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Tail wagging in dogs does not always mean they are being friendly

Updated on September 19, 2014

The way your dog carries its tail says a lot about its emotional state

Tail wagging may not be a sign of friendliness

Have you ever gone for a walk and a barking dog in a fenced yard comes running at you with its tail wagging at the same time?

You've probably always been told that a wagging tail is a sign of friendship, so does the dog want you to come over and play with it?

If you have been around dogs a lot you probably know what an aggressive dog looks like. They flatten their heads and their bodies become stiff. They may bark ferociously, bounce off the ground in a fake attack or kick dirt with their hind feet and lunge at you or snarl and bark or growl, but what does it mean when a dog barks and wags its tail and can tail wagging actually be a sign of aggression?


Body stance as well as tail movement can indicate the inner "thinking" of dogs

Is that a welcoming wag or a warning wag?

Tail wagging can indicate "mood" in a dog.
Tail wagging can indicate "mood" in a dog. | Source

What a 2011 study found out about tail wagging in dogs

A 2011 study by Stanley Coren discovered some interesting information about tail wagging in dogs and it may surprise you.

He confirms what most of us who work with dogs already knew, that tail wagging can mean many things and can indicate fear, happiness, insecurity, a challenge for us to back off or be bitten and even depression.

Cohen says we are right in saying that tail wagging mimics the human smile and states that smiles are social signals that are triggered by social interactions or thoughts of interactions. We are more likely to smile when we greet someone than if we are by ourselves and engrossed in a project like homework or cleaning the house.

Often when we approach someone, we look for signs that they are receptive. We may smile at them to test their friendship and if they smile back we will engage in conversation, but if we smile and they give us a dirty look, we most likely will keep our distance from them and the same may be true of dogs.


The direction and position of a tail can tell you quite a lot about what a dog is "thinking"

Different breeds of dogs carry there tails differently in what scientists call a "regional accent".
Different breeds of dogs carry there tails differently in what scientists call a "regional accent". | Source

Have you ever misread a dog as friendly and been surprised when it was not?

When approaching a dog, what do you look for to indicate the dog is receptive toward you?

See results

A high held, low held, left or right wagging tail can reveal a dog's emotional state

Scientists have actually studied tail wagging in dogs and found that the pattern of movement and the position of the tail (held high, low or level) are important in understanding a dog’s emotional state.

Many years ago, scientist frowned on the idea that animals had emotions. Early animal behaviorists were warned about anthropomorphizing or giving human characteristics to animals and were told that animals react on instinct and simply exhibit a biological reflex to a stimulus as in Pavlov’s dogs who heard a bell and then were given a food treat and learned to associate the bell with food and began salivating at the sound of the tone rather than the sight of the food.

Currently, scientists are conducting more in-depth studies which support the theory that animals do indeed have emotions that closely mimic human emotions and the tail it seems is the window to the soul or at least, a key identifier as to what the dog is thinking and what it might do if you fail to pay attention to the signs.

Dogs tend to focus on movements more than details and colors. They also rely heavily on scent, but they have to be up close to get a really good whiff and if another dog seems threatening, then getting close to them is not the smartest move, so watching body positions and movement is a good far distance way to judge whether to approach closer or not.


All tails wagging to the left. What do you think it means?

Remember that when you are looking at a dog from the front, their tail will wag to your left and their right!
Remember that when you are looking at a dog from the front, their tail will wag to your left and their right!

Evolution may have driven tail wagging as a form of communication,

Coren says that in many cases, evolution has intensified the tail wagging marker, giving dogs bushy tails, tails ringed in dark or white, especially near the tip and elongated tails so that they are more visible from a distance and as they are moving in fast motion.

It is mostly humans who dock dog’s tails and breed the short or stubby tail characteristic into domestic dogs, but a dog can still pick up on body cues even from a dog with no tail.

The height of the dog’s tail is seen as an emotional meter of sorts. Some people have actually dubbed tail wagging as a “wag-o-meter”. A tail held high might be interpreted by humans as a happy dog full of life, but in actuality, scientists have found that high tail carriage is a sign of aggression or dominance. A tail held level or below horizontal suggests the dog is relaxed, while a horizontal tail or slightly higher shows the dog is alert and paying attention to surroundings. A low held tail or a clamped to the body tail usually suggests fear, submissiveness or possible sickness.

Most dog owners probably already knew this, but the interesting part is that there are different “dialects” in different breeds the same way you can tell a southerner from a northerner by their speech pattern, you can tell a difference between dog breeds in the position they hold their tails, though genetics plays a role in this as well.

