How Dogs Communicate With Their Tail
Understanding a Dog's Tail
As you may already know, a dog's tail is the rear section found of your dog's back. It consists of a flexible appendage made of skin, nerves, cartilage and bones blessed with multiple functions. Balance is one of them; Rover's tail prevents him from toppling over when he is running fast and making sharp turns or when he is walking over an unstable surface by acting as a counterweight just as a a tightrope walker uses a balance bar.
However, one of the most important functions in dogs is social signaling. Through the tail's positioning and movements, dogs can manifest an array of emotions. If you are trying to decipher Rover's mood, the tail provides an important puzzle piece, but as with the ear body language, it's important to also observe the rest of the accompanying body language.
While the tail is an effective communicative tool, it's important to also consider the breed of the dog because different dog breeds have different tail carriage. For instance, greyhounds normally have a very low tail carriage which may make them appear as if frightened, when they are not, whereas, certain Northern breeds and pugs may have a tail that is naturally curled up. Certain dog breeds may also be born with bob tails or have no tails at all, and in some cases, in some breeds, the dog's tails are docked when the pups are 3 to 5 days old.
Greyhounds and Whippets Have a Naturally Low Tail Carriage
What is a Dog's Tail Trying to Say?
You may have heard that happy dogs will wag their tail, but consider that dogs may also wag their tails when they are nervous, insecure, aroused and even ready to attack. It's just like the human smile. You can't assume all human smiles are signs of happiness; after all, we have all seen in movies a serial killer giving a wide-toothed smile before committing a crime or the protagonist's worst enemy giving that ironic smile before a sinister assault.This is why it's important to learn to read the accompanying body language as well; too many people have been bitten because they assumed the dog was happy to see them when they were not.
To learn better tail language, we must look at tail position, shape and movement. In the next paragraphs we will look at some tail language, read about some interesting studies and debunk some common myths.
These Dogs are Checking out a Situation....
Tall, Tense and Stiff
The position of the tail varies from dog breed to dog breed. Therefore, when looking at tail position, it's important to recognize the normal tail position for that particular breed.
Be wary of a dog who approaches you with a tail held high and in a stiff, tense manner. When a dog's body is tense, the tail will be tense too and stiff. The tail is often used in animals for the purpose of looking bigger, more confident and more intimidating. This can be further emphasized by raising the hair on the back and even on the tail (piloerection). This posture may only be temporary, such as when a dog sees a person entering its territory.
If the dog understands the person poses no threat, his tail and body may eventually relax, but if he continues to feel threatened his tail may continue be be held stiff and even wag slowly back and forth, which we will see next.
This could be just a sign of attention or some sort of slight arousal if it goes from its lower natural position to half staff. The dog's ears and face may be pointing towards the source of attention as the dog evaluates the event. At times, it may be triggered by a smell carried by the wind or some unusual noise. The tail may though become stiff when horizontal in the case the dog determines that the situation may be changing for the worst and may then move upwards.
In the picture above, I was working with a reactive dog and he kept the tail horizontal as he was evaluating the situation, and at the same time, he was giving me attention as we were working on LAT.
Natural and Relaxed.
Natural, Lower than Horizontal
Stanley Coren claims that the height at which a dog's tail is held is the canine equivalent of an emotional barometer. Therefore, a tail held naturally lower than horizontal, possibly with an accompanying occasional swishing back and forth, would be an indicator of a relaxed, unconcerned dog.
Tail between the legs
Low, in the Middle of the Legs
Keeping the tail low while wagging may be a sign of insecurity or preoccupation. If the hair is standing up (piloerection) the dog may be saying "I'm starting to get nervous, don't push me or I'll feel the need to fight back in defense." Keeping the tail in the middle of the legs is often seen in fearful dogs. This is the opposite purpose of the dog who carries the tail high and stiff. The fearful dog may be trying to appear as small as possible and by hiding the tail and holding the ears flat, it's almost as if he wished to hide and become invisible. You'll often see the tail carried this way at the vet's office or upon being scolded by an intimidating owner.
You can't Always Trust a Wagging Tail!
Flagging Tail Tip Back and Forth
Tail movement quickly captures a dog's eyes, because as predators, a dogs' eyes are very sensitive to movement rather than other details such as colors. While humans may barely notice a little hint of movement, dogs readily capture it and are ready to interpret it.
As mentioned, relying on a wagging tail as a sign of friendliness is a big mistake that has caused people to get bitten. In this case, the dog was likely wagging his stiff tail slowly back and forth, and most likely only the rear tip. This movement is called "flagging" and isn't the same as a friendly tail wag for the main fact that everything else the dog is saying with his body is far from amicable intentions.
Happy, sweeping tail wags when owner comes home
Wagging Fast in Sweeping Motions
A friendly, happy dog will move his tail in sweeping back and forth motions, and often this movement involves the whole rear end which may wiggle as well. A social dog uses the tail wag movement to spread pheromones around. Generally, the faster the tail moves, the more excited the dog. Slower sweeps may be used when greeting owners after not seeing them for a bit, faster, broader sweeps with hip side-to-side movements when greeting after not seeing them for a while. Broad tail wags can be seen in play to reassure the other dog that it's just play, for instance, while inviting in a play bow. This is known as a "metasignal." Smaller tail wags may be seen when the owner glances at the dog and the dog acknowledges this.
Happy, "propeller wags"
Wagging in Circles
It's believed that those dogs who are able to wag their tails in circles are extra, extra happy. Some say that if your dog wags its tail this way, it means to them you are to them you are a very, very special person. Not all dogs though are capable of such acrobatics; it takes a natural predisposition. For a good reason these tail wags are often romantically called "propeller wags."
Some Interesting Tail Facts
Puppies aren't born wagging their tails. This is something they start doing when they are between 30 and 49 days when they start to communicate more with their litter mates and moms.
Tail wagging may take place to demonstrate peaceful intentions when the puppy starts to play or move closer to other litter mates upon nursing. Later, puppies will wag their tails towards their owner when begging for food.
An interestedstudy conducted in Italy by Giorgio Vallortigara, a neuroscientist and two veterinarians, Angelo Quaranta and Marcello Siniscalchi, found that the direction of the tail may have a meaning. Tail wags more to the right suggest positive feelings, while tail wags to the left depict the negative ones.
At times, dogs may be in conflict so they may be wagging their tail as if they were happy while growling at the same time.
Evolution has blessed some dogs with traits that post an emphasis on the tail. You'll see dog tails with a light or dark tip or a bushy shape, explains Stanley Coren in his book "How to Speak Dog".
Keeping the tail high versus keeping the tail low also means exposing or hiding the anal glands which are known for producing important pheromones that are linked with the dog's identity. Stanley Coren compares a tail held high as the social equivalent of somebody who is famous and confident and wants every body to read his biography. It's as if theses dog would tell other dogs, "come here and take a sniff, so you know who I am." Dogs with a low tail instead want to keep a low profile, just as you put a cap on a bottle of perfume.
The tails of Setters were useful so hunters could tell how close their dogs were to prey. Their feathered appearance further aided in this. Generally, the faster the tail wagged, the closer to the prey. Then once the prey was located, all tail movements halted.
Despite what breeders may say, studies on tail docking have revealed that puppies do feel pain when they are docked between the ages of 3 to 5 days old.
As seen, tails are very important appendages that play very important roles. It's our duty as dog owners to do our best to learn what Rover is trying to say so we can better decipher his thoughts.
Stanley Coren; How to Speak Dog
© 2013 Adrienne Farricelli