Wednesday, May 20, 2015

Tip of the Day: Learn to Tell the Tale from the Tail

Dogs Talk with Their Tails - But Can We Understand?

One of the biggest misconceptions that we hear about dog body language is that “ the dog must be happy, he is wagging his tail”. In actuality a wagging tail is one of least reliable indicators about how a dog is feeling, unless you know what to look for. It is also important to take into account the other body parts as well. A wagging tail does not always mean that a dog wants to be friends.

There are many different types of wag and there is only one type that indicates a safe dog for children to interact with. Let’s start with that one!

The Calm Wag

The calm wag is a loosely wagging tail, with the tail held below the level of the dog’s back. For breeds that naturally curl their tail over their backs, the tail will be held high, but the wag is loose. The whole dog may wag to some degree, but it is not a frantic type of wag. The calm wag, accompanied by a smiling panting face indicates a relaxed dog who may want to meet or interact with a child. If the dog stops panting and wagging, or stops panting and commences a stiffer type of wagging then this is a warning to back off. The dog has become uncomfortable with your approach. The best way to interact with the happy, panting and wagging dog is to invite him over to see you, rather than moving into his space. 

Watch this video to see the difference between a high, stiff wag (as discussed below) and a calm wag. Notice that the white dog holds his tail very high and stiff while he is meeting and sizing up the other dogs, but when he interacts with the child he holds his tail lower and wags loosely. This is an excellent demonstration of what we mean by loose versus stiff. The dog is loose with the child and stiff with the other dogs. His interaction with child is entirely appropriate and this is the type of wag we want to see in all dogs who interact with children. If you don’t see this, then intervene and redirect the dog and child to other activities.

The Propeller Wag

In the propeller wag, the whole tail goes all the way around like a propeller. This is usually reserved for greetings to special people that the dog is particularly happy to see. This dog wants to greet you and this is fine if you are adult. The level of excitement here may be too much for a child and the dog may jump, scratch or knock a small child over by mistake. It is best to wait for the dog to calm down before he is allowed to greet children.

The Whole Body Wag

Sometimes a dog is so happy and excited that the whole dog wags in a frenzy of activity. Again a dog this excited should not be allowed to interact with children until he calms down.

The High Tail

If a dog holds his tail high over his back, whether wagging stiffly or held still, this is a warning to back off. This dog is assessing the situation and is not likely to be welcoming of any invasion of his space. If your dog puts his tail up to you or your children, this could be a sign of impending trouble. He could be issuing a challenge (as seen in the photo) and may bite if further provoked. Find a behavior consultant who will use positive reinforcement-based training to help you make sure that your dog develops a more cooperative relationship with the family. Teach your children to Be a Tree right away if any dog puts his tail up to them, even if it is their own dog or a dog they know.

The Slow Wag

The slow wag, if accompanied by a generally stiff body is also a sign of danger. This dog is making a decision and he may decide that he does not want to meet you.

The Low Wag

Sometimes a dog will hold his tail very low, or between his legs and may even wag just the end of his tail. This dog is feeling very uncertain or even afraid and would prefer to be left alone.

Learn more with the online course: Basic Dog Body Language (CEUs from many different dog training and vet tech organizations). Use the discount code BBL10 to get $10 off the price of this $30 course.


  1. This is certainly and absolutely true! I know when my dog is happy when wagging her tail, but I also know if she feel uncomfortable or angry. I love the way you give emphasis on how the tail should be look like whenever a dog is saying something to us that some may not know.