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Why Do Dogs Wag Their Tails? Decoding Doggy Body Language

Curiosity, arousal, frustration, happiness, joy, uncertainty, pain, excitement — it's hard to believe that one furry appendage could say so many things. Your pup's tail is an invaluable window to understanding canine communication. 

Why Do Dogs Wag Their Tails? Decoding Doggy Body Language

Curiosity, arousal, frustration, happiness, joy, uncertainty, pain, excitement — it's hard to believe that one furry appendage could say so many things. Your pup's tail is an invaluable window to understanding canine communication. 

By: Sara Ondrako, Certified Canine Behavior Professional

Curiosity, arousal, frustration, happiness, joy, uncertainty, pain, excitement — it's hard to believe that one furry appendage could say so many things. But a dog's tail does precisely this. Your pup's tail is an invaluable window to understanding canine communication. 

Learning more about your dog's body language, from those puppy-dog eyes to the tip of their furry tails, can help strengthen your bond and increase the frequency of those coveted whole-body wiggles.

In this article, we'll crack the code and scratch your curiosity itches behind the many meanings of the tail and its wag. This is the tale of tails!

The Anatomy of a Dog's Tail

Knowing how those cute little extensions are built can give you a clearer picture of their function. Both humans and dogs have tails (human tails are just significantly smaller — usually) that extend from the spinal column and are made of backbones called vertebrae.

While human backbones of the spinal column end with the tailbone (the Coccyx), which is three to five small bones just below the sacrum, a dog can have anywhere from four to twenty-five additional bones past their sacrum that make up their tailbones, called the Caudal Vertebrae.

The dog's brain controls all of the muscles and nerves in a dog's tail to respond to their environmental, physical, or emotional state. The tail position, posture, and speed of the wag indicate how your dog feels. This means that including tail communication in your doggie language repertoire is a valuable tool for providing for their needs. 

Variations in Tail Shapes and Sizes

Dog tails come in as many varieties as nail polish colors or flavors of Baskin-Robbins Ice Cream. They can be naturally curled over the dog's back like a Shar Pei or a Shiba Inu. They can be thick and strong like a Beauceron or light and delicate like an aerodynamic Italian Greyhound. They may have fully-furred tails like Siberian Huskies or little to no fur like the Argentine Pila Dog.

Dog tails also serve many different purposes, whether as part of a job the breed has been bred for, like German Shorthaired Pointers, or, in the case of Pugs, a lack of being bred for anything other than being an adorable, wrinkly companion. 

With so many shapes, styles, and sizes of tails, it's clear there is no one-wag-fits-all way to decipher what your pup might be trying to say with their tail. To start cracking the code, consider your dog's baseline: what posture and position does your pup's tail typically take when in a relaxed, neutral state? Once you've determined this, you can start deciphering what the changes in their body language might indicate.

The Language of Tail Wagging and the Role of Body Language

The most critical factor when cracking the tail-wagging code isn't the tail itself. Instead, pay close attention to how the tail's language aligns with what the rest of the body is doing. While the tail can help express a range of emotions, it is only one piece of the communication puzzle. Interpreting what that tail wag means requires considering the dog's entire body and what those different body parts are doing simultaneously.

Other body language factors, such as a hard stare, loose open mouth, forward ear position, and whether the dog is standing still or moving can help dog owners bring the pieces of the communication puzzle together to determine what everything collectively means.

Different Types of Wags and What They Can Mean

We know dogs express emotional states through their tails, so let's break down some common tail movements and what they might indicate based on how your dog feels.

Happiness and Excitement

Sometimes, dogs get so delighted they inadvertently beat everything (including themselves) with their tails. Long-tailed furry friends can sometimes injure their tails by whacking them so hard in a state of joy that they bleed and require medical care, a phenomenon dubbed "happy tail syndrome."

