Although tails are only one part of a bigger picture, their movements can help dog owners better understand their four-legged companions.
Dogs are just like us: They experience excitement, fear, anxiety, stress and joy. Unlike their human companions, however, four-legged friends can’t chin-wag about what’s going on inside their furry noggins. Instead, dogs emote through body language.
Tuning in to what our pets are telling us with their bodies not only helps us better understand our dogs, but it also helps ensure more productive training sessions and more comfort for our pups, both at home and when socializing with people and other dogs.
When it comes to talking about wagging tails, it’s not the tail wagging the dog. Your pup’s tail is a key indicator of how she is feeling in a given moment.
Is it true that a wagging tail is a sure sign of a happy pup? Not necessarily. According to the American Kennel Club, dog’s tails wag when they are in an arousal state, which could be caused by happiness, fear, stress or defense. The faster the wag, the higher the arousal.
The gentle wagging of a neutral tail — neither tucked nor elevated — often indicates a dog is relaxed. A dog owner might notice this body language when hanging out with his pet at home in a calm environment. The same can be said for a loosely held tail in a neutral position, even if it isn’t wagging.
An elevated tail can indicate confidence, but other body language cues should be used to determine if the dog is excited or fearful. A stiff, elevated tail is sometimes seen during play, but it can also be a strong indicator of apprehension.
A stiff tail, sometimes wagging quickly, is commonly seen when a dog is greeting and sussing out another dog for the first time. If the dogs don’t mesh well, and one feels its personal space is being invaded, a scuffle could begin. Owners should remain watchful during these encounters and be prepared to act should things take a turn. If an elevated tail is paired with retracted ears or a display of teeth, it can indicate the pup is preparing itself for an altercation.
On the opposite end of the spectrum, a tucked tail indicates the dog is feeling stressed or fearful. This body language is often accompanied by avoidance, which could look like a dog moving away from the source of its anxiety or continually turning to keep its eyes on the person, dog or thing it is scared of. While tucked tails can indicate a dog is being submissive, scared dogs can also become reactive.
A 2007 study also found dogs tails are more likely to wag in certain directions after seeing certain stimuli, indicating a slight difference in body language could help a dog owner identify whether his or her pup is feeling good or bad about a situation.
When dogs reacted to positive stimulation — seeing their owners or other dogs — their tails tended to wag more toward the right side of their bodies. Meanwhile, negative stimulation — seeing a live cat — caused tails to wag toward the left.
These subtle but important differences can help clue us in on what our dog is thinking and feeling. And, monitoring our dog’s experiences can help us feel more connected to them while helping ensure their satiety and safety.