Dogs communicate using body language (if you have a dog that speaks, this post still applies to you). Seeing life from your dog’s point of view requires you to know what his body is trying to tell you.
As pet parents, we’d like to think our dogs make sense of the world in ways similar to us humans. You see a wagging tail as a happy dog and might think big yawns mean a pooped pup. Simple, right? In reality, it’s not so cut and dry. When your dog yawns, it can sometimes be a result of anxiety rather than a signal of a tuckered-out pal. Small shifts in weight (front-leaning paws can mean curious, eager, or protective) and ear position (pinned back can indicate fear or intimidation) often reveal entire states of mind. Your dog’s tail, for example, is one of his most expressive parts and is a compass unto itself. Understanding that a low-swinging tail signals stress can improve your ability to meet your dog’s cues with care and compassion.
Dog language is easy to learn, but it does require a little interpretation. Knowing how to decode these visual cues can help you understand your four-legged companion that much better.
The natural assumption is that when your dog’s tail is wagging, she’s happy. Interestingly, this is not always the case. In addition to tail position, the speed of the wag itself and the side to which it’s wagging can help decipher a dog’s emotional state.
A tail that’s wagging more to the right indicates positive emotions—happiness, contentment, satisfaction; and a tail wagging more to the left indicates negative emotions like fear, aggression, and discomfort. An easy way to remember this comes from a fun-fact that applies to all mammals: The left side of the brain deals with positive behaviors, and the right side of the brain deals with negative behaviors. Each side of the brain controls the opposite side of the body, so when you see a right-swing, think, “left brain love” and for left-swing “right brain riled-up”.
When it comes to tail speed, the faster the tail is wagging, the higher the energy—both positive and negative. In some cases, you may see a dog whose tail is wagging so fast that it appears to be vibrating. It’s best to try to avoid a dog in that state, especially one that doesn’t know you. If it’s your own dog, a calm demeanor and a treat might de-escalate her state.
Tail Positions of a Fearful, Anxious, or Stressed Dog
Misreading your dog’s body language can often lead to aggressive behavior on his part. Your job as a responsible pet parent is to understand what your dog is trying to say so that you know whether to extricate him from a situation before he becomes aggressive. If your dog’s tail is in any of the following positions, he’s trying to tell you he’s feeling fearful, anxious, or stressed.
- Tucked Tail: He’s trying to tell you that he’s stressed or anxious and could become defensive.
- High and Rigid Tail: A stationary tail pointed straight up is a sign that your dog is aroused and likely to react to something around him.
- Low Tail, Wagging Quickly: This can indicate insecurity and aggression (particularly if accompanied by tense muscles and dilated eyes).
Tail Position of a Content, Happy, or Social Dog
When a dog’s tail appears to be in a relaxed, neutral position, she’s showing signs of happiness and sociability. But first it’s important to know what a neutral position looks like for your pup. If you have a breed like the Rhodesian Ridgeback or a greyhound, you’ll notice their tails are in a neutral position that looks like it is somewhat tucked under their legs. A lab or golden retriever, on the other hand, has more lifted hind quarters and thus a higher neutral tail position.
Tail positions that say your dog is happy, content and social:
- Relaxed Tail: It says, “I am approachable.”
- High and Rapidly-Wagging Tail: It poses no immediate threat and indicates neutrality or joy.
If you’re looking to understand your dog better, you can add a layer of data to your observations instead of relying on observation alone. The Wagz® Freedom Smart Dog Collar™ is a connected collar that can actually track activity, health, and wellness. One of the many things the Wagz Freedom Collar can do, when connected to the Wagz App, is analyze this data and formulate an overall Health & Happiness Score for your dog.
Love is often the driving force for all we do to keep our pets healthy and well-tended to, and the grateful expressions that come from a dog who feels understood can make the legwork of learning their language that much more rewarding.