Why Do Dogs Wag Their Tails?

Instructor: Sarah Friedl

Sarah has two Master's, one in Zoology and one in GIS, a Bachelor's in Biology, and has taught college level Physical Science and Biology.

Dogs convey emotions though their body movements, especially through their tails. In this lesson we're going to discuss what they're trying to say to us through this type of communication.

A Unique Form of Communication

Dogs don't use words to communicate with each other like humans do. But that doesn't mean they don't say things loudly and clearly. Dogs easily understand what is being said to each other, but humans often misinterpret the meaning of subtle, yet distinct, differences in dog behavior. The dog behavior we will discuss in this lesson is tail wagging.

One very common misconception about a dog wagging its tail is that it's a good sign, because that means the dog is happy. Yes, that is sometimes the case. But a wagging tail can mean many different things, including anger, frustration, stress, greeting, excitement, fear, 'back off', and much more. A tail offers a great way to indicate an emotion or feeling because it's like a big flag on the back end of the dog. Each type of flag (or type of movement) can be used to signal different things, which is exactly what dogs do and what we often fail to understand.

Types of Tail Wags

At this point you're probably wondering how you'll ever be able to tell what your dog is thinking just by watching its tail wag. But don't worry, because today we're going to have a quick lesson in 'dog' so that the next time you come across one you'll know exactly what it is thinking.

A dog tail that is relaxed and neutral indicates that the dog is also relaxed.
relaxed dog tail

The first thing to understand is that both the position and speed of a dog's tail mean something. For example, when a dog recognizes someone she knows, her tail will wag more quickly than if she sees someone she doesn't recognize. That increased speed in tail wagging is her way of showing a greater amount of excitement. Her tail will also wag more to the right a bit if she is happy and more to the left if she is unhappy (such as feeling threatened or frightened).

The height of the tail is an important part of the communication as well. A tail that is low or tucked means that your dog is scared or nervous. When the tail is hanging naturally she is relaxed and at ease. If the tail is high, she is alert to something (perhaps that squirrel darting across the sidewalk), and if her tail is straight up in the air this can indicate aggression.

A tail that is high and wags rigidly can indicate aggression.
aggressive dog tail

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