Why A Dog’s Tail Is So Much More Than A Wag


Most of us have seen a dog wag its tail. When it is our own dog, we are tuned into his emotions pretty well and we know that he is indicating that he is pleased to see us. But can dogs tell us other things about their emotional state with their tails?

We, humans, use words as our most common means of expressing our emotions, but dogs do not have any words and very few sounds. In fact, studies have suggested that most of the sounds that dogs make are adaptions to the presence of humans because in the wild dogs, the bark is not used the same way. 1,2  Dogs are dependent on being able to communicate with body language and they are very tuned in to such cues in others.

When a dog is wagging his tail in joy, it is most often twirling around like a helicopter blade or held high and wagging fast. His face will be relaxed and he will seem interactive and pleased. His eyes appear soft and he is not “locked on” with his stare, but happily glancing around. He seeks relaxed contact with you or may seem playful. This dog is saying, “It is so good to see you. I want to interact with you!” He does not have the words to say so, but his posture, eyes and tail speak it loud and clear…at least to you, since you know him.  But an approaching dog, no matter how friendly, seems to someone who knows him or is familiar with dogs, he could seem scary to someone else.

It is also very important that you know that not all wags mean “happy”. A slow methodical wag when associated with a tense body posture can indicate that the animal feels threatened or afraid. This might be a dog whose territory you have approached on the street. Threatened dogs move stiffly, often waving their raised tail slowly from side to side. Their eyes are hard and they tend to stare at you. Their faces are tight, sometimes with lips tense. Do not mistake the wagging or waving tail as a sign of friendliness. These dogs are best left alone. You should exit the area calmly without engaging the dog at all. It is best not to move suddenly or run away.

The bottom line is that you know your own dog and are able to perceive all his familiar signals, but when dealing with a dog that you do not know, assume that you do NOT speak his language. If you are not sure what the dog is telling you, keep a safe distance and avoid interacting with the dog at all, for both of your sakes.

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  1. Barking and mobbing. Behav Processes. 2009 Jul;81(3):358-68. doi: 10.1016/j.beproc.2009.04.008.Lord K, Feinstein M, Coppinger R.
  2. A new perspective on barking in dogs (Canis familiaris). J Comp Psychol. 2002 Jun;116(2):189-93. Yin S.