Journey into the Dog Psyche: The Language of Tail Wagging

Posted by TF Oren

You can learn a lot about what’s going on in your dog’s head just by watching his tail.

A dog’s tail wag has long been associated with happiness, but that’s not always the case. In fact, tail wagging is a nuanced social behavior that signals a wide range of mental and physical states. Learning to interpret a tail wag provides a telling window into your dog’s state of mind.

There have been a number of studies on dog psychology, including those conducted by Psychology Professor Dr. Stanley Coren, Ph.D., F.R.S.C. of the University of British Colombia. Dr. Coren’s work has revealed some interesting things about the social function of tail wagging.

Tail wagging is communicative, meaning that a dog will only wag its tail in the presence of other living things, or, in the case of something that moves, perceived living things (like a blowing leaf or a rolling ball). Dr. Coren likens this to the way people are much more likely to talk to each other than a lone person is to talk to a wall.

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There are three elements to consider when decoding a tail wag: motion, position, and direction. It is important to remember that different breeds hold their tails differently.

A Jack Russell Terrier and a Greyhound have radically different natural tail positions. So, taking a dog’s natural tail position into consideration is a crucial first step in interpreting that individual dog’s tail language accurately. Unfortunately, owners of dogs with docked tails are at a great disadvantage when it comes to reading tail language.

Because dogs are more tuned into movements than they are to other details in their surroundings, tail wagging is an immediately noticeable way for dogs to signal things amongst one another. Even the nature of the tail itself is designed to attract the attention of other dogs; colored tips and prominent tail silhouettes (i.e. bushy tails) are examples of physical details that draw attention to the tail.

The position of the tail is another telling aspect of tail wagging language. Dr. Coren’s research suggests that tail height is a good indicator of a dog’s emotional state. A relaxed dog generally holds his tail at a medium height. A horizontally-held tail indicates that the dog is alert and attentive. The higher the tail goes, the more on edge, dominant, or potentially aggressive, the dog is feeling. A low-held indicates fear or submission, and a tail tucked between the legs is widely recognized as an expression of fear.

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The speed at which a dog wags its tail combined with the breadth of each wag yields a host of signals. Here are some of the more common speed/breadth combinations:

  • A mild wag with a narrow tail sweep is generally a tentative greeting.
  • A big, wide wag that pulls the hips along with it is an expression of friendliness. It is what most people interpret as the happiness wag.
  • A slow wag when the tail is held at medium (neutral) height is less social than other tail movements. More often than not, slow wags with the tail in a neutral position are indications of insecurity.
  • Fast, narrow wags that make the tail look as if it’s vibrating usually indicate that the dog is about to do something, such as run or fight. A high-held tail that’s wagging in this manner is usually an active threat.

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Scientists and veterinarians at Italy’s Universities of Trieste and Bari have conducted further research into the language of tail wagging. They found that tail wags can be either biased to the right or to the left. The directional bias (interpreted from behind the dog) reveals whether a dog feels positively or negatively about a stimulus. The research revealed that a right-biased wag indicates that the dog feels positively about something, whereas a left-biased wag is in an indicator that the dog feels negatively about it.

If you know what to look for, your dog’s tail is a minute-by-minute window into his headspace. Interested in learning more about what your dog’s wagging tail is trying to tell you? Read more about Dr. Coren’s research here.

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Journey into the Dog Psyche: The Language of Tail Wagging