Have you ever watched your dog and noticed that his or her tail wags in different ways? You may already be somewhat of an expert in your own dog’s behavior, but what if your dog starts to act differently? And, what about other dogs at the park – would you be able to “read” another dog by the way it’s behaving? We can look deeper into some common canine behavior by looking at why dogs wag their tail.
All tail wags do not MEAN the same thing
It is true that some tail wags are an indication of a dog’s happiness, especially if you get the whole “butt waggle” thing going on at the same time. However, a wagging tail, in conjunction with other body signals, can mean mean a range of things, like
- a dominant challenge
- a warning (which ignored can lead to other aggressive action, such as a nip or full blown bite)
Let’s look at a practical example:
Beagles are a popular breed of pet. Yes, they do have typical characteristics that are inherent to their breed – such as
- a tendency to wander off with their nose to the ground
- they can be easily distracted by what’s going on around them
- an inclination to bay in a high-pitched tone when they are excited
They are also highly affectionate and tend to have low aggression levels, which makes them equally good pets for a house full of kids or a home with elderly owners. They are easy-going in the main, so in a house full of kids they are likely to roll with it and join in the play, but in a home with older owners, they are happy to tone it down and relax next to them on the couch.
So, in a hypothetical example, let’s say a family with children has a pet beagle. It turns out they have had the beagle for a number of years and it’s well past the puppy stage. There have never been any problems with it, until now.
On going over to the beagle, the dog has been wagging it’s tail, so family members have reached out their hand to pet the dog, but it’s reacted by growling and nipping. Why would a previously placid pet start nipping at people in the family home?
So, we need to examine this tail wag in more detail….
What was the beagle doing immediately prior? Well, it was playing with a chew toy on the couch.
Exactly how was the dog wagging it’s tail? Was it a making big swings from side to side, at a low angle with hips moving as well?
As it turns out, my imaginary beagle friend was holding his tail more vertically, sticking it up in the air and wagging in very short motions, almost like a vibration. No swishing or waving here at all!
In fact, for arguments sake, before being approached he jumped up and gave a direct stare at the family member as well.
Together, these behaviors indicate that he is likely protecting his chew toy, something which is precious to him. My imaginary beagle friend considered the stare as a warning, then when a family member chose to ignore it and reach out, viewed that as ignoring the warning and trying to take the chew toy. In the dog’s mind, he is justified in nipping the hand, because he already gave a warning – in fact he gave 3!
The stare, the tail wag and the growl.
Now I’m sure there are loads of dog owners out there who will say, “Our dog would never nip any of us” and it’s quite possibly true.
I know with our own German Shepherd this was the case – you could reach in to take food off him, a treat or a toy and he would not react at all. However, this changed when he reached about 9 and he became a bit crankier – if you tried to take a chew toy off him, mid-chew, he would growl. That’s fine – because we knew him so well, we knew that we should respect that he no longer thought this was ok. We didn’t push it to see if he would take it further – there was no need. We adjusted our behaviors instead. The point I’m making is you might not know when something changes for your dog, so it’s important to be on the lookout for different behaviors and what they might mean.
What is in a tail wag?
Essentially a tail wag is a form of communication, just like a human expression of a smile, frown or grimace. Sometimes, it may be just that simple.
A dog may wag it’s tail at a person, another dog, a cat, a mouse, or maybe even a butterfly – anything the dog may view as socially responsive. Just like we wouldn’t talk to a wall, a dog isn’t likely to wag it’s tail at a lifeless object. A dog’s tail can tell us a lot about that dog – it’s mental state, social position and perhaps most importantly, its intentions.
So let’s take a look at how a dog might use it’s tail to communicate
Horizontal and pointing away from the dog, but not stiff
Something has the dog’s attention. It could be someone approaching, or it could be a smell in the air. The dog doesn’t feel threatened, unless the tail starts to stiffen.
Tail pointing out horizontally and stiff
Firstly, a stiff tail is usually indicates a degree of aggression from a dog. Common as part of an initial challenge when meeting a new dog or a stranger, until they assess the situation. i.e. decide who is boss or the dominant one. It’s effectively used to “size up” a new situation. Also, a sign in a retriever breed that they have found something.
Stiff tail, up at an angle between horizontal and vertical
This can be a display of a dominant dog and it’s intention to be assertive should the need arise.
Tail held up and slightly curved over the back
If this dog was human, it would be described as arrogant! This is a sign that the dog is confident, dominant and in control – AND as a result doesn’t expect any challenges. i.e. this dog thinks it is in charge
Lower than horizontal and relaxed swishing
The dog is unconcerned and is indicating that all is well in its world.
Tail very low down, near the back legs
This one can be a bit trickier.
If the legs are still held straight and the tail is moving back and forth slowly, it can mean that your dog is feeling ill or is in a degree of pain. It could refer to mental health as well on occasion, indicating a dog is feeling a bit down or depressed.
If the body is also lowered, particularly at the rear end, it’s likely the dog is feeling insecure or timid. Some dogs are more sensitive than others when it comes to new situations. It can also be shown in anticipation of something happening which the dog doesn’t like – for example, it is clear you are leaving the house without them. Our German Shepherd did this when we got our large suitcases out – he was anticipating a period of sadness due to us going away for an extended time.
Tail tucked between the legs
This is one step further on in terms of a dog’s discomfort and is usually a sign or I’m frightened. An abused dog may also display this as a plea not to be hurt.
As well as the position of the tail, sometimes a dog’s coat can further refine the communication.
Hair is bristling on the tail
Usually tied to the hackles rising and is an indicator of aggression. However, it can be used independently on just the tail to modify any tail signal by adding a little bit of threat.
Tail is bristling on its own
This is unlikely to be linked to an aggressive tactic, but is more likely to be adding a message of fear, anxiety or despondency. It depends on what position the tail is held in, as to what the message is that a dog is modifying.
A sharp bend in a tail that is held high
Interestingly, this is more prominent in dogs that are most wolf-like in appearance, probably as it’s something definitely used in the wild. For example, German or Belgian Shepherds, Huskies, Alaskan Malamutes etc.
It can almost look like a bent or broken tail at times, but the message is a clear one of aggression and means a dog is close to going into “attack” mode. If it’s near the tip of the tail, the threat is more moderate – more of a threat that a dog might attack if you don’t heed the warning. Either way, you should remove yourself from the situation.
Usually a sign of excitement, especially if accompanied by the “butt waggle” I mentioned earlier!
Seen more during greetings, and often occurs before a dog’s presence has been noticed. For example, a tentative hello before full blown tail wagging when you acknowledge your dog.
This is a friendly tail wag and perhaps the most common one associated with a dog’s happiness. Whether it’s playing with another dog or interacting with a family member.
Slow wag with tail at “half mast”
Usually a sign a dog is listening and trying to understand what you are saying. Quite commonly seen when a dog is learning something new in a training environment. When they do “get it” or think they understand, you are likely to see a marked increase in the speed and size of the tail wag.
I hope you have enjoyed reading more about dog’s tail wagging – who knew a tail could be so complex! If you would like to share something or have some feedback, please leave a comment below. I would love to hear what you think 🙂