As dog owners, we sometimes think know it all when it comes to pup’s mood — from the way they cock their heads to the direction their ears point — but how often do we look at what’s happening with their tails? While it may not seem like an important part of a dog’s body language, there’s much more to every tail wag than meets the eye.
People tend to misinterpret dog’s body language more often than they think, with tail wagging topping that list, according to Sarah Westcott, CPDT-KSA and owner of Doggie Academy in Brooklyn, New York. A commonly misguided phrase, “well, they’re wagging their tail so they must like it” can easily precede a bout of unwanted aggression.
This can be particularly trying for dog owners with small children. If a dog uses its tail to tell someone to “stay away” and that person thinks it means, “pet me,” it could lead to a difficult situation for both the dog and the owner, Westcott said.
Interpreting the Wagging Tail
Dog tail wagging covers a range of motions from wide and loopy to high and tight — some even using their whole hind end to wag their tags in a circular motion. The meaning behind a certain wag is individual to each dog and it’s important to evaluate your dog on his or her own scale of what a normal, happy or upset wag looks like, Westcott said. For example, if your dog normally carries his tail high, then a high tail wag is probably not an indication of danger for your dog. As a general rule, a wagging tail that’s loose and free means that the dog is enjoying an interaction, while a wag that’s stiff and quick can be a signal of stress, fear or aggression, Westcott said.
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There’s also science to support the idea that when dogs feel positive about something, their tails wag more to the right and when they feel negatively about something, their tails wag more to the left, according to the New York Times. In most animals, the left brain specializes in approach and energy enrichment and the right brain specializes in behaviors involving withdrawal.
According to the New York Times, because the left brain controls the right side of the body and the right brain controls the left side, it makes sense for dog’s tails to wag to opposite sides of the emotions that trigger in their brains.
Interacting with the Wagging Tail
Tail wagging, along with the rest of a dog’s body language, indicates their preparedness to interact with a given situation that can include other people or dogs. If someone is interacting with a dog and the tail wag indicates danger — with a wagging tip, a tense wag or a wag that’s too high or too low — the best thing to do is immediately stop all interaction, Westcott said. Appear non-confrontational by keeping your hands to yourself, avoiding direct eye contact and turning your side to the dog. If the dog indicating danger belongs to you, the best thing you can do is remove them from the situation, she said.
Other body language signals to look for include hard eye contact, tension around the mouth, lip licking, yawning, and pinned back ears as signs of a dog feeling stressed or upset about a certain situation.
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Photo courtesy of Doggie Academy