Tail-Wagging Dogs & What They Communicate

2 labsIn case you couldn’t already tell—we’re interested in Dog tails and tales. We’re curious about the tails which Anna Swir so perfectly describes in her poem, “Happy as a Dog’s Tail.” And of course, we’re also intrigued by dog tales; classic and popular fiction and non-fiction dog stories, and the priceless ones our DogWatch Dealers and clients share with us.

What do dogs communicate with their tails?

As Dr. Stanley Coren author of How to Speak Dog writes , “In some ways, tail-wagging serves the same functions as our human smile, polite greeting, or nod of recognition…For dogs, the tail wag seems to have the same properties. A dog will wag its tail for a person or another dog. It may wag its tail for a cat, horse, mouse, or perhaps even a butterfly. But when the dog is by itself, it will not wag its tail to any lifeless thing. If you put a bowl of food down, the dog will wag its tail to express its gratitude to you. In contrast, when the dog walks into a room and finds its bowl full, it will approach and eat the food just as happily, but with no tail-wagging other than perhaps a slight excitement tremor.”

Dr. Coren suggests says this is an indication that tail-wagging is meant as communication or language and that the dog’s tail “speaks volumes about his mental state, his social position, and his intentions.” It’s interesting to note that puppies don’t wag their tails when they’re very young.

Dr. Coren says there are differences among the various breeds and that on the average, “By thirty days of age, about half of all puppies are tail wagging, and the behavior is usually fully established by around forty nine days of age…Pups learn to connect their own signals and the signals provided by their mother and their siblings with the behaviors that come next. They also begin to learn that they can use signals to indicate their intentions and to circumvent any conflicts. This is where and when the tail-wagging behavior begins.”

It’s believed that young puppies don’t wag their tails because they need to send appeasement signals to other dogs but when communication between dogs is needed, they rapidly learn the appropriate tail signals. Tail language uses three different channels of information: position, shape, and movement.

Virginia Wells explains position and movement further; “By looking at the position and movement of the tail, you can often tell what dogs are thinking. When a dog wags his tail high and wags it back and forth, he’s usually feeling pretty good. When he is interested in something, his tail is usually horizontal to the ground. A tucked tail indicates the dog is frightened or submissive. When the tail goes from horizontal to upright and becomes rigid, he is feeling threatened or challenged. A tail that is low and wagging indicates the dog is worried or insecure.”

The tail also has another vital role in communicating. Virginia Wells writes, “Every time your dog moves his tail, it acts like a fan and spreads his natural scent around him…A dominant dog that carries his tail high will release much more scent than a dog that holds his tail lower. A frightened dog holds his tail between his legs to keep others from sniffing him, and in that way does not draw attention to himself.”

Take a look at your dog’s tail in different situations: when they greet you after you’ve returned home, as another dog approaches when you’re out walking, during a thunder storm.

What have you noticed about your dog’s tail? What tales could you tell us here?

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