What Do Dogs Say with Their Tails?

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

Jolanta Benal, CPDT-KA, CBCC-KA
4-minute read
Episode #13

Does a Wagging Tail Mean a Dog is Happy?

Finally, stay back from a tense, high-standing dog whose tight, high tail is moving slowly back and forth. That is the classic “But he was wagging his tail!” position; a dog who’s approached when sending this offensive signal is probably going to lunge, at the very least, if you come closer.

Tail amputation for cosmetic purposes is banned in several countries but still routine in the United States for many breeds. Obviously, it’s harder to read a tail that isn’t there; the best you can do is watch the position and movement of the stump.

What Do Happy Tails Look Like?

A friendly wag -- unmistakably friendly -- often involves the dog’s whole back end. Her tail moves sweepingly back and forth. If she’s really excited about the person she’s greeting, she may even wag in big, fast circles. Butt wiggles also come into play. The whole friendly-dog package usually includes a slightly lowered body, open mouth, squinty eyes, and ears somewhat back. This dog might knock you down if she’s overexcited, big, and unmannerly, but otherwise her body language is about as close as you can get to a safety guarantee.

Bear in mind that you should evaluate each context individually, though. A dog who’s friendly on the street may snarl and lunge when you come through her front door. And the dog who barks at passersby through the partly open window of a parked car may be thrilled to see those very same people as soon as her owner lets her out.


About the Author

Jolanta Benal, CPDT-KA, CBCC-KA

Jolanta holds professional certifications in both training and behavior counseling and belongs to the Association of Professional Dog Trainers and the International Association of Animal Behavior Consultants. She also volunteered with Pet Help Partners, a program of the Humane Society of the United States that works to prevent pet relinquishment. Her approach is generally behaviorist (Pavlovian, Skinnerian and post-Skinnerian learning theory) with a big helping of ethology (animal behavior as observed in non-experimental settings).