It’s often assumed when a dog is wagging their tail, they’re happy or excited. We get confused when a dog is barking or acting ‘aggressive’ and also wagging their tail, like how is it possible the dog is happy but also behaving in such an aggressive manner?
The problem is, a waggy tail doesn’t necessarily mean a dog is happy. It’s a misconception which leads to confusion and potentially risky situations when people interpret the signal incorrectly.
With dog body language, we always have to observe multiple signs and take the context into account before we can be sure about what a dog is trying to communicate. Simply looking at the tail and coming to the conclusion that a dog is happy, means we may miss all the other signs which indicate the opposite.
Wagging tails can absolutely mean a happy dog, but usually the tail will be wagging in big circles or big relaxed movements. It is likely to be held at a more neutral place (i.e. not tucked low or held really high).
It depends on the dog because some will lack the ability to show a big loose wag or their tail may naturally always be held high (e.g. curly tailed dogs). Looking at the body as a whole will give more indication about whether it’s truly a happy wag.
Happy, relaxed dogs will have loose body language, there should be no tension in how they’re standing and often their bodies move loosely with their tails.
When the tail is held in its most natural position, whether that’s curled high, dropped low, or somewhere in the middle, it suggests the dog is relaxed. The rest of the body should replicate this and the dog shouldn’t be showing tension.
A neutral tail may wag loosely, some dogs seem to spend most their waking hours with a wagging tail, while others save their wags for more significant moments!
As a general rule, low or tucked tails indicate a fearful or worried dog. This is somewhat dependent on the individual, how their tail is designed, and how they’ve learnt to display fear. However, often a worried or fearful dog will drop their tail low. It may wag slightly or frantically, but this shouldn’t be mistaken for a happy, relaxed wag.
Worried wags are often very tense, fast and appear frantic. With a low tail and fast wagging, the dog is usually trying to signal fear or uncertainty. Some may hold their tail low and wag slightly, usually stiffer or tenser movements than they would when truly relaxed and happy.
It’s common to see a worried wag if a dog is greeting another dog or person and feeling a little uncertain about the situation. This can be easily misinterpreted as a dog who is happy about the greeting.
Much like the worried tail, a dog who is stressed or uncomfortable in a situation may drop their tail low (if they can) or show a tense wag of their tail. It may be a fairly subtle movement of the tail, not a big loose wag of a happy dog.
These small tense wags can be a signal the dog is finding a situation stressful or worrying and a cue to remove them or help them out of the situation.
Alongside the low tail and worried wags, you will see other signs to indicate stress or fear, such as cowering, ears pulled back, whites of the eyes showing, or lots of lip licking. Some dogs may try to move away, some will roll onto their backs and some will freeze. Putting together several signals which indicate stress or fear will help you establish what the tail is also communicating.
The Alert Tail
When a tail is held high and tense, this can signal a dog is alert to something. The tail may also wag but it will be a tight wag and possibly just the upper end of the tail will be showing movement, with the rest held very tense.
This can typically be seen in dogs who are apprehensive or alert to something around them, perhaps they’ve heard a noise or seen a person walking towards them and they’re feeling agitated or ready to take action. It might also be seen in interactions if there is some tension between dogs they may hold their tails high and show tight wags while interacting.
This tail can be source of confusion in reactive or aggressive behaviours, while everything else about the dog is suggesting they are not happy, the slightly wagging tail fools you into think they are.
If a dog is giving you other warning signs, like growling, barking, showing their teeth or generally being very tense, their tail is most likely trying to back all these signals up by wagging in a tense and stiff manner.
Remembering the many ways a tail can be used in communication is important in understanding what your dog is trying to tell you.
A dog who is barking because they’re excited to see a familiar person or dog will likely also be displaying a big waggy tail and loose body. While a dog who is barking because they’re worried by the sight of a person or dog is likely to have a much tenser body, a tighter wag of the tail and be holding their tail low or high, rather than at a neutral position.
Dogs communicate with their whole body and we must observe more than just their tails before we draw conclusions about how they’re feeling in a situation. We all love to see a happy waggy tail, but we must remember tails can wag for other reasons too.
Written by Naomi White