Society has generally accepted a wagging tail to be the universal sign of a happy dog. Any swing to a dog’s tail is taken as an overriding indicator the dog is excited and willfully engaged.
However, this is a myth that puts dogs and humans in danger. Yes, dogs often wag their tails when feeling happy, but they also wag their tails when scared, or when they are intensely focused. This makes it hard to diagnose why your dog might be wagging their tail on tail alone. There are a lot of factors to consider when asking yourself “why?” and a misread could lead to confusion, at least, or physical injury, at worst.
So what can you learn by looking just at their tail?
If you see a wagging tail, the only information you can guarantee is that their arousal levels are rising.
And let me clarify: Arousal is a reference to an animal’s heightened physical and emotional state. Arousal can mistakenly be used interchangeably with the word excitement, though they are two very different things. Excitement has a positive association and generally can be attributed to anticipation for fun or enjoyable things. Arousal has no positive or negative connotation and can be caused by a variety of things like happiness, pain, confusion, etc..
Meeting a new dog or person, seeing a wild animal, passing a loud train, or going to the vet are all examples of situations where your dog might experience a change in their arousal levels. In each of these instances a dog’s tail might wag, but could be communicating a wide range of emotional/physical states in reaction to whatever they are experiencing and doesn’t necessarily mean they are enjoying themselves.
Knowing how your dog naturally holds its tail is a great first step to understanding how your dog uses their tail to communicate. Look at your dog’s tail and hips when they are in a calm state. Notice the tail’s position on their back end. Is it curled up or hanging loose? Does it swing slowly or stay still? Usually there will be little to no rigidity to their tail and their muscles will be relaxed, but pay attention to the specifics of your dog.
Noting what a relaxed tail looks like will help you identify when your dog’s arousal levels are beginning to change, as their tail will change positions. The stiffness of a dog’s hips while their tail is wagging is a great secondary indicator of how the dog is reacting to stimuli.
Hips that wiggle back and forth with the motion of the tail can express excitement or happiness. Rigid hips and a spread leg stance, combined with a wagging tail that’s held tall and stiff, indicates yo
ur dog is alert and their arousal levels are high and intense. A tail held lower than its usual position or between their legs can point to rising levels of uncertainty, regardless of whether it is wagging or not. While a full tail-tuck under the body, pressed right up against their belly, is a signal they are feeling uncomfortable and scared.
Keep in mind these are very basic guidelines and should always be considered with other context clues. Generally speaking, you should not try to diagnose your dog’s emotional and physical state based on one body language cue. Tail position and movement are just some of a long list of cues to look for and things to pay attention to. This includes but is not limited to:
Overall body position
Wideness of eyes
Vocalizations of any kind
The environmental context
Only looking at one, or even just a few, of these factors can lead to a misread of the dog’s state. You could see a fast tail wag, think “Oh they’re happy!” and assume your dog wants to meet the stranger approaching. Completely missing the hair standing up at the back of their neck and the stiffness of their stance that indicate rising levels of fear. In this scenario the dog’s fear will go unheard and they might go to extreme levels to make sure they are safe by lashing out violently, which is not ideal for anyone involved.
So, while a dog’s tail is communicating with you, make sure you are listening to the combination of cues your dog is sending you. Otherwise you will be missing their full message.
Learning to communicate with someone is the first step to developing a relationship with them. It’s how we ask for help, tell each other we care, and begin to develop trust with each other. The same goes for building relationships between humans and their pets. We must learn how our pets communicate with us in order to best take care of them, which means remembering they are complicated creatures with an intricate entangled language of body signals. AKA, the best way to know what a tail wag means for your dog is to pay attention to everything else too. It’s complicated but necessary work.
If you need help understanding how your dog is communicating with you, don’t hesitate to reach out to Kind Animal Services. We will create a foundation of communication and trust you and your dog will continue to build on in the years to come.