A happy dog can also exhibit excitement in less dramatic displays of big back-and-forth tail sways in a neutral position that is accompanied by a soft mouth, perhaps a prance or two from the front paws, and a relaxed body that seems to follow the broad strokes of the tail wag

Anxiety and Fear

When uncertain or scared, dogs hold their tail much lower than usual. In addition to their other body language, the position of their tail can help you determine how nervous your dog may be. Whether they're worried about an unfamiliar dog or person approaching or reliving a traumatic memory from the last time they were at this dog park, your pup's body language is critical to understanding what they're feeling under the fur. 

For example, a tucked tail tight between the legs with ears pinned back and crouched or with a hunched body, trembling, panting, and wide-opened eyes are signs that the dog is terrified. 

Alternatively, a tail not completely tucked but lowered with slightly lowered body language, actively sniffing the air, and ears satelliting back and forth are signs the dog is unsure and anxious about what might happen next.

Aggression and Warning

That's right: not all tail wagging indicates happiness. Aggression is an essential form of communication that can be an attempt to keep a situation from escalating to a fight and a signal of intention to escalate. The tail plays a significant role in this communicative display. 

When a dog feels threatened and intends to defend themselves or something else, their tail typically becomes stiff, and they will hold it straight up or out with the muscles at the base of the tail tightly constricted. An aggressive dog may be responding out of fear. Still, the intention to move forward in the situation looks very different from a fearful dog looking to escape and avoid conflict. 

A highly aroused (very excited) dog who does not intend to be aggressive may also have tension in the tail and hold it high, so reading the tail with the rest of the body can help differentiate intent. 

For example, a dog with hackles up (piloerection), baring teeth, stiff and forward facing ears, growling, advancing forward slowly, and locking eyes on the offender is a good indicator that the dog is about to assail if the offender doesn't change their behavior quickly. 

On the other hand, a dog with ears forward and a stiff tail that drops down into a bow with their hind end in the air and then jumps back up into a rigid position with a brief fast tail wag before holding the tail stiff again can indicate a dog that is highly excited to play. 

Understanding Tail Position and Wagging Speed

It's incredible how many positions one appendage can hold, capturing varying degrees of emotion, intent, and even physical sensation. 

If we look at the tail being straight up and out as one extreme of a tail position and tucked up and under as tight as possible as the other extreme position, each little notch in position as it adjusts from one extreme to the other indicates a subtle change. The speed at which that change in position happens also plays a role. 

For example, a Norwegian Elkhound naturally carries their high tail curled up and over their back. The tail is slightly unfurled slowly with body stillness, and sniffing forward may indicate insecurity or moderate anxiety. 

Alternatively, the lovely long tail of a Belgian Shepherd rapidly slows from a loose, wide sway between the legs to stillness, but not wholly tucked, as the dog crouches and pops back up within a split second. The tail slowly comes back up as the body loosens, and the vast sway starts again as the dog gently starts to pant. This behavior would indicate the dog being relaxed and happy with the owner and momentarily startled by something, such as the owner dropping a loud object. 

Research indicates that the subtleties in speed and patterns of wags may be as individual to a dog as our voice is to us. Also, in a recent study, scientists found that a dog's bias to wag towards the left side or right side and changes in the velocity of the tail indicated a dog "getting to know" a person. The more familiar the dogs became with a person in the study, the higher the velocity of the wag towards the right side of the dogs would occur. 

As mentioned earlier, there is no one way to read body language and tail movements across different dogs and breeds. But here's a quick guide that can indicate what your dog might be feeling that you can use to investigate your dog's emotional state further.

  • Neutral Tail — your dog may feel no tension and is likely relaxed
  • Stiff, Vertical Tail — your dog is alert and ready for action
  • Stiff, Horizontal Tail — your dog senses prey and is on alert
  • Lowered Tail — your dog may be feeling fearful, unsure, or anxious

Similarly, a general guide to deciphering your dog's emotional state based on the speed of their tail wags is as follows:

  • Slow Wag with Wide Sweeps — your dog is likely feeling happy
  • Fast Wag with Narrow Sweeps — your dog may be feeling agitated

Tail-Less Breeds and Other Dog Body Language

If you're a pet parent to a French Bulldog, Pembroke Welsh Corgi, or other tailless dog breed, you can still learn a lot about your dog's emotional state from their body language. By observing their facial expressions, eye and ear position, nose activity, body posture and movement, vocalizations, and more, you can better understand how your dog feels at any given moment.

