Anyone who is a dog owner immediately recognizes that happy wag when we come home from work and our dog greets us. But that tail wag is not always what we think. In fact, a dog wagging his tail can indicate a great deal more than happiness.
Dogs are social animals and have a very complicated system body language that they use to communicate with other dogs (as well as other animals, including us). The dogs tail can act as an indicator of mood, but you should be looking at more than just the wagging motion. A tail wag often shows excitement, but can also indicate fear, caution, hesitance, and even anger. It all depends on exactly how that tail is wagging, as well as the other things that are happening with the dog’s body language.
Here are some of the common indicators of a dog’s mood (expressed through the tail):
· The fast tail wag: If a dog’s tail is wagging back and forth energetically, it can be an indicator of happiness. Especially if the dog is also giving friendly licks and jumping around. When a dog “bows down” by stretching his front legs in front of him, it can usually be seen as an invitation to play. Combined with a rapid tail wag, his happy intentions are clear.
· The aggressive slow tail wag: A dog who is slowly wagging his tail is probably not happy. It should be an indicator to us that a dog may be aggressive. This should be one of your first indicators of caution. This is one of those moments when you really need to consider the situation and quickly assess other body language that he is displaying.
· The cautious slow tail wag: If a dog is interested, but cautious, the wag may be slower. It could mean that he is tentative about meeting a new person or animal.
· The sudden stop: If stops wagging his tail suddenly, it may mean that he is not happy, but not quite aggressive yet. This could happen when a stranger starts to pat him. It is a clue that he just wants the stranger to stop touching him.
· The straight up, or straight out tail: If dogs are alert, they will often have both their ears and tail straight up. You frequently see this when a dog spots a squirrel. This is sometimes accompanied (either before or after) with a tail pointed straight out. It shows you that he is directing his focus to a specific place.
· The tucked tail: When a dog tucks his tail between his legs, it should be a warning sign. It means that he is afraid and may become aggressive. If the dog is also growling, it is a clear indicator that he is aggressive.
Just like with humans, what a dog is communicating can depend on the situation. A dog who tucks his tail between his legs when his owner is preparing to bathe him may mean that the dog is unhappy, but also submissive. The same dog may tuck his tail between his legs when a stranger comes into the house. This may alert to a more aggressive response.
To complicate all of this, behavior varies somewhat among breeds, as well as individual dogs. Your dog may wag his tail wildly when he is excited, while mine may naturally have a slower wag.
Finally, some studies are showing that we should also be looking at which side a dog is wagging his tail. If a dog is wagging his tail from roughly the center of his back to the right, he may actually be more relaxed and happy. If he is wagging more to the left, he could be insecure. Scientists believe that dogs may be very aware of this when communicating with other dogs. It is just another part of the very complicated way they communicate through body language.
So while your best friend may be wagging his tail when he is happy to see you, do not automatically assume that a dog who is wagging his tail is happy. Turn on your “dog brain,” and look at the big picture. Exactly how is the dog wagging his tail? Is he wagging high or low? Is he favoring one side? What is he doing with the rest of his body? With a little work, you can improve your skills at interpreting your dog’s body language and become even closer to your best friend.