True or false: a wagging tail equals a happy dog.
Answer: it depends.
Your dog’s wagging tail may appear to be a straightforward expression of happiness, but scratch the surface and a wide variety of emotions and messages reveal themselves. Your dog uses their tail to indicate excitement, tension, fear, and more. They may even wag their tail as a warning to other dogs to keep away. Your dog may not be able to talk, but their tail speaks volumes.
How to read your dog’s tail
Although one wagging tail may look very much like another, don’t worry. Dog-to-dog communication happens at light speed, but with practice, you’ll be able to interpret their signals intuitively. Ask yourself these questions:
How fast is their tail moving?
What position is their tail moving in? For example, is their tail held high? Between the legs?
How intensely is it wagging?
Is it still or frozen?
When viewed from the front, does it seem to be moving from right-to-left or left-to-right? Or is it moving in a circular fashion?
Once you get in the habit of analyzing your dog’s tail movements, you’ll start to pick out the differences.
What your dog’s tail is saying
Your dog is an individual with a unique method of communication and a complex range of emotions. With that said, as a general rule of thumb, tail wags can be broken down into a few broad categories:
Quick movements + neutral position + wide range of motion + circular pattern = comfort, relaxation, joy
High position over back + stiff or rigid tail = concern, confidence, warning
Quick movements + high position over back + tight range of motion = high arousal levels, possible predictor of pushy or agonistic behavior
Low position between legs = fear, panic, anxiety
Slow movements + neutral or parallel position to the ground + loose motion = comfort, calm joy
For example, if your dog greets guests with their tail held high and being whipped back and forth, your analysis would reveal that they’re experiencing high levels of arousal and may benefit from practicing calm greetings.
Right tail wagging vs. left tail wagging
Your dog can tell their right from their left–at least when it comes to their tail. A study published in 2013 revealed that dogs indicate interest or a desire to approach by wagging their tails to the right. When observing stimuli that they wanted to avoid, dogs wagged their tails to the left. The direction of the tail wag was shown to be linked to activation of the right or left hemispheres of the brain, indicating the emotional component involved in the movement.
It’s one thing to be able to move their tail in a specific direction, but can your dog recognize the corresponding emotion in other dogs’ tail wags?
The answer, unsurprisingly, is yes. The study investigated that dogs do recognize and alter their own behavior based on an unfamiliar dog’s body language, including the direction of their tail wags. Your dog may have evolved to communicate danger, willingness to be approached, or emotion–all through the movement of their tail!
The importance of tails
Not all dogs have long, glorious tails. Whether your dog naturally has a short tail or had their docked, they’re still capable of communicating with other dogs, who use body language, scent, their ears, and other cues in addition to their tails.
Tail length can vary dramatically between breeds, but the University of Victoria conducted a study that noted dogs are more hesitant to approach unfamiliar dogs with docked or short tails. Whenever possible, leave your dog’s tail untouched to facilitate more complete inter-dog communication.
Always look at the bigger picture. A wagging tail is just one piece of a very large puzzle.