Tail Wags: Learning to Speak Dog

You often hear people say, after being bitten by a dog, “I don’t get it! It came out of nowhere! He was wagging his tail and then all of a sudden bit me!”

It’s important to understand that although tail-wagging is typically associated with a happy dog, tails can communicate a lot of different emotions. As we make an effort to better communicate with dogs, we need to understand their language.

According to Stanley Coren, tails can communicate using three features: position, shape, and movement.

Tail Position

Position is relative, because different breeds carry their tails at different heights naturally. But relative to their natural stance, here are some messages tail positions carry. Higher tails indicate confidence, and lower tails can indicate fear.

  • Up and slightly curved over the back: “I’m the best, and everyone knows it. I’m confident.”
  • Up at a 45 degree angle: “I’m the boss, and if you doubt me I’ll prove it to you.”
  • Horizontal, pointing away from the dog but not stiff: “I’m interested in something.”
  • Horizontal, pointing away from the dog, stiff: “I’m going to show an intruder I’m the boss.”
  • Just a little bit lower than horizontal, with an occasional wag: “I’m relaxed.”
  • Down, near hind legs, “I’m a little depressed or I don’t feel good.”
  • Down, tucked between legs: “I’m scared! Don’t hurt me!”

Tail Shape

The next aspect of tail communication is shape. Again, this can be relative to the breed of dog, but here are some generalizations. As you’ll see, most changes in shape indicate some form of aggression.

  • Bristling hair all the way down: Basically adds a challenge to the message of the position. It’s an indication that the dog is willing to fight, whether that’s to show dominance (if the tail is up), to establish who’s the boss (if the tail is horizontal), or to defend himself (if the tail is down).
  • Bristling at just the tip: Adds fear or anxiety to the message.
  • Crick or sharp bend when tail is high: Another message of aggression, but more imminent of a threat. “Back off, I’m going to attack!”
  • Crick near the tip of the tail: Moderate aggression.

My dogs both have long hair on their tails, making it impossible to see bristling hair and disguising any cricks. For me, this isn’t a big way to communicate. But if you have a short-haired breed, this could be a great communication tool.

Tail Movement

The final aspect is tail movement. This is where wagging comes in. But remember, not all tail wagging is happy wagging. Slow wagging generally means insecurity of some sort, while fast wagging indicates more enthusiasm. Here’s what tail movements can mean.

  • Fast wagging: Shows excitement or tension. These two may seem opposite, but the width of the wag matters. Bigger sweeps show a positive excitement, while smaller but fast swings indicate a strong negative feeling. When my dog Peanut barks out the window and wags her tail, it wags quickly, but not very wide. She holds it stiffly. That means she is showing a negative emotion. (Her tail is also up high when she barks and wags it, indicating aggression.)
  • Slight wag with small swings: A tentative greeting, like saying, “Hello, I’m here.”
  • Broad wag with big swings: Friendly signal indicating that the dog likes you and/or wants to play. It’s also the one you see when your dog is happy.
  • Broad wag that also wags the hips: This is the one you probably see when you get home from work; I do! The dog is excited but also humble, happy to see you and indicating his allegiance to you.
  • Slow wag with tail straight out: Can indicate confusion. The dog is trying to understand you, but may not be sure what you’re trying to get across.

Get a Happy Tail Wag

Waggity Tales got its name because we believe that reading a customized book your dog can understand will elicit the happy kind of tail wags we all know and love. See for yourself! Get a book for your dog here.


Reference: How to Speak Dog: Mastering the Art of Dog-Human Communication, by Stanley Coren