As dog owners, we like to think of our pets as “little humans” that understand the world the same way we do. We have learned to interpret a wagging tail as a happy dog, and a big yawn as an exhausted dog. But in reality, it’s not so cut and dry.
Dogs are constantly trying to communicate with us, but not in a language that we are accustomed to. In fact, a wagging tail can mean your dog is feeling stressed out (if it’s low to the ground and swinging). And when your dog yawns, it can sometimes be a result of anxiety – not lack of sleep.
Dogs communicate using body language more than they do vocally. So in order to see life from your dog’s point of view, you have to first understand what their body is trying to tell you – and your dog’s tail is one of the most expressive parts.
Tail Positions in a Fearful, Anxious and Stressed Dog
Misreading your dog’s body language can often lead to behavior that is commonly referred to as “aggressive”. Our job as responsible dog owners is to understand what our dog is trying to communicate to us so we know if we need to get them out of a situation before they become “aggressive”. If your dog’s tail is in any of the following positions, they are trying to tell you they are feeling fearful, anxious, or stressed.
- Tucked – If your dog tucks her tail underneath her legs, she is trying to tell you that she is stressed or anxious and could become defensive
- High and Rigid – A tail pointed straight up and not wagging is a sign that your dog is aroused and more likely to react to something around her
- Low and Wagging Quickly – When your dog’s tail is low and wagging quickly, this can indicate insecurity and aggression (if accompanied by tense muscles and dilated eyes)
Tail Positions in a Content, Happy and Social Dog
Generally speaking, when a dog’s tail appears in a relaxed, neutral position, the dog is showing signs of happiness and sociability. It’s important to know what is “neutral” for your dog to get an accurate reading. Some dog breeds, like Rhodesian Ridgebacks or Greyhounds have a neutral position that looks somewhat tucked under their legs. A dog with the following tail positions are likely feeling happy, content and social:
- Relaxed: A dog with a relaxed tail is saying, “I am approachable”
- High and Wagging Quickly: A tail that is raised high and wagging quickly poses no immediate threat
The natural assumption is that when your dog’s tail is wagging, she is happy. In reality, we are seeing that this is not always the case. In addition to tail position, a dog’s emotional state can also be deciphered by how fast the tail is wagging and which side it is bias to.
A tail that is wagging more strongly to the right indicates positive emotions, like happiness, and a tail that is wagging more strongly to the left indicates negative emotions, like fear or aggression.
Biologically, this makes sense, since the left side of the brain deals with positive behaviors, and the right side of the brain deals with negative behaviors (and each side of the brain controls the opposite side of the body).
And 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.
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