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How Dogs Communicate With Their Tails

Adrienne is a certified dog trainer and former veterinarian assistant who partners with some of the best veterinarians worldwide.

Dogs have a lot to say with their wagging tails.

Dogs have a lot to say with their wagging tails.

Understanding a Dog's Tail

As you probably already know, a dog's tail is the rear section found of your dog's back. It consists of a flexible appendage made of skin, nerves, cartilage and bones blessed with multiple functions. Balance is one of them; Rover's tail prevents him from toppling over when he is running fast and making sharp turns or when he is walking over an unstable surface by acting as a counterweight, just as a a tightrope walker uses a balance bar.

However, one of the most important functions in dogs is social signaling. Through the tail's positioning and movements, dogs can manifest an array of emotions. If you are trying to decipher Rover's mood, the tail provides an important puzzle piece, but as with a dog's ear body language, it's important to also observe the rest of the accompanying body language.

While the tail is an effective communication tool, it's important to also consider the breed of the dog, because different dog breeds have different tail carriage. For instance, greyhounds normally have a very low tail carriage, which may make them appear frightened when they are not, whereas some Northern breeds and pugs may have a tail that is naturally curled up. Certain dog breeds may also be born with bobtails or have no tails at all, and in some cases, in some breeds, the dog's tails are docked when the pups are three to five days old.

Greyhounds and whippets have a naturally low tail carriage.

Greyhounds and whippets have a naturally low tail carriage.

What is a Dog's Tail Trying to Say?

You may have heard that happy dogs will wag their tails, but consider that dogs may also wag their tails when they are nervous, insecure, aroused and even ready to attack. It's just like the human smile. You can't assume all human smiles are signs of happiness; after all, we have all seen in movies when a serial killer gives a wide-toothed smile before committing a crime or a nervous person's smile when reacting to stress. This is why it's important to learn to read the accompanying body language as well; too many people have been bitten because they assumed the dog was happy to see them when they were not.

To better learn tail language, we must look at tail position, shape and movement. In the next paragraphs we will look at some tail language, read about some interesting studies, and debunk some common myths.

These Dogs are Checking out a Situation....


Tall, Tense and Stiff

The position of the tail varies from one dog breed to another. Therefore, when looking at tail position, it's important to recognize the normal tail position for that particular breed.

Be wary of a dog who approaches you with a tail held high and in a stiff, tense manner. When a dog's body is tense, the tail will be stiff and tense too. The tail is often used in animals for the purpose of looking bigger, more confident and more intimidating. This can be further emphasized by raising the hair on the back and even on the tail (piloerection). This posture may only be temporary, such as when a dog sees a person entering its territory.

If the dog understands the person poses no threat, his tail and body may eventually relax, but if he continues to feel threatened his tail may continue be be held stiff and even wag slowly back and forth, which we will see next.

A horizontal tail

A horizontal tail

Horizontal Tail

This could be just a sign of attention or some sort of slight arousal if it goes from its lower natural position to half staff. The dog's ears and face may be pointing towards the source of attention as the dog evaluates the event. At times, it may be triggered by a smell carried by the wind or some unusual noise. Note that the tail may become stiff when horizontal in the case the dog determines that the situation may be changing for the worse and may then move upwards.

In the picture above, I was working with a reactive dog and he kept the tail horizontal as he was evaluating the situation, and at the same time, he was giving me attention as we were working on LAT.

Natural and relaxed tail

Natural and relaxed tail

Natural, Lower than Horizontal

Stanley Coren claims that the height at which a dog's tail is held is the canine equivalent of an emotional barometer. Therefore, a tail held naturally lower than horizontal, possibly with an accompanying occasional swishing back and forth, would be an indicator of a relaxed, unconcerned dog.

A tail between the legs

A tail between the legs

Low, in the Middle of the Legs

Keeping the tail low while wagging may be a sign of insecurity or preoccupation. If the hair is standing up (piloerection) the dog may be saying "I'm starting to get nervous, don't push me or I'll feel the need to fight back in defense." Keeping the tail in the middle of the legs is often seen in fearful dogs. This is the opposite purpose of the dog who carries the tail high and stiff. The fearful dog may be trying to appear as small as possible and by hiding the tail and holding the ears flat, it's almost as if he wishes to hide and become invisible. You'll often see the tail carried this way at the vet's office or when scolded by an intimidating owner.

