What’s In a Wag?

The biggest myth is, a wagging tail means “happy dog.” Yes, dogs wag their tails when they are happy, but they also use them to communicate feelings. While barking can be used to broadcast feelings, dogs mostly rely on their body language to communicate. They use many parts of their body: eyes, ears, lips, stance, and tails to convey information. If you observe dogs closely for a period of time, you will quickly notice that there is no such thing as a uniform tail wag. Instead, dogs use different wagging speeds and different tail positions to communicate. Generally speaking, the position (or height) of the tail can be used as an emotional thermometer while the speed of the wag indicates how excited or aroused the dog is.

 Tucked tail- when the tail is tightly tucked under the dog’s body this is a sign of intense fear or can also be a submissive display. Low Tail- usually associated with worry or being submissive.  Middle or Neutral- how a dog carries his tail most of the time and is a sign of a relaxation. Some dogs naturally carry their tails high (Basenjis) and others carry it low (Greyhounds).  Horizontal and Tense (straight out at the back) - means that the dog is alert and attentive.  High Tail- usually used to show assertiveness or to challenge others.  Vertical tail- is a clear challenge and is used by dogs to say they are confident and in control.

 In general, the faster the wag, the more excited the dog.  Intensity- slight barely noticeable wag of small breadth (often seen during greetings) means the dog is hesitant.  Broad wag- a sign of friendliness or contentment. This is the “happy dog wag.” If the dog is very excited, you may also see his hips wiggling from side to side.  Tiny, high speed wags- if the tail is wagging in such a way that it looks like the tail is vibrating it means the dog is ready for action, usually to run or fight. When looking at your dog for clues about how he is feeling, remember to look at his entire body. Does the body look relaxed or are all the muscles tense? Is the dog staring hard at you (another person or dog) or is he giving you soft eyes? Observe your dog regularly and take note of his postures to better understand him.

Submitted by Marion C. O’Neil CPDT-KA, CTDI Owner and Trainer of Molasses Creek Dog Training, LLC Quakertown & Bethlehem PA

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