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Tail wagging, Friend or Foe?

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  • By Meri Book Allen
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Tail wagging, Friend or Foe?

Not every tail wagging dog is a happy dog...

Over the past few weeks I have overheard a couple of conversations that go a little something like this: If the dogs tail is wagging it means they're friendly. This is not always the case, a dog’s tail is a communication device and can tell you a little bit of how your dog is feeling.

It's one of the great joys of dog parenting. You come home at the end of a long day and are greeted by your excited furball's slobbery kisses and furiously wagging tail. This interaction seems simple enough. Your dog is happy to see you, so he or she is wagging their tail. But did you know that it's not always that simple?

You should view a wagging tail as a sign of willingness to interact, says Radosta, but not a signal of a particular mood or state. “In other words, a tail wag means that the dog is open to interaction, not that the dog is friendly.” Here’s another way to look at it. A wagging tail simply indicates that a dog is mentally aroused and engaged with what is going on in his environment, not how he will react to whatever is going on.

Tail Height: A wagging tail held high, Siracusa says, often signals enthusiasm. The height of a wagging tail can also signal a dog’s level of confidence says Dr. Karen London, a Certified Applied Animal Behaviorist and Certified Pet Dog Trainer in Flagstaff, Ariz. A higher tail usually means a dog is confident, while a lower tail indicates a more timid or nervous dog.

It’s important to keep a close eye on a tail held high or over the dog’s back, Radosta says. “A tail wag which just involves the tip, with the tail high above the back, or less than 90 degrees from the back indicates high arousal. This dog may want to interact, but not necessarily in a controlled or friendly manner. I would avoid a dog who was wagging his tail this way or if I was the owner, I would work to help him calm down.”

When you really think about it, there's more to a dog's tail wag than simply whether or not the dog is wagging at all. The dog's tail may be wagging at a certain rate of speed, and the exact tail position can vary greatly. Plus, you have to consider that different dog breeds have different types of tails — pugs have short, curled tails that may not even be able to perform the same functions as, say, a greyhound tail.

So how do you know what your dog's tail wagging might mean? Although there are variations across all dogs, we can generally group tail movement into a few basic categories: Height, stiffness, and speed.

Tail Height

How high or low your dog's tail is held in relation to the rest of their body is a good indicator of their mood. A tail that's held high while wagging generally indicates an enthusiastic and happy dog that would be open to petting and affection.

The higher the tail is held, the more confident the dog is. The lower it's held, the more nervous or timid the dog might be. In fact, when the tail is held all the way down, tucked between the legs, it indicates the dog is frightened. You'll often see this tail position when a dog encounters another dog that is dominant, or when you scold your own pup.

However, it's important to keep in mind that just because a dog is holding their tail up, it doesn't mean they're feeling approachable. A tail that's held high and straight, with minimal wagging perhaps only at the tip of the tail, indicates that the dog is highly alert and aroused. That could mean that the dog perceives a threat and is ready to defend themselves.


Tail Stiffness

In the example above, you may have noticed that the tail's stiffness indicated how the dog might be feeling. Stiffness is another good indicator when trying to gauge your dog's tail language.

Generally speaking, a stiff wag, or a stiff tail with no wagging present, indicates tension. A dog performing this kind of wag might be hostile, and it's best not to approach them.

On the other side of the coin, a loose, casual wagging is generally a good sign. This means the dog is feeling comfortable and will probably be completely approachable.

Tail Speed

Try to pay attention to how fast or slow your dog wags their tail. Speed is another way to interpret your pet dog's unique tail language.

You might have noticed that when your dog is extremely excited, perhaps when you come home from work or when you're about to feed them dinner, they wag their tail very fast. Fast wagging generally indicates positive feelings, while a slow wag might mean a dog is feeling cautious or unsure.

High prey drive can also produce a high stiff agitated, fast moving tail which can be misconstrued as happy.   

Canine Body Language

Remember: Tail communication is only one aspect of a dog's entire body language. It's important to consider tail movements in-context of the dog's entire communication strategy, rather than using the tail alone as an indicator of how a dog is feeling. That means taking into account a dog's facial expression, the positioning of the chest and limbs, and the context in which you're approaching the dog.

If a dog is holding their tail up high and wagging it back and forth, but baring their teeth and growling, you know that they're not feeling friendly. Even though a slow wag generally indicates caution, a sleepy pup might exhibit this behavior just because they’re feeling tired.  It's just like a human smile — even though we generally think of it as an indicator of happiness, it's not always used that way depending on the context.


It's worth noting that recent research indicates that wagging on the right or left side of your dog's body might also mean something. A 2013 study published in “Current Biology” demonstrated that a dog wagging the tail more to the right side of the body is likely to be feeling more relaxed, while a dog wagging more on the left side might be more alert or stressed out. Who knew?

Different tail movements might mean different things depending on the dog's own unique temperament, not to mention their breed and tail type. But generally speaking, you can get a good idea of your dog's emotional state based on the tail wag’s height, speed, and stiffness.


At the end of the day, you know your pooch best. That's why you have the best handle on your dog's emotional state and what his or her tail wagging probably means.




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