Dogs wag their tails when they are happy. right? Most people approach tail wagging dogs expecting a joyful greeting and see a dog’s tail as an indicator of mood: wagging tails are happy tails and low tucked tails are scared tails. Right? Actually, it’s not quite so simple. New research is constantly delving into canine body language and communication.
It sounds a little odd, but tails actually have a variety of expressions which can relate a lot of information. Wagging is just one part of the equation. When looking at a dog’s tail in isolation, some research indicates that the direction and speed of the wag matters. One recent study proposed that wagging to the left is an agitated wag, whereas a wag to the right is relaxed or happy wag.
Realistically, it is much easier to look at the whole dog to decipher their intention. Many kids either cannot tell if a dog is happy or scared to see them, or don’t take the time to look past the wagging tail at the rest of the dog’s countenance. Tails wag, or don’t wag, for a variety of reasons including excitement (good and bad), fear, balance, communication, etc. By looking at the rest of the dog’s body language, it becomes easier to understand what their tail is telling you.
Facial expressions are a huge part of canine communication. If you can see the whites of a dog’s eyes, puckered lips, a lowered head, or vibrating cheeks, the dog is likely not in the mood for a head pet. This is likely a fearful or aggressing dog and you should back up. If the dog is adrenalized, or excited, their tail may very well be wagging, but they are in no mood to say hi. Stiffening of the body or tail is another good indicator that a dog is not pleased and should not be approached. A stiff dog may even lean forward on their toes or rock back to indicate they are likely to pounce or flee. Many bites could be prevented if people learned to look at the dog as whole rather than just a sloppy tongue and wagging tail.
If, on the other hand, a dog is loose and wagging their tail almost as if their whole body is wriggling and wagging too, the dog likely is happy to see you. This type of doggy body language is often accompanied by soft eyes, open relaxed mouth, and comfortably held ears. Nothing about this dog should be tight or stiff. Often a happy wagger will approach head on and instigate greeting by looking up at your hands or face.
Tail wagging is a combination of innate and learned behaviors since most dogs learn how to hold their tail in response to other dogs or people. In fact, puppies do not wag their tails until they are over a month old and beginning to communicate with mom and litter-mates. If a nervous puppy learns that holding his tail low and tucked keeps other dogs from approaching, he will continue to hold his tail low in future encounters. However, if he does not learn this behavior, he will not exhibit it later in life.
One way to think of a dog’s tail wagging is to compare it to the human smile. Sometimes we smile because we are happy or pleased, and sometimes we smile due to nervousness or embarrassment. The context surrounding the smile is just as important as the smile itself.
One effect of modern dog breeding is tail and ear docking, which can limit the amount of communication a dog can give you and other dogs. Some breeds even have erect hair all the time or tightly curled tails, which can really throw off a person or dog’s ability to read them. Chows are a good example of a breed with limited body language ability.
If you are ever unsure of a dog’s intent, backing away slightly and presenting the side of your body or crouching with your side to the dog, is far less threatening than a full on approach. It is also a good idea to hold out the back of your hand or a fist low so the dog can choose whether or not to sniff or engage. By reading the dog’s entire body language and presenting a calm, non-aggressive image yourself, you can prevent a fear induced bite.
Head Trainer- Perfect Pooch
BA, CPDT-KA, AKC CGC Evaluator