You Can't Always Trust a Wagging Tail!

Flagging Tail Tip Back and Forth

Tail movement quickly captures a dog's eyes, because as predators, a dog's eyes are very sensitive to movement rather than other details such as colors. While humans may barely notice a little hint of movement, dogs readily capture it and are ready to interpret it.

As mentioned, relying on a wagging tail as a sign of friendliness is a big mistake that has caused people to get bitten. In this case, the dog was likely wagging his stiff tail slowly back and forth, and most likely only the rear tip. This movement is called "flagging" and isn't the same as a friendly tail wag— everything else the dog is saying with his body is far from friendly intentions.

Happy Sweeping Tail Wags When Owner Comes Home

Wagging Fast in Sweeping Motions

A friendly, happy dog will move his tail in sweeping back and forth motions, and often this movement involves the whole rear end which may wiggle as well. A social dog uses the tail-wag movement to spread pheromones around. Generally, the faster the tail moves, the more excited the dog. Slower sweeps may be used when greeting owners after not seeing them for a short time, faster, broader sweeps with hip side-to-side movements when greeting after not seeing them for a longer time. Broad tail wags can be seen in play to reassure the other dog that it's just play, for instance, while inviting in a play bow. This is known as a "metasignal." Smaller tail wags may be seen when the owner glances at the dog and the dog acknowledges this.

Happy "Propeller" Wags

Wagging in Circles

It's believed that those dogs who are able to wag their tails in circles are extra, extra happy. Some say that if your dog wags its tail this way, it means you are a very, very special person to them. Not all dogs are capable of such acrobatics; it takes a natural predisposition. For a good reason these tail wags are often romantically called "propeller wags."

Some Interesting Tail Facts

Puppies aren't born wagging their tails. This is something they start doing when they are between 30 and 49 days old when they start to communicate more with their litter mates and moms.

Tail wagging may demonstrate peaceful intentions when the puppy starts to play or moves closer to other litter mates upon nursing. Later, puppies will wag their tails towards their owner when begging for food.

An interesting study conducted in Italy by neuroscientist Giorgio Vallortigara and two veterinarians, Angelo Quaranta and Marcello Siniscalchi, found that the direction of the tail may have a meaning. Tail wags more to the right suggest positive feelings, while tail wags to the left depict the negative ones.

At times, dogs may be in conflict, so they may be wagging their tail as if they were happy while growling at the same time.

Evolution has blessed some dogs with traits that post an emphasis on the tail. You'll see dog tails with a light or dark tip or a bushy shape, explains Stanley Coren in his book "How to Speak Dog."

Keeping the tail high versus keeping the tail low also means exposing or hiding the anal glands which are known for producing important pheromones that are linked with the dog's identity. Stanley Coren compares a tail held high as the social equivalent of somebody who is famous and confident and wants everybody to read his biography. It's as if these dog are telling other dogs "Come here and take a sniff, so you know who I am." Dogs with a low tail, on the other hand, want to keep a low profile, like putting a cap on a bottle of perfume.

The tails of Setters were useful so hunters could tell how close their dogs were to prey. Their feathered appearance further aided in this. Generally, the faster the tail wagged, the closer to the prey. Then once the prey was located, all tail movements halted.

Despite what breeders may say, studies on tail docking have revealed that puppies do feel pain when they are docked between the ages of 3 to 5 days old.

As seen, tails are very important appendages that play very important roles. It's our duty as dog owners to do our best to learn what Rover is trying to say so we can better decipher his thoughts.

References: Stanley Coren, How to Speak Dog

This article is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge. It is not meant to substitute for diagnosis, prognosis, treatment, prescription, or formal and individualized advice from a veterinary medical professional. Animals exhibiting signs and symptoms of distress should be seen by a veterinarian immediately.

