Ever wondered why dogs wag their tail?

By | February 23, 2016

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

What does a dogs tail mean?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

 

  • fear
  • insecurity
  • 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

    What does it mean when a dog wags it's tail?

    My imaginary beagle friend

  • 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?

Territorial Dog BehaviorSo, 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.

Dog wagging its tail

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


 

Tail Position

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.

Dog's tail indicating aggressionStiff 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

The tail of a confident dog

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

 

 

Tail wag of a relaxed dogLower 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.

Scared DogIf 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.


 

TAIL SHAPE

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.

Huskies

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.


 

TAIL WAGGING

Fast

Usually a sign of excitement, especially if accompanied by the “butt waggle” I mentioned earlier!

Small swing

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.

Bigger swing

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 🙂

 

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14 thoughts on “Ever wondered why dogs wag their tail?

  1. Karl

    Very interesting. I notice one wag that my Bella does when she’s ready for her treat. She sits down and wags the top half of her tail about three inches each way really fast. It’s soo cute.
    When I am walking around the house doing something, she always follows me with her tail half down, wagging slightly but her ears are back like she is anxious or frightened. She has been this way for a year since me and my ex broke up. Does this indicate fear or anxiety, what do you think?

    Reply
    1. Mara Post author

      Hi Karl,

      Bella sounds gorgeous! Sorry for the delay in replying to you – I’ve been away on holiday for two weeks. reading your description of Bella’s behavior I definitely think she is worried about losing you too. It sounds like she may feel like one of her pack members has left, and she is concerned she may lose the other one too. It doesn’t sound like overly-anxious behavior, just an underlying desire to know where you are. I think over time she will get more confident that you are staying with her and feel more secure. Best wishes to you both, Mara.

      Reply
  2. GitErDun Mike

    Hi, Mara,

    Great information, and very complete. I was familiar with some of the “signs” you describe; and now I know more. Thanks. 🙂

    Reply
    1. Mara Post author

      Hi Mike,
      Thanks for stopping by and reading this, and I appreciate you taking the time to leave a comment. Have a great day, Mara 🙂

      Reply
  3. Lou

    It is hard to tell different tail wags with my mini schnauzer as she has a curly tail bent over her back ( think pig and you’re not far wrong!). However, you can usually tell her intentions by other body signals. However, this article is very interesting and I will certainly look at the tail wags of other dogs we meet on walks.

    Reply
    1. Mara Post author

      Thanks for stopping by Louise, and I appreciate you reading my article. Mini Schnauzer’s are such cute wee things! All the best, Mara.

      Reply
  4. Young

    Hi Mara, thanks for sharing this great information!!! I am embassred that I never knew about tail communication since I’ve been having my husky for 5 years 🙁 Whenever he wags his tail, I always just assumed that he is excited for something.
    He used to be very good with other dogs when he was younger. But lately he gets aggressive towards larger size dogs, still friendly to small/mid size ones. Now I think about it, his tail gets very stiff when he sees large dogs on a walk.
    Problem is that he doesn’t do that to all large dogs, just some of them. I don’t know what it is that makes him aggressive to certain dogs even when the other dog was friendly to him. Next time, I will watch on his tail before we get closer to other dogs to understand more about him.

    Thanks for sharing this information! It was really helpful!!

    Reply
    1. Mara Post author

      Hi Young,
      I’m glad you found this information useful. It sounds like he is reacting to other dogs through his sixth sense. For some reason he is sensing them as a potential threat and feels the need to express his own dominance. Has he ever had a bad experience with a large dog? This would go some way to explaining why he is still friendly towards medium sized and small dogs. If you need any further help, feel free to take a look at this online training guide. If his aggression gets serious and worries you, I would advise getting help from a local behavioral expert. Sometimes an online guide is not enough and it takes one-on-one work with a professional trainer to really understand the root cause of a dog’s behavior and how to handle it. Sending lots of doggie love to Zorro!
      Mara 🙂

      Reply
  5. Ian

    Wow, I never knew that dogs used their tails to communicate so much. I need to remember this the next time I meet someone else’s dog, since I don’t have any of my own.
    I wonder if these tail wags are the same among wolves as well, since wolves are the ancestors of dogs.

    Reply
    1. Mara Post author

      Hi Ian,

      Thank you for reading this – especially since you don’t have a dog of your own. I’m sure wolves do use their tails for similar communications – perhaps they have even more advanced messages to use in a pack situation.

      All the best, Mara.

      Reply
  6. David

    Nice blog on how to tell what you dog is thinking by the way it holds and wags its tail.

    This is great I never new these things about dogs until I read this blog. Just by the tail is held and how the hair bristles up you can tell what a dog is getting ready to do.

    Is it true that the ears act in the same way as the tail does?

    Reply
    1. Mara Post author

      HI David,

      Thanks for your reply. The ears are involved in communication as well, but the level of communication is not exactly the same as the tail. You’ve just given me an idea for one of my next articles – it will be on dog’s ears!

      Thanks again and take care,

      Mara.

      Reply
  7. Susan

    Hello Mara, thanks for the enjoyable and informative posting. We have two dogs (standard parti poodles) and really do appreciate them allowing us to live in their house. I too have heard that rawhide chews are bad for dogs because they don’t digest them well and they can cause stomach problems. But all said…I can’t imagine living without them.
    Thanks again

    Reply
    1. Mara Post author

      Hi Susan,

      I’m glad you enjoyed this and nice to hear you have two lovely dogs. You made me laugh by suggesting they rule the house! Big pats to them from me,

      Mara.

      Reply

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