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!”
The tail is held in a neutral position and sweeps back and forth in a relaxed “U.” The more excited the dog, the more rapid the wag. When paired with a “play bow” it means “Let’s play!”
“I’m in charge.”
The tail is held high and wags stiffly. The whole body is tense, legs spread, head held high, ears forward. This is the classic stance of a dominant dog.
The tail is held erect over the back and almost twitches. The body posture is confident, hackles raised, and the dog may stare, bare its teeth, growl, or bark. Sadly, many people misinterpret the cues, thinking a wagging dog is a friendly dog, and get bitten as a result.
The tail is tucked between the legs and the tail tip oscillates quickly. This is paired with other submissive cues such as a crouched stance, retracted head and ears, averted gaze, and lips drawn back into a sheepish grin.
“I don’t get it.”
Tail-wagging can also be considered a displacement gesture, one which shows that a dog is anxious or confused. A dog who looks up at you half-expectantly, half-quizzically, as her tail sweeps in a slow arc, is probably trying to figure out what you just said.
Here are two additional tail-related terms:
It’s a condition of heavy-tailed dogs (e.g. Great Danes) and overexuberant waggers (e.g. the Yellow Lab). The tail that wipes your coffee table clean in a single swipe can also get injured from constantly banging into things. No sooner does the tail wound scab over than it’s knocked about and traumatized again. If your dog has a non-healing scab on the tail, it’s time to see the vet.
Also known as “Cold Tail,” and “Swimmer’s Tail,” it’s a curious medical condition in which a dog’s tail goes limp following vigorous swimming. It’s thought this results from fatigue or loss of circulation to the tail muscles. It typically resolves on its own within 48-72 hours. Since a limp or lifeless tail can indicate other problems, including pain, fracture, or a neurologic condition, be sure to consult with your veterinarian.
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