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Dog tail secrets

Dog Tail Language

What is your dog really saying when he wags? Canine body language can often be misinterpreted, and learning to read your dog’s postures and movements can help you to understand his moods and emotions, improving your relationship with him. Behaviour expert Ross McCarthy delves into the tale of the tail.

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Although our domestic dogs use various vocalisations in communication with us and each other, they are the world leaders in clear, concise communication through body language. In order for us to understand and engage successfully with our dogs, and therefore build a stronger relationship with them, we must learn not to ‘speak dog’, but ‘listen dog’ by observing and being sensitive to their postures and behaviours.

Understanding the wag

One of the most telling areas of canine body language is the tail – but wagging is also one of the most commonly misunderstood behavioural aspects I encounter, probably due to the fact that dogs so frequently use their tails as a display of excitement and happiness. This means that owners take it as a sure sign of friendliness.

So what can we understand from a wagging tail? It can indeed mean the dog is friendly and excited. However, it can also mean the dog is agitated, stressed, deferential, fearful, aggressive – and a whole host of other emotions. The height at which the tail is held, and the pace of the wagging, can mean the world of difference. What you must always bear in mind when trying to understand body language is how different breeds express themselves. For example, an Akita and other Spitz breeds naturally hold their tails in a high position that curls over their back, whereas the Whippet and Border Collie have naturally low-set tails. So you have to understand where the tail sits normally before using my following ‘rough guide to wagging’.

Guiding you through

The height of a dog’s tail when wagging can vary from very erect (picture A) to tucked right under the body (picture B). In general, the lower the tail moves down, the more cautious, submissive or fearful the dog is feeling, whereas the higher the tail moves up, the more alert, confident and challenging he is.

Picture A demonstrates a confident, dominant dog, whereas picture B shows a cowering, fearful dog. Then you have every position between the two. A dog with a wagging tail in the middle position (picture C) is most relaxed and happy (again, depending on breed).

In addition to the positioning of the tail, you need to look at speed of movement. This generally indicates the level of arousal, which can appear in any of the above-described positions. For example, a slow-swinging low tail indicates potentially friendly but concerned. A moderately-paced swinging tail in the mid-position (picture C) is a placid greeting, whereas a fast wagging tail in that position demonstrates an excited, open greeting.

If the tail appears very high (picture A) with fast-paced wagging, this can be an active threat, as can a slow wag at this height – just with less arousal and intensity behind it.

dog tail wagging dog tail tucked dog tail wagging

Whole picture

The nuances of canine communication are extremely detailed. Although a dog’s tail can tell many tales about how he is feeling and what he is thinking, it is always important to observe and listen to your dog’s body language as a whole, taking in every aspect (mouth, eyes, ears, posture, for example). The big picture can tell you much more than one specific area can. Once you understand a bit more about what your dog is saying, you can then take a look at what might be causing his behaviour – helping him live a happy and healthy life.

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