26th Feb, 2019

Written by Claire Atkinson M.A. (Cantab.), Qualified Canine Behaviourist and Certified TTouch® Practitioner.

As a child, I grew up with the belief that a dog wagging its tail was a happy dog. These days, however, we’re bolstered by scientific advances that have taught us more about understanding dogs. Today, we know there is much more to the signals our dogs are giving us (and other dogs and people) about their emotional state.

In fact, while some movements of the tail may indicate happiness, others may indicate insecurity, fear, or even threat. Of course, every dog is different, particularly with reference to the speed of tail movement and the position. For example, Beagles hold their tails straight up. That is a genetic trait, rather than a signal.

The tales that a dog’s tail can tell us are a means of social communication, in relation to other people, animals, and situations. It’s a useful form of communication with other dogs (and ourselves) because it’s easily noticeable.

In general, we can say that upward movement of the tail is a signal to other dogs and people that they should be wary and leave the dog alone. A tense posture often forms part of this communication.

As the tail drops downwards, the signal changes to a more submissive emotional state. A common “tell” is when the tail is tucked tightly under the body: this is a sign of fear and/or anxiety, signalling “please leave me alone”.

But what about our Beagle? And a docked tail? There are as many “at rest” positions as there are dogs. We observe the resting position and track deviations from this to understand our dog’s signals. Our Beagle, with his tail naturally high, will raise it a bit more and it will be tense prior to attack. The docked tail limits the signals and makes them harder to read.

In addition to the position of the tail, speed of movement indicates whether the dog is in a positive state – fast wagging of the tail combined with wiggle-waggle body movements are typical of the dog greeting its owner. Negative emotions are shown by slower movement.

Observing the direction in which your dog’s tail moves the most can tell you a lot about their emotional state. Neuroscientists based in Italy reported these findings: from the rear, the right side is favoured when emotions are positive, as opposed to the left side, which indicates negative feelings. This is due to the activation of left brain/right brain motivation, similar to that in humans.

Some of the more common tail movements that are easy to see may include:

  • Happy: a gently swaying tail with a loose body is the typical sign of a dog that’s pleased to see you (and other dogs and people). The more familiar the dog/person is, the greater the movement.
  • Uncertainty: A slight wag with short breath is indicative of uncertainty in the dog.
  • Bossy: The tail is upwards, stiff and wags fast.
  • On guard: The tail is stiff and upward – the dog is ready to attack.
  • Fearful: The tail tucked under the body, which is usually hunched. Your dog’s body is usually tense and stiff.

The “tell” of the tale is a good example of just how nuanced the general observations of dog behaviour can vary. While it’s a good, general indicator for behaviour, it depends – as always – on the dog. Owners can use this guide to begin to understand their dog’s state of mind, and facilitate their dog’s interactions with other animals and people.

May you have many moments of loose tails wagging with a right-side bias, and wiggle-waggle body!