Even if your dog has a tail, context is critical in understanding your dog's mood. Positive and negative emotions can be deciphered by looking at your dog's entire body and listening to their barks, whines, or whimpers. All you have to do is watch and listen.

The Evolution of Tail Wagging: From Wild Wolves to Domesticated Dogs

Both domesticated dogs and wolves are believed to have evolved from the same common ancestor. Observing the behavior of wild dogs and wolves in the wild and captivity has given us insight into why our domesticated companions exhibit different behaviors. 

Wolves rely primarily on visual signaling for quiet communication to keep from tipping off prey, intruders, or other animals. Wolves also use various tail positions with different body language to communicate intentions with each other and other animals, such as a looming attack or the intention of keeping the peace. 

All canines have anal glands, which are small sacks that secrete an odorous liquid. Canines, from foxes to fox hounds, have been known to waft this scent around with their tails to communicate their presence. 

As wild dogs began making their way into the lives of humans, there are many theories as to why dogs became domesticated, one being the positive reinforcement that came with exhibiting certain behaviors around humans. The apparent positive reinforcement would be sharing food with the wild dogs; however, the dogs may have increased the rate of reinforcement by testing out what worked and what did not - much as our canine companions do today during training sessions. A behavior as simple as a relaxed tail wag may have appealed to a human and increased the food given, increasing the tail wags to other humans. 

Now, our domesticated partners use their tails to communicate with us and each other. Even more interesting is that domestic dogs wag their tails at humans frequently, most likely based on the human feedback received over generations, while their wolf relatives do not exhibit nearly the amount of tail wagging.  

How Dogs Use Their Tails to Communicate with Each Other

So much can be said with a tail wag or lack thereof. Comparing similarities with their wilder relatives regarding how they interact with each other gives us insight into how our domesticated dogs have evolved to use their tails. 

Wolves in the wild are observed holding their tail straight out when oriented toward prey they are about to attack. Similar tail positioning is seen in domesticated hunting dogs like the German Wirehaired Pointer, and they function similarly to communicate the exact location of prey.

Puppies begin using their tails to communicate with each other around three to four weeks of age as they crowd in to nurse on mom. Then, around six to seven weeks, they begin using their tails more frequently as they interact, communicating intent and emotion and responding to their siblings' behaviors. 

Tail Wagging and Health

On top of communication and being a window to emotion, how a tail moves can also be a window to unspoken physical discomfort.

"Pain and physical stress can alter your dog's normal "tail language." Dogs with pain anywhere in their body, from a toothache to a sore rump, may hold their tail lower and wag less. Pain directly in the tail (from arthritis and/or injuries) will also cause changes in tail posture, including difficulty raising the tail for defecating." says Dr. Laura Lathan of Whole Pet Veterinary Hospital of Charlotte, NC. 

Being tuned into your dog's subtle tail and body changes can help pet parents provide the best care possible with a species that cannot verbally speak our language.

How to Respond to a Wagging Tail

A dog's tail wag helps them communicate and express their emotional state and plays a role in their physical state. Fast, slow, high, low, left-sided, right-sided, or total helicopter mode, what the tail does with the rest of the body can tell you a lot about your pooch. The more we know about dog behavior, the stronger we bond with our best friends. 

Next time you are out and about with your pup, figure out what your dog may be communicating. Watch their tail and its movements as they interact with their outside environment. Is the tail mainly in a natural position, and what body changes do you notice? What is your dog's tail wag saying to you?

If you had a tail, you'd wag back to say, "I'm so happy to see you too!" Since we can't, when our furry friends signal their excitement with those right-sided happy rapid wags, we can use our body language to compensate for our poorly developed appendage. 

illustration of dog's tail & the dog is digging

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illustration of dog's tail & the dog is digging