A German Shepherd has a low slung tail whereas a beagle tends to have a vertical tail position, so how they hold their tails might be read differently than how other dogs hold their tails, just like the different accents in humans. So even though the tails are speaking the same language, they will not look exactly the same on different breeds!

The speed and direction of a wagging tail are also indicators of what a dog is feeling as well as the breadth, or distance the tail travels per wag! Who knew dog language could be so complicated?


Gauging a dog's emotional state by their tail

Happy
Relaxed
Guarded
Aggressive
Tail wagging to right
Tail held neutral or slow wag
Little to no wag
Tail may be neurtral or wag left
Eyes Bright and focused
Eyes soft or closed
eyes raised, wide open and focused
eyes narrowed, following
Tail above horizontal or vertical
Tail held level or below horizontal
Tail held up or straight out
Tail may be held level or high
ears perked forward and up
ears relaxed or rotated
ears may dart back and forth or follow sounds
Ears back or forward

Tail wagging tips

What have you observed in your own dog? Do you agree with the tail wagging study?

If you think about it, you have probably noticed that when your dog is really excited and happy, he or she may wag their tail rapidly in short movements and actually get the wiggly body known as the tail wagging the dog routine. Puppies are especially known for wriggling all over with their tails rapidly wagging in a narrow range of motion, while older dogs may wag their tails more slowly with greater side to side motion and less wriggling.

Here are some of the movements the scientists noted and what they appeared to mean:

● A slight wag-with each swing of only small breadth (distance from the center of the body and back again) is usually seen during greetings as if the dog were saying, “hello”, or “hi there, please notice me”.

● A broad wag is friendly and usually means the dog is not a threat and is glad to see you or happy about its current state of being, though again, pure animal behaviorists would frown on the concept of happiness in a non-human animal. The broad wag may involve the tail only or movement of the hips as well.

● A slow wag with tail at 'half-mast' or level depending on the breed of the dog, is less a social greeting and more a sign of insecurity. The dog may be testing you out. The dog is not showing submissiveness or dominance, but may be questioning your motives and waiting for you to make the next move before becoming fully welcoming or more aggressive or dominant. It is, like the tail position, an in-between state.

● Tiny, high-speed movements that give the impression of the tail vibrating are signs the dog is about to do something-usually run or fight. If the tail is held high while vibrating, it is most likely an active threat, especially when accompanied with barking which matches the speed of the tail movement.

The study on tail wagging also discovered something most people had not paid much attention toward in the past; that is the direction of the tail when wagging; either right or left.

Apparently, when dogs are positive (aka: happy) about something, they tend to wag their tails more to the right paw side of their bodies an when they are having negative (unhappy or aggressive) feelings they wag them more on the left!

The study did not indicate whether dogs can be left or right sided and if tail wagging might be the opposite on say a “left handed” verses a “right handed” dog.

It is important to remember that dogs, like humans can change their emotional states quite rapidly and can have mixed emotional states, so if you see a snarling dog wagging his tail to the right, do not assume he is happy!!!

It is always best to ask a dog owner if it is okay to approach or pet their dog and if you see a dog on the streets or in your yard, unaccompanied by a human, always use caution and common sense. Even a friendly dog can bite or scratch if they feel trapped anxious or endangered.

Dogs great dogs with sniffs, tails wags and body movement

A dog gets a little too friendly with a greeting with another dog, causing it to clamp its tail and turn its back.
A dog gets a little too friendly with a greeting with another dog, causing it to clamp its tail and turn its back.
The dog to the right is still intimidated and unsure but returns the butt sniffing greeting.
The dog to the right is still intimidated and unsure but returns the butt sniffing greeting.

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    • kikinusbaumer profile image

      Kiki Nusbaumer 2 years ago from Chesterfield, VA

      During my time working at a kennel, until I knew a dog I always erred on the side of caution, waiting for that whole body wag. Fascinating that a right or left sided wag has different meanings. As for the big brains who think animals have no emotions, what a pantload, right? Pardon my language, but really. Great article!

    • bje117 profile image
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      bje117 2 years ago

      thank you and yes, I generally don't pay attention to what way the tail is wagging, so much as what the facial expressions and body language says. I was curious about this because of dogs on the other side of neighbor's fences who would bark at me and wag their tails and it seemed like a mixed message, but always good to not approach a dog if you have any doubt about it being friendly or not!!!

    • profile image

      Aira 2 years ago

      That addserses several of my concerns actually.

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