What Your Dog’s Tail is Telling You

Probably the most obvious, and most misunderstood, form of tail language is the wag. Even people who have spent their entire lives around dogs assume that full-throttle wags mean a dog is saying “hi” with all her might. But tail wagging can’t be interpreted this easily because dogs that are aggressive and are preparing to attack will also wag their tails.

Posted by pet editor

A wagging tail means nothing more than that a dog is feeling excited about something. Sometimes the excitement is positive, and sometimes it is negative. You have to look at the dog more closely to figure it all out.

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High, stiff, and wagging = “I’m in charge”

A tail that’s upright like a mast doesn’t necessarily mean that a dog is feeling aggressive, but she’s certainly being assertive. Many people get bitten because they misinterpret stiffly wagging tails. A tail held high and wagging stiffly is the sign of a dominant dog, and it could mean that the dog is ready to attack.

Low, fast wags and short sweeps = “I’m no threat”

When a meek dog is approached by a more assertive dog—one with her tail up and stiffly wagging—she has only one reasonable response: to show the bossy dog that she isn’t a threat. Dogs who are fearful or submissive often will respond to another dog’s approach by holding their tails low and wagging them just slightly. This means, “Hey, I’m friendly and no threat at all.”

Low, slow wags and large sweeps = “It’s good to see you”

Sometimes a wag is really just a wag. You’ll know your dog is wagging because she’s happy to see you and wants to play when her tail is low or even with her body and is wagging a little slowly, but in wide sweeps back and forth. Usually, her whole butt will be wiggling as well.

Dogs don’t speak only with their tails, of course, and the only way to accurately interpret tail movements is to know something about the breed. Some hunting dogs, like spaniels, have been bred to wag their tails constantly while pursuing quarry. To signal that they’ve found their game, they stop wagging and hold their tails stiffly up in the air. On the other hand, herding dogs are bred to have less tail movement so that their wagging tails don’t distract or excite the animals that they’re trying to herd. If you didn’t know that about these animals, you might think one was overly excited while the other was overly staid, when it’s really just the way they were bred.

202 comments

Heidi R.
Past Member 4 years ago

You didn't include the low, non-swinging tale that shows sadness or fright. It breaks my heart every time to see that.

jessica w.
jessica w5 years ago

thanks

jane richmond
jane richmond5 years ago

interesting

Alison Personal Messages
Alison A5 years ago

Dve, I think you will find that is the whole point of the article, to try and give dog owners an insight into reading the signs which their dogs are trying to express.

Wagging tail - Good. Showing teeth - Bad.

Are there really people so naive that they think that is all a dog has to offer!

Like I said in my previous comment, people who don't bother to understand their animals, shouldn't have any.

David N.
David N5 years ago

Thanks for the article. It's so interesting, how to read a dogs body language.

dve d.
aa b5 years ago

we all know why a dog tail wagging because it there way of smiling and being happy

Alison Personal Messages
Alison A5 years ago

This article should be read and understood by all dog owners. So many people get dogs because they 'think' they must know how to look after them, wrong! All animals have their own ways and a responsible owner should learn as much as they can about them, so they know what to expect from them and can meet their needs properly

Anyone who thinks 'it's a dog, what more is there to know?' is just ignorant and shouldn't have animals.

Thanks for posting.

Veronica C.
Veronica C5 years ago

Interesting article. I've often thought that all animals must think humans are really stupid because they try to tell us something and we just don't get it.

Margaret  Marge F.
Margaret M. F5 years ago

Thank-you for the informative article. Aside from breed idiosyncrasies, I think a lot depends on the relation between the dog & it's owner. There is a breed, maybe boxer, where their tails are cut off leaving just a few inch stub. I could never understand the purpose of doing that, especially now after reading this article. Thank-you.

Howard C.
Howard Crosse5 years ago

I found this really interesting - thank you.