Dogs are highly social animals that use a complex language of body postures, facial expressions and vocalizations to communicate with one another. Tail signals are an integral part of this canine code.
Tail wagging evolved among ancestral wild dogs as a type of semaphore system that could be easily spotted from a distance. According to psychologist Dr. Stanley Coren, this was enhanced through evolution. Tails became bushier, acquired a lighter underside, or developed a contrasting white or black tip, so as to increase visibility. At close range, wagging might have helped disperse the distinctive scents from under the dog’s tail. Behaviorists note that the tail wag is an interactive gesture intended for another dog, person, or animate creature. Solitary dogs do not wag.
Some dogs wag more than others. It varies by breed and individual. Of course there is the classic hip-gyrating, tail-twirling, whole-body wag of the prototypical Yellow Lab. Other dogs may be quite restrained and barely wag at all. This does not mean they are unfriendly or depressed. Dogs with docked tails (i.e. a cosmetically amputated tail as in Rottweilers, Dobermans, Schnauzers, Weimarauners, etc.) still wag their phantom tails but may be at a slight disadvantage to get their point across.
A relaxed and friendly dog will wag her tail as a cordial greeting that’s analogous to a human smile. But a wag of the tail does not always indicate friendliness. It can also signal dominance, aggression, submission, or uncertainty. As in most aspects of canine body language, it’s important to read all the cues. Tail position, body language, and facial expression all play a part.
Here is what the wag of the dog may be telling you:
“I’m happy to see you!”
“I’m in charge.”
“I don’t get it.”
Here are two additional tail-related terms:
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