© 2013 Adrienne Farricelli


Adrienne Farricelli (author) on February 07, 2015:

How wonderful that you're interested in learning more about your neighbor's dogs. I wish you were my neighbor! Best regards, Adrienne

Mary Norton from Ontario, Canada on February 06, 2015:

We don't have dogs because we are away often but our neighbors have and they visit us often so I need to understand their signals. This is very enlightening.

Adrienne Farricelli (author) on December 13, 2013:

Yes the wagging tail/happy dog is a myth that I think has caused many to be bitten, I am happy you found the article useful, kind regards!

Mona Sabalones Gonzalez from Philippines on December 13, 2013:

I always knew that tail wagging meant a dog is happy, but never knew that slight changes in how the tail wags or is positioned can indicate different emotions. Thank you so much, I recognized every tail wag in my dogs, and now I can better understand what they are trying to convey to me:)

Adrienne Farricelli (author) on November 13, 2013:

Hello FastEddie, just to clarify, this is not my video, it was just taken from You Tube to demonstrate that not all tail wags are friendly. I agree, that it is not good to allow a dog to rehearse reactive behavior as such, and I am all for using force-free methods, thanks for stopping by and commenting.

fasteddie0747 on November 13, 2013:

You mention you were not stopping your pitbull from showing aggression at what ever it was barking at.

This is where many dog owners make the mistake of reinforcing that behavior, dogs natural know what is and what is not a threat which can almost anything if it's a stranger a dog doesn't know.

In other words even a trained guard dog will not attack unless it's handler gives them the cue word they use for an attack.

Training is the key to every dog no matter the breed, but many dog owners just don't think their dog needs the training.

When my dog reacts to a sound I can't hear, or someone entering my apartment building all I use is one word to ease him and put him at ease.

Alllowing a dog to continue that behavior is dangerous I see it eceryday I walk my dog and the owner does nothing to correct it in a positive force free way.

Adrienne Farricelli (author) on October 29, 2013:

This is a very interesting topic, and there are many more emotions dog communicate with their tails. I will try to update this hub as often as I can to add more.

oldiesmusic from United States on October 29, 2013:

This is a great hub! Mostly I don't have any idea why their tails move in many ways. Thanks for deciphering all my wonderings. :)

Adrienne Farricelli (author) on October 24, 2013:

Thank you FlourishAnyway, I own two docked Rotties and my next batch will certainly be with tails. Tails are beautiful! thanks for stopping by!

FlourishAnyway from USA on October 24, 2013:

Great information and tips. I once read that dogs laugh with their tail, but apparently they also say a lot of other things, too! The dog in the lead photo is beautiful, by the way.

Adrienne Farricelli (author) on October 23, 2013:

Thanks for the details about Jenny, Wetnose. She is very pretty and sweet-a wonderful mix!

wetnosedogs from Alabama on October 23, 2013:


I was also going to mention that the top picture looks like Jenny when she was younger. According to the humane society, that is exactly what they claimed her breed to be - lab and shepherd(didn't specify what kind of shepherd. If that helps Millionaire Tips any.

Jenny has a brownish tail, small black spot.

Adrienne Farricelli (author) on October 23, 2013:

I'm not sure Millionaire Tips, it looks like a mix, perhaps lab and some shepherd type dog?

Adrienne Farricelli (author) on October 23, 2013:

Wetnose, you should then enroll Jennie in a tail wagging contest. I never heard about it before, but apparently they are getting quite popular!

Shasta Matova from USA on October 23, 2013:

It is interesting how dogs use their tails to communicate. I didn't know about propeller tail wagging. Zeus looks like the dog in the first picture, with a big fluffy very noticeable tail. What breed is that?

wetnosedogs from Alabama on October 23, 2013:

I thoroughly enjoy this with my three tail waggers here. Jenny has the waggiest tail, Roscoe, I think, seems to be gentlemanly and won't go crazy with tail wagging. And if Bella isn't wagging her tail, you know she tucks that tail between her legs when she is making the escape to under the bed because of rain - LOL.