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What Your Dog's Tail Can Tell You

Your dog’s tail can communicate a lot.

A dog's tail. It's one of the things that separates us from our canine friends, but it's one of their most endearing features.

Dogs' tails can communicate a lot of information to us if we know how to interpret it.

A Dog's Tail Position Has Meaning

The position of a dog's tail can communicate information about what that dog is thinking and feeling. Here are some examples:

  • Tail held high and still indicates alertness and the desire to portray dominance.
  • Tail held high and wagging shows happiness but also a state of alertness. The dog is cautiously excited but showing dominance.
  • Tail held between the legs indicates fear or submission.
  • Tail held straight out means that the dog is taking in new information and is so far responding neutrally.
A dog's tail has many possible positions and movements.

Tail Wagging in Dogs Doesn't Always Mean Happiness

Tail wagging can mean many different things, and it must be interpreted along with a dog's other body language at the time.

Relaxed vs. tense facial muscles, upright vs. laid-back ear position, and whether the hair coat is standing up, bristling, or relaxed can all give information about a dog's feelings.

In general, dogs' tails wag faster as they get more excited, slower as they are less enthusiastic about something, have broader strokes as they are feeling happier, and smaller strokes as they're getting more uptight about something.

Even the direction in which a dog's tail is wagging means something. Researchers recently found differences in whether a dog's tail wagged to the left or right:

  • Tail wagging to the right means a dog is feeling pleasant and is encountering something or someone known to him (Stanley Coren Ph.D., 2011).
  • Tail wagging to the left means a dog is encountering a person or other dog that isn't known to him, and he wants to show dominance (Stanley Coren Ph.D., 2011).

Individual Dogs Have Differing Tail Communication

As with people, individual dogs can have their own habits with regards to their tail position and movement. You will get to know your dog's tail communication as you get to know him.

When you are approaching a new dog, it's best not to rely on tail position and movement alone to gauge his friendliness. Look at all of his body language together and also ask his owner whether he is generally friendly before you approach him. Learn more here: "How to Greet a New Dog."


Works Cited

  1. Stanley Coren Ph.D., F. (2011, Dec. 5). What a Dog's Tail Wags Really Mean: Some New Scientific Data. Retrieved from Psychology Today.

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