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Dog body language: The tail speaks volumes
Almost nothing can make a dog lover smile faster than seeing an adorable dog with a wagging tail. A dog who is wagging it's tail is happy, friendly, and having fun, right? Unfortunately, it's not always as simple as that. Because our four legged friends can't talk, they have developed a very intricate silent language based on body movement and posture. Because we are not dogs, the wordless messages our pouches are sending us are often times misunderstood. A dog's tail can be very expressive, and is used to communicate more than just the feeling of happiness.
When it comes to tail wags, a dog that is wagging it's tail fast and in wide circles or side to side is usually excited. This may be coupled with other signs of an excited dog such as play bowing, or enthusiastic greeting behavior, for example. A slower, gentler side to side wag can signal happiness. But did you know that dogs also wag their tails when they are agitated? A dog whose tail is held loosely down and may be wagging slowly is probably unsure of itself or the situation it's in, but is interested in what's going on. When a dog is feeling particularly annoyed, it's not uncommon for them to hold their tails high, and display a stiff fast tail wag. Dogs displaying this type of wag are likely to act out aggressively and should be avoided. A high percentage of dog bite victims will state that the dog that attacked them was wagging it's tail, a signal that is all too often considered to be only a display of happiness.
The position of a dog's tail can communicate a lot about their mood as well. Most people understand that a dog who has it's tail tucked up between it's legs is probably frightened or nervous. On the other hand, a dog who holds his/her tail up is usually showing that it is feeling confident. If the tail is in it's natural position, which may vary depending on the type of dog, it probably means the dog is relaxed. A dog who is alert will often times hold his/her tail higher than normal stiffly. A dog who is feeling friendly and wants to initiate play will usually do what is called a play bow, when they stick their tails and behinds up in the air while lowering the front of their bodies.
In general, the stiffer a dog is holding it's tail the more likely it may be aggressive. It's important when trying to read a dog's body language to look at the whole body, and not just one aspect of it such as the tail. Looking at other factors, such as the position of the ears, eyes, mouth, body in general, and listening to any vocalizations, can usually help to determine how a dog is feeling. If in doubt, avoid approaching strange dogs altogether.