Tips for tails: When tails tell tales

Did you know that dogs communicate with their tails? That’s right. Oh sure, tails are one of a pup’s most lovable features, but wags along with other body languages can mean different things. A dog’s tail can tell us bunches of information if we know how to speak tail wags.

Do you think dogs wag their tails when they’re happy and excited? How about when they’re fearful, insecure or curious? What about when they want to tell their mama they’re hungry or tired? The answers are yes, yes and yes. It’s important to realize that while there is research on tail wags, there are no definite conclusions, and, as is often the case, research yields more questions than answers.

When it comes to behavior, it’s important to remember that we don’t know what a dog is thinking. So, while we can look at some body language and say that it correlates with anxiety (which is measured not just through body language, but cortisol levels and other proven methods), we can’t say for certain that a dog is feeling a certain way. What we do know is that in general, when tail position and speed are looked at together, they provide some insights into what’s happening.

Tail Position

Dogs carry their tails at three heights—high, out and down. It’s important to note that a natural position varies by breed. Some tails, like Pugs’, are coiled tightly and are close to their body and don’t really wag. Whippets tend to curl their tails beneath their bellies. Knowing your dog’s natural position helps.

If a dog is holding their tail in a high position, so it’s up and away from their body, they’re in a state of high emotion—good or bad. If your pup’s tail is in this position, when he’s looking at a squirrel, for example, it’s not great for the rodent. A high tail position indicates a dog is reacting to something, and he’s feeling alert or excited.

If your pup’s tail is out and away from their body and sort of an extension of their spine, that’s neutral and means the dog is relaxed and typically not a threat.

When a dog’s tail is down and hugging their butt close to their body, they’re uncomfortable, nervous and appeasing. A tucked tail is a pup’s way of sending a message that they need to get out of a situation, they are overwhelmed, and they don’t necessarily want human comfort. A tucked tail can also mean stay away or don’t handle me right now. Think of it like when a human is worried, and you might wrap your arms around your body.

Tail Speed

Along with a tail’s height and direction, rate is a factor in canine communication. If a tail is moving fast, a pup is excited. When a tail is moving slow, it indicates less enthusiasm—maybe a pup is tentative or insecure about a situation. And, because position, height and speed aren’t enough to think about with reading tail wags, whether a tail is making broad or restricted strokes matters. A wide sweep usually means a dog is on the happier side, and a tight sweep means a pup is getting more anxious or uptight and may signal the dog is not friendly or maybe he’s feeling threatened and on alert.

As for helicopter wags, you know, when your pup’s tail is quickly rotating in a circular motion, and his whole body is into it, that means he’s super excited – maybe it’s feeding time, or he’s engaged in playing, or he’s just happy to see his human.

In case you’re wondering, dogs without tails still communicate, but they rely on body language to convey their emotions, such as facial expressions or their ears.

Whether a pup’s tail is letting you know he’s happy you’re home, telling you he’s uncomfortable or doing a “courtesy dusting” of a table, wags have different meanings depending on a situation. No matter what’s going on, look for the signals to recognize what’s happening. Be sure to look at the entire picture when reading a dog’s body language because sometimes a snapshot doesn’t reveal the complexity of dog emotions.

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