What is the meaning of a dog tail wag?

By | Published On: March 22, 2023 | Categories: Behaviour, Dogs |

Ah, the dog’s tail. Supposedly the barometer of their feelings. What does it mean when the dog wags his tail?

Countless times I have been told by owners that their dog was barking and lunging ‘but his tail was wagging, so he must have felt ok’.

Have you heard of the saying ‘Not waving, but drowning’? It describes someone in deep water, gesturing with their arm. Are they waving to say hello, or are they signaling distress? Hard to tell.

Thus it is with your dog’s tail. Just because he is waving/wagging it, does not mean all is well. First of all, look at where the tail is positioned (yes, I know it is at the rear end of the dog). Is it high up over their back, sticking up fiercely like a flag? Is it normally like this? If not, your dog is probably highly alert, and probably not as relaxed as he could be. Not necessarily a warning sign, but possible. And yet, the tail is still wagging!

How about if the tail is more relaxed, mid-carriage, waving from side to side either softly or furiously so that the dog’s bottom is also wagging. Or, with Labradors, their whole body! This could be a good sign.

If the tail is tucked under, but still wagging, is this a good sign? Possibly, but it is also a sign that the dog is lacking in certainty over whatever is happening to him.

In fact, all three of the above are very blunt measures of a dog’s happiness. Never look at just the tail alone. The biggest giveaway is the dog’s facial expression, their eyes, their ears, and their mouth. Are they withdrawing away from something? Not confident, or possibly just trying to be polite. Is their mouth shut tightly? This can be tension, again, not a great signal and time to relax and distract your dog. How about happy panting mouth. Is it happy, or are the corners of the mouth drawn back? This can be another sign of worry.

Is your dog rolling his eyes so that you can see part of the white surrounding it? Again, another sign that the dog is a little bit unsure. Are his ears flattened back on his head? Unless he knows you well, this can be a signal that he might not be very relaxed.

How about ears forward, eyes alert, body stiff, tail wagging? Is the dog about to chase, or bark?

Finally, take time to look at your dog’s surroundings. Is there something that you know your dog has reacted to in the past? Don’t wait to see if the dog reacts badly. Calmly and happily call your dog to you, or move him away. Give him a chance to relax.

If you learn to read your dog, and really listen, you will see his body language change to a happy, waggy dog all over. It’s not just the tail!

To learn more about your dog’s behaviour, check out my book Being a Dog”.

– Karen Wild

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