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Dog body language: what does a wagging tail mean?

Dog body language: what does a wagging tail mean?

As dog owners, many of us like to think we have a deep understanding of our pet and their emotions.

However, dogs, like us, have a large emotional range that can sometimes be tough to decipher.

To help you understand your pet a little better, Petplan takes a look at the body language of dogs and what various external signals can mean, starting with one of the most commonly misunderstood – the wagging of their tail…

Why do dogs wag their tails?

Along with facial expressions and body postures, your dog’s tail is another part of their body they can use to communicate.

Possibly one of the most common misconceptions about dogs and their tails is that a wagging tail always means that they’re happy.

Although this is likely, it’s not always the case.

This can cause much confusion for people who look for a wagging tail as the means of deciding whether a dog is friendly or not.

Rather than a sign of friendliness, a wagging tail should be viewed as a sign of willingness to interact. Essentially, a tail wag means that the dog is open to interaction, rather than trying to be friendly.

Tail language

The complex language of tail wagging does not speak in isolation, but rather works alongside the other components of a dog’s body language.

Put simply, you have to consider the rest of your dog’s body language to fully understand the meaning of a wagging tail.

Some body language characteristics to look out for include:

  • Wagging tail with barking
  • Teeth showing
  • Growling
  • Ears flattened back
  • Ears prickled up
  • Whining
  • Jumping up
  • Posture
  • Eye contact

Contrary for what you may believe, the above characteristics can either indicate good or bad behavior.

For example, an open mouth showing teeth is not necessarily indicative of aggression in the dog, as lots of dogs run and play with their mouth open.

As you get to know your dog, you will be able to identify when these characteristics are good or bad.

If you wish to learn more about your dog’s barking, growling, howling and whining, you can read our previous post, Do you speak woof?

What is the tail doing?

Dogs’ wags can have different meanings, depending on the situation. There are a few things to look out for when identifying the type of wag:

Tail Stiffness:

Usually, a relaxed flowing wag is a good sign but a stiff wag can often mean tension or hostility.

Tail Height:

A high held wagging tail often means that your dog is being enthusiastic.

The height of the wagging tail can also indicate a dog’s level of confidence. A higher tail usually shows confidence, while a lower hung tail indicates a more nervous dog.

Tail speed:

A fast wag is generally good, but a slow wag can indicate that a dog will not be friendly.

A ‘full body wag’, where the tail is making wide sweeping motions can often indicate a friendly dog that wants to play or interact.

However, just like words can mean different things in different contexts, so do wags. Wags and their meaning can also differ from dog to dog.

One individual dog may wag their tail a little higher or a little lower or a little faster or a little slower than another individual. As you spend more time with your dog, you will start to understand their body language.

Does your dog display any particular tail wagging characteristics? Let us know in a comment below… 






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I always thought a wagging tail meant "happy". Great to learn something new!

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