The swish and swoosh of a dog’s tail, even the short, stumpy kind, can tell you quite a bit about canine mood and behavior. If you pay attention to your dog’s tail position, wagging speed, and direction its moving, you can better understand what your dog is thinking--and maybe even what its next move will be!
#1 Most Common Myth About Dog Tail Wagging Behavior…
A dog that is whisking its tail back and forth as it approaches is a happy-go-lucky canine, eager to meet you and make friends.
Surprisingly, that’s a myth that has too often resulted in an unexpected dog bite.
So what does a dog’s wagging tail actually mean?
Tail wagging simply indicates a state of arousal, and dogs have several states of arousal that can be conveyed by subtly different movements of the tail: happy arousal, fear, excitement, or aggressive arousal.
How to Decipher a Dog’s Tail Wagging Action
First, remember the evolutionary purpose of tail wagging for dogs: Combined with body language and vocalizations, tail wagging is a way for dog’s to communicate with each other. Humans can better understand their dogs by being observant not only of tail wagging, but also of what body posture and sounds their dog is making at a given moment.
Even dogs that have short tails (naturally or because the tail was docked), can communicate with tail behavior--though, it can be a little trickier for people to interpret. This is why it is context and observation are essential.
General Rules of a Dog’s Wagging Tail
Faster wagging, higher level of arousal.
High and fast tail wagging typically can mean a high state of arousal that can be positive (such as play, eager interest/curiosity) or negative (such as aggression, anxiety).
Low tail wagging typically can mean subordination/appeasement or fear.
4 Types of Tail Wagging Observed Among Dogs
As you learn about these five types of dog tail wagging behaviors, remember to also notice:
Body posture (relaxed, stiff, rigid, cowering)
Eyes (wide, showing lots of white, relaxed, staring intently, looking around, disinterested)
Vocalization (crying, whimpering, whining, low throaty growling, periodic vs relentless barking)
Jaw Movement (showing teeth, clenching, panting lightly verus heavily, salivating)
1. The High Tail or “Flagging” Tail Wag. When a dog’s tail is straight up or even curved slightly over the dog’s back and moving rapidly back and forth, this is an indication of strong emotion. Some dogs, such as Huskies, Pomeranians, Eskimo Dogs to name a few, always carry their tails straight up or curled over their backs--so be sure to take breed aesthetics into consideration when “reading” a dog’s tail action.
A high tail with a slow wag may indicate a happy dog with a lower level of arousal, but again, look at the whole picture. Did the wagging abruptly just stop? What about the dog’s gaze? Vocalizations? Body posture? Note all of this activity before you approach to pet the dog.
In general, a dog that is communicating “Pet me!” to you will show eagerness, interest, and a sort-of grin--open mouth but not baring teeth. The dog’s entire body might be wiggling along with the tail. Remember, even an excitedly happy dog can inadvertently nip, especially a young dog, so approach slowly and give the dog a chance to settle with its owner--getting to meet you then becomes the reward for that dog.
On the other end of the spectrum a dog that is communicating “I don’t trust you!” will typically have a tense body, sharp, focussed eyes,and stiff body position–-no wiggling. Even a happy aroused dog inadvertently can do damage in her excitement, so you are better off waiting until she calms down before engaging.
If you notice a dog’s disposition and tail activity change during an encounter-- the tail slowing down to a near stand-still, it is moving into a posture of uncertainty, fear or threat. Move slowly away from the dog so she can relax.
2. Tail Wagging at Half-Mast. This slower, droopy tail wag can indicate a calmer, less aroused dog. Think of this as a tail that waves back and forth like a flag moving in a slow, gentle breeze. If the wagging speed increases, the dog is showing more active interest and an increase in energy. Take note: Is that a happy, fearful, or angry increase in energy? Observe the dogs’ body language as we’ve previously noted. If the dog’s tail freezes and stiffens, consider this a warning sign that the dog is not comfortable.
Remember: A dog that is happy, open to greetings, usually has bright eyes, a relaxed open mouth, and possibly a gentle pant.
3. Circular Tail Wagging. The circular tail wagging is usually a friendly sign and easiest to spot on dogs with long tails, but even dogs with short tails can rotate their tail from the hind quarters. You’ll often see the circular tail wag when a dog is happy to see someone they know well or someone they are familiar with whom they have not seen in a while. A dog also may display a circular wag upon meeting another dog or a person whom she wants to call her friend. (There are exceptions to every rule, so continue to monitor the dog's body language, even when it is displaying a circular tail wag).
4. Low, Dropped Tail Wag. Too often, people mistake the low and slowly sweeping, dropped tail wag as a sign that a dog is relaxed and eager for interaction. Rather, this low tail action is a sure sign that the dog is uncertain, uncomfortable, and unsure of its surroundings and/or the people in it. This dog can be feeling fearful, anxious, or defensive depending on the additional body postures it presents. The dog wants to be left alone.
The faster the low-tail wag, the more emotion the dog is experiencing and trying to express. The dog may even drop to the floor and show its belly. Unless that dog is wiggling joyfully, this is not likely an invitation for a belly-rub. This dog is uncertain and wants to be left alone.
What does it mean when a dog does not wag its tail?
Some dog breeds have a tightly wound curl for a tail and that makes movement of the tail next to impossible to read (so reading other body cues from the dog is essential). For dog’s with tails that do swish and swoosh with ease, a still tail likely means the dog is relaxed, not particularly interested or excited--just chill. Again, that lack of tail movement is always taken in context with other body language that the dog displays.
More Tail Talk to Come!
There’s so much more to a dog’s tail talk! Next week, Weather or Not Dog Walking and Pet Sitting Services of Delaware will explore the meaning of the direction of tail wagging: left, right, up, down… what’s that dog communicating through its tail action and body language? Stay tuned for more "tail talk"!
“What A Wagging Dog Tail Really Means” Psychology Today:
“Interpreting Tail Wags in Dogs” VCA Animal Hospital: https://vcahospitals.com/know-your-pet/interpreting-tail-wags-in-dogs
“Tell-Tail Signs: What’s Your Dog’s Tail Language?” Whole-dog Journal: https://www.whole-dog-journal.com/behavior/dog-tail-language/