People have this belief that dogs wag their tails whenever they are happy or are in a friendly mood. This is often the case if you also see other signs of canine “happiness” such as a “smile”. However, depending on the movement and positioning of the tail, wagging can also mean other things. So, a dog that’s wagging its tail doesn’t necessarily mean that it wants you to pet it. It can also mean you should stay where you are. In this article, we’ll try to explore why dogs wag their tails as well as the possible meanings of tail wag variations.
The Evolution of the Tail Wag
The wagging of the dog’s tail is as ancient as the dog itself. It’s not a phenomenon that the dog discovered only recently. Moreover, the tail had a more functional purpose than a mere component of canine behavior.
The dog’s tail is composed of several small and short bones, connected to one another by special joints. This allows the muscles that connect to these bones to move the individual bone sections. The movement of the tail is, thus, inherent in the contractions of the muscles that attach to these bones.
The tail, as mentioned, had a very functional purpose. It is like a boat’s rudder, allowing the dog to make sudden changes in direction when running after prey. This allows the dog to avoid obstacles and to maintain its balance while making those sharp turns. The same tail also allows canines to swim with relative ease. As we said, it’s like a boat’s rudder, allowing the hound to change direction while in the water.
A dog’s tail is also functional in terms of keeping it steady and balanced. For example, dogs walking on a thin strip of wood depend on their tails to maintain balance so they don’t fall. It’s also useful for leaping and climbing.
Given that tails have a more functional purpose, it would be more surprising if dogs did not learn to use it to also communicate their “thoughts”. As far as modern pet parents are concerned, the dog’s tail as a communication tool is more important than its other functions.
Deciphering the Tail Wag
Since the dog’s tail serves many purposes, we shall limit our discussion of the tail wag to its more modern use – communication. There are three important factors that we have to consider if we want to understand what a particular wagging tail means. Let’s go through them one at a time.
Height of the Tail
One of the most important parameters of the dog’s tail wag is its height. The height of the tail often correlates with a dog’s confidence or enthusiasm. In general, a dog wagging its tail held high often means it is enthusiastic and confident. On the other hand, if the wagging tail is low, it signals nervousness, timidity, or lack of confidence.
Involved Tail Sections
Here’s where it gets interesting. If the entire length of the tail is moving, it often signals a state of friendliness and amiableness in the dog. However, if only the tip of the tail is wagging, you’d better be careful not to pet the dog.
A tail that’s held up high, but with only its tip wagging is an indication of high arousal. It means the dog is more than ready to interact with you. The sad thing is that this “interaction” may not be what you’d expect. The interaction can occur in a less than friendly or controlled manner. Hence, if you encounter a dog that wags its tail in this particular manner, you’d better back off. If you are the owner of such a dog, it is often wise to work your dog a bit to help it become more relaxed and calm.
Speed of the Wag
In a general sense, the faster the tail wags, the more approachable is the dog. However, you should also consider other cues. A tail that moves at a frantic pace, but with very narrow movements is often interpreted as something not good. If the dog holds and moves its tail up high but does so in vibration-like movements, people consider it as an active threat.
A slow wag can mean different things, too. If the tail is at half mast, the dog is in a less social mood. If the tail is neither high nor low, it’s a sign of canine insecurity.
Orientation of the Tail Wag
There’s an interesting new evidence that suggests the general orientation of the dog’s tail can tell you whether the dog is friendly or not. If the tail movements curve more to the right with respect to the dog’s center line, it means the dog is in an approachable state. Its mood is more positive; hence, you can approach it and pet it.
On the other hand, tail movements that are left-biased tend to depict avoidance behavior in the dog. It is telling you that it doesn’t want your attention at this time, so back away.
Friendly dogs often move their tails in wide sweeping motions. In many cases, the dog’s body also moves with the tail. This means the dog is friendly. You can see a more relaxed body.
The general consensus is that the closer the movements are to the front of the dog’s body, the friendlier is the dog. As such, a dog that moves its butt when wagging its tail is a friendly dog. However, if the dog also moves its torso or chest section, then this dog is in a happier and friendlier disposition.
Stiffness or Tension of the Tail
Any stiffness in the dog’s tail is not a good sign. What you want is a relaxed, flowing, and loose wag as signs of a friendly hound. Tension equates to stress. You don’t want to go near a dog that is under stress.
Dogs wag their tails to communicate. It’s a rudimentary tool for them to convey their emotions and thoughts. However, as useful a communication tool as the tail wag is, one should always interpret it within the context of other canine behavioral cues.
- What a Wagging Dog Tail Really Means: New Scientific Data – Psychology Today
- Why Do Dogs Wag Their Tails? You Asked Google – Here’s the Answer – The Guardian
- Why Do Dogs Wag Their Tails? – PetMD