The Tail Tells The Tale

Most dogs that bite are wagging their tails!

We have all heard the old adage, a wagging tail on a dog means the dog is happy, right?

This is a myth!

A wagging tail does not always mean that a dog is approachable, much less friendly.

I don’t know how many times I have heard dog owners say, “He was barking and growling, but I didn’t think he meant it because his tail was wagging”.

Often people and children get bitten by a dog because they misinterpret a tail wag as a good thing.

Tail wags mean a number of things.  When I talk about the tail I am talking about how the base of the tail is held not necessarily the tip.  The base of the tail can be held low or parallel to the spine when the tip is still held fairly high.

The tail is one of the most expressive parts of a dog and although it tells a tale, it isn’t always one of happiness or friendliness.

Let’s Break Down the Tail…

A Very High Held Tail

  • A tail that is held very high is often a sign of a dominant dog.  Watch dogs at the dog park or when interacting with other dogs, the dog with the highest tail is almost always the dominant dog.
  • When you add to this dominant stance a vigorous wag it can also be a sign of danger and aggression.
  • These are often the dogs that people pet and then get bitten by, this wag doesn’t indicate friendliness, and it is often seen right before the teeth strike.  Many dogs assume this body posture and wag before biting.
  • I tell people, parents, children and dog owners that a tail that is perpendicular to the back and is wagging fast like a rattlesnake shakes his rattle; this is a dog to be cautious of!
  • The ears of this dog are usually held high and forward on the head as well.

A Parallel Tail Wag

  • The dog that wags parallel to his spine is usually the sign of a happy dog.
  • This is neither a dominant wag or body stance nor a submissive stance or wag.
  • This is usually the wag you see when he is playing or doing something he loves.
  • The ears of this dog are usually carried in a normal position neither high nor low or back on his head.

A Slightly Dropped Tail Wag

  • The dog that drops his tail slightly and wags in low is usually the sign of a happy and slightly submissive dog.
  • This is the wag you usually see when returning home to your dog.  He is happy to see you and submits to your authority.
  • This is also my one of my favorite wags to see when my dog greets another person.
  • The dog’s ears are usually held back on the top of the head and may even fold back.

 The Between the Legs Tail Wag

  • This is a scared dog wag.
  • This is another wag that can get you bit if you push this dog.
  • Scared dogs drop their tails low when they are scared and sometimes the tail even sucks up between their legs.  Their eyes may dilate and their ears often suck backward low and press back against their head and their body is often stiff.
  • This tail, like the upright tail may also wag or shake like a rattlesnake rattle.  Even if this dog is wagging, it does not mean he is comfortable or friendly.
  • Scare dogs have earned the title “fear biters” for a reason, they get so scared they feel like they have no other way out of a situation than to bite.
  • So when you see this body stance and your hand goes up over his head, he may panic and bite.  His body is trying to give you as many clues as possible and he feels like he is left with no other choice.
  • Never pet this dog, unless his eyes, ears, tail and body become more comfortable.

The Circular Tail Wag

  • This is hands down my favorite wag.  I believe that a dog who’s tail wags in a circle is the happiest he can be.
  • I have one dog who wags in a circle, and he always does this when I come home.  I think it means he is elated.
  • Not all dogs wag like this; it is my opinion that only the really special dogs wag in a circle

Wagging to the Left or Right

 A study was done about 5 years ago in Italy looking at dogs and their tails.

  • It was determined by studying 30 pets that dogs that wag to the left side of their body seem to be showing fear or depression.
  • And, dogs that wag to the right are showing feelings of love, safety and calm.
  • I am not sure I have jumped on the bandwagon of this study I think many more dogs need to be studied, but I thought it would be interesting to share!

What about Dogs with Curly Tails or Docked Tails?

You can still see where the tail is held if you are familiar with dogs.

I can see if an Akita’s (curly) tail is held HIGH, normal (which is still fairly high), dropped or uncurled and low (fear).

The same can be witnessed for dogs that have docked or almost no tails if you watch the “nubbin”.

The Key….

Don’t assume that just because a dog’s tail is wagging that he is happy to see you or friendly in anyway!

Aggressive dogs often wag their tails!

And, be very careful that you train your children never to pet dogs that they don’t know and that you are diligent if you allow them to pet unknown dogs in your presence!

Of course these traits are always generalities; even a circular tail-wagger can bite!  Arm yourself with knowledge and be as careful as possible when dealing with dogs!