“Aww! Look at that little tail go! What a happy little doggy!”
Personally, I’ve always associated tail wagging with a happy or excited dog. You might see their whole body shake with excitement, their ears go up, their eyes widen and brighten, and then inevitably, that tail starts moving so fast that you think they’re about to take off in flight!
But I recently discovered that dogs wag their tails for a whole number of reasons – not simply to indicate happiness, excitement, or even contentment. In fact, it’s been found that puppies begin using their tails to communicate as early as a month old! Like bees communicating through dance, behavioral experts now believe that dogs use their tails to show various emotions to humans and other animals alike. With that in mind, let’s take a closer look at what your dog might be trying to tell you.
When a puppy is about a month old, he recognizes that he needs to communicate with his siblings and mom. So, he watches for cues from his mother and siblings. He begins to learn to wag his tail to tell his siblings that he is done playing or to tell his mom that he is hungry. Each is a slightly different wag and, unless you’re really paying attention, can be hard to differentiate as a casual observer.
So how can you accurately assess what emotion your dog is feeling? Well, you need to establish a baseline that will be unique to not only your dog’s breed but also your dog’s personality, as they will have a unique neutral or natural tail position. For example, most dogs have tails that hang relaxed but breeds like Beagles hold their tail rigid and high, and Whippets naturally tuck their tail under.
The faster the wag, the more excited or emotional the dog is. An extremely rapid wag is known as flagging and is usually done with the tail in a neutral or slightly raised position. For example, a dog that is friendly will wag his tail more freely, maybe even adding a butt wiggle to it, while a dog that is unsure or insecure might wag his tail ever so slightly to indicate that he is insecure. The tail might also be tucked or lowered, indicating submission or that the dog is afraid. This lower tail position reduces the amount of scent emitted from the anal glands, allowing the dog to “fly under the radar” and not attract additional attention from other dogs or animals.
A dog that wags his tail really fast while holding it straight up can indicate an active threat. The higher the tail, the greater the threat. Look for other body signs like stiffness and a direct stare. This stance can release a scent from the anal glands announcing the dog’s arrival and marking his territory in a bold manner.
If you’re paying close attention, you will be able to see when your dog transitions from a neutral stance to an alert one. When dogs are alert, they tend to stand with their ears up and tails raised. This posture indicates they are watching and ready to confront whatever caught their attention.
Alternatively, a curious dog will have his tail straight out in a horizontal position. You might also see them sniffing or trying to move in the direction of whatever they’ve taken note of.
Ultimately, if the dog in question is your trusted companion, you’re going to have a pretty good sixth sense about what they’re feeling or experiencing. When you’ve spent tons of time together, you can tell when they go from neutral to curious to scared or excited. The change in body language can be quick, but the more time you spend with your dog, the easier it will be for them to communicate with you.
Just make sure that you’re aware of these body language indications when it comes to dogs that you’re not familiar with. A scared dog can be an unpredictable dog, and since they can’t verbally communicate with you, it’s up to you to give them distance and respect until you gain a better understanding of the situation.