How to read the messages that dogs send 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.
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.
What Do Sad Tails Look Like?
What about a lowered tail? Sometimes it just means that the dog is super relaxed. But a dog whose tail is clamped down, maybe even tucked between his back legs, is not having a good time. Sometimes you see a clamped tail in a fairly benign situation, for example on a dog who’s trying to avoid another dog’s attempts to sniff his butt or mount him. Bail your dog out. The encounter may not lead to trouble, but still, why should he have to put up with a dog who won’t take no for an answer?
Dogs also lower their tails when afraid; if I’ve failed to smell the ozone, I can still tell a thunderstorm is on the way. The droop in my younger dog’s tail informs me that it’s time for his anti-anxiety meds.
How to Handle Shy or Fearful Dogs
If you’re just meeting a shy or fearful dog, resist any temptation to get close and comfort him. A fearful dog may explode if he feels cornered. Instead, let him check you out at his own pace -- just hang out quietly as if he’s not there. You can watch his tail and other body language to let you know when he’s ready to make friends.
Your questions and comments help me prepare future episodes. Email email@example.com, call 206-600-5661, or talk to me on Facebook – search on The Dog Trainer. That’s it for this week! Thank you.
Sophie Collins. Tail Talk: Understanding the Secret Language of Dogs (2007).
Barbara Handelman. Canine Behavior: A Photo Illustrated Handbook (2008).
Brenda Aloff. Canine Body Language: A Photographic Guide (2005).
Sarah Kalnajs. The Language of Dogs (DVDs; 2006).
Dog Tail Wag image from Shutterstock