What Do Dogs Say with Their Tails?

How to read the messages that dogs send with their tails.

Jolanta Benal, CPDT-KA, CBCC-KA,
May 30, 2011
Episode #013

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What Do Dogs Say with Their Tails?

Most dogs speak clearly with their bodies; many humans need some help with the translation. In a future installment we'll explore how to read your dog's facial expressions.  Today, we will explain how to keep yourself from saying those famous last words “But he was wagging his tail!”

How to Read a Dog's Tail

Before we get to dogs’ tails, consider the word “rock.” Does it mean a kind of music, the movement of a cradle, or that hard object you just tripped over? The context tells you which definition is correct. To understand what a dog is communicating, look at more than one body part, and at the body as a whole. Body weight forward indicates likely approach; body weight back suggests the dog would prefer to retreat. The higher a dog carries himself, and the stiffer and more tense his muscles, the more amped he is. A tense dog isn’t necessarily about to aggress, but proceed with caution unless you know him well.

What Does a Tense Tail Mean?

A high, tense body often goes with a high, tight, stiff tail held in a C curve. But all curved tails are not alike. Some tails are set relatively high on the dog’s back, or hold a C curve even when the dog’s relaxed. My older dog’s tail normally hangs in a soft wave down to her rear hocks. My younger dog’s is set high and makes a nearly perfect C. When he’s relaxed, the C bounces with every step. When he’s tense, it stiffens up and the curve of the C grows tighter. The tip of the C moves forward over his back.

And there’s a good rule of thumb: the stiffer and more still the dog and his tail, the more careful you should be. Avoid engagement until you see the dog relax. Even then, consider what the dog was so tense about and how quickly he settles down. If he was laser-focused on a squirrel, the squirrel has fled, and the dog has shaken himself and now looks soft and loose, there’s probably no cause for concern. But keep your distance from any dog who’s holding his tail high, tight, and stiff, and who has oriented toward you. Also, many dogs in a state of great excitement or tension will lash out at anyone who touches them. So, even if you know the dog, keep some air between you till he settles down.