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.

Dogs primarily use body language to communicate. Owners, however, don’t always find dog body language easy to read. To help you understand your pet a little better, here’s the low-down on the body language of dogs and what a wagging tail can mean.

Why do dogs wag their tails?

Along with facial expressions and body postures, your dog’s tail is another means for them to communicate. A wagging tail can convey a range of emotions such as happiness, nervousness, feeling threatened or anxious, submission and excitement.

Possibly one of the most common misconceptions about dogs is that a wagging tail always means that they’re happy. Although this is likely, it’s not always the case. It can very much depend on how they are wagging their tail and what the rest of their body language shows.

This misconception can cause confusion for people who look out for a wagging tail to decide whether or not a dog is friendly.

Rather than a sign of friendliness, you should view a dog’s wagging tail as a sign of willingness to interact – the dog is open to interaction, rather than trying to be friendly.

Tail language

The complex language of tail wagging does not communicate in isolation. Rather it 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 pricked up
  • Whining
  • Jumping up
  • Posture
  • Eye contact

Contrary to what you may believe, the above characteristics can indicate either a happy or an unhappy dog.

For example, a dog that has an open mouth and is showing their teeth is not necessarily indicating aggression. Lots of dogs run and play with their mouths open. As you get to know your dog, you will be able to identify when these characteristics are good or bad.

What is the tail doing?

Dogs’ tail wags can have different meanings, depending on the situation. When identifying the type of wag, look out for these things:

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 meanings 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.

In addition to wagging their tails for communication, dogs use their tails for balance and stability – for example, while running fast and making a sharp turn.

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? Tell us on social media using the tag#PethoodStories.

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