but negative feelings prompt more tail wags to the left.
There's still much to learn about tail direction in dogs and what it all means. Try watching your dog's tail direction and see if you notice a difference.
Learn Dog Tail Lingo for Safety
Educate yourself, and especially your children, about the many meanings of your dog’s wags. In almost every instance, your dog clearly tells you if they want to be pet, feel afraid, or are warning someone (or something) to keep at a distance. Problems arise when humans either don’t understand or don’t pay enough attention. And always remember that it is better to be safe than to be sorry—if you have any doubts, just leave the dog alone. You'll both have a better day.