We’ve all seen it, the wagging tail on a dog that seems to always indicate happiness and excitement. Canines depicted onscreen have a more animated version of tail wagging often accompanied by lots of barking and licking because the dog is beyond ecstatic.
In reality, however, the tail wag is not always a positive sign and it could be an indication of something negative. Let’s take a look at the various positions and movements of a dog’s tail and what they mean.
The Tail Wag—It’s Not Always a Happy Indication
Upright and Wagging – Happiness and Excitement
We’ll start with the easiest and most commonly associated emotion with dog tail-wagging, and that is excitement. Your dog can be a giant breed or an extra small teacup dog, but a tail in a neutral or slightly arching up position and wagging at a steady rhythm is one that means it’s happy.
Some dogs, such as spitz breeds , have a naturally arched and circular tail position which is mostly upright no matter what they’re feeling. In this case, the best indicator of whether or not your dog is happy is to look at the movement. Is the tail wagging at a fast pace steadily from side to side? Does your dog pair the tail movement with a smiling face (spitz breeds are known for this), and excited mannerisms? If so, then your dog is so happy to see you!
A lot of working dog breeds have long tails that hang down, such as the Aussie Shepherd, and it’s a little easier to spot an upright tail. Other than the tail wagging, another dead giveaway of how your dog is feeling is accompanying actions such as vocalization, doggy kisses, and jumping (although this shouldn’t be encouraged).
Horizontal and Straight – Curiosity
If you see a horizontal and straight tail sticking out directly behind your dog, then chances are something has piqued your pooch’s interest. This tail position is symbolic of curiosity and your dog’s need to quench its thirst for knowledge. You may or may not see a tail wag with this position, but you will most likely see perked-up ears or ones that are angled slightly backward if they are a little wary of whatever they are examining.
If your dog has a curious attitude with a tail position to match, then you will most likely see it checking something out. Make sure that whatever he is looking at is safe and will not cause harm, because snakes and dead animal carcasses can also spark curiosity in your dogs—and we know what that entails.
Down to the Ground – Fearful but Aggressive
One of the most common emotions a dog is feeling when you see its tail drooping and pointing to the ground is fear. There are two types of fear, one is aggressive and the other is more submissive. Our number three is talking about the former—aggressive fear.
Some dogs, just like humans, respond to something that scares them with aggression. In this type of situation, you will see the tail still lowered but perhaps accompanied by a sight wag, arched back, tucked ears with an overall frightened demeanor but with dog facial expressions indicating some aggression such as angry barks and sometimes bared teeth.
Low Down and Tucked – Submissive
Then you have instances where your dog is fearful but in a submissive way. It’s similar to what we see above with aggressive fear, but your dog will also exhibit the act of making itself as little as possible, like hunching over and the tail position will be down and tucked between the legs.
This behavior may also be seen with whining and many dogs are submissive when they are scared. It’s important to be able to read your dog—or any dog—for these signs to understand how to handle the situation and to de-escalate it.
We know there are some dog breeds that do not have tails, such as the cute pug and some types of Pitbulls, unfortunately, due to tail docking. If this is the case, how do you know what your dog is feeling? If only there was a way to track your dog’s emotions the way you can its whereabouts.
The best way in this circumstance is to look at all the other characteristics of your pet, most commonly dog ear positions, the hair on its back, and vocalization.
Neutral – Calm and Relaxed
A neutral tail is an indicator of a relaxed and calm dog. The neutral position is whatever position your dog’s tail is in naturally. For spitz breeds, it’s usually in an upright and curled position. For a Golden Retriever, its long tail would hang when he’s relaxed. You won’t typically see a tail wag in a neutral position often because wagging indicates some sort of emotion.
Stiff and Vertical – Aggressive and Angry
Believe it or not, tail wagging is also an effect of anger and aggression. Tail wagging can happen if your dog is ready to attack. You will see the tail move to an upright position that’s stiff with or without a slight wag. Oftentimes an aggressive tail position will also be slightly arched over the bag of your dog. If the tail isn’t wagging, it’s a better sign because it shows that although your dog is upset and angry, it may not be ready to attack.
However, if an angry dog’s tail is wagging, then it is likely ready or gearing up for an attack. The faster the tail wags, the more aggressive and distressed the dog is feeling, so be sure to handle the situation carefully.
No Wag – Go Away, Please
As happy and excited as your dog can be with tail wags, it can also be an indication of needing to be left alone. This is a common secondary display with the “whale eye”, where your dog side-eyes you and you can see a lot of white in your dog’s eye. A “leave me alone wag” means no wag at all with a stiff body, and oftentimes a whale eye.
The avoidance behavior usually isn’t aggressive, but if a person presses and irritates the dog to no end and the dog has a predisposition to be aggressive, then it may give a warning bark and sometimes even a bite. It’s best to respect a dog’s wishes, read the body language, and understand what to do.
Left Wagging VS Right Wagging – There’s A Difference
It’s confusing because tail wagging goes from side to side, so what does left and right wagging mean? If you look very closely, you may notice that your dog wags its tail more towards the left or right. It is believed that wagging to the right is more positive than wagging to the left, meaning dogs wagging to the right are usually friendlier and more relaxed while dogs wagging to the left at the time are a little more stressed and nervous.
The above are all general indicators of what tail movements mean in any dog breed, but remember that each breed possesses subtle differences in physical characteristics which could affect the accuracy. It’s important to take your dog’s surroundings and other emotional displays into account to be sure of its feelings.