Dog Myth #1: The Tail Wag

One of my favorite ways to spend some free time is at the adoptions desk at the ASCPA helping the dogs and cats find a forever home. Through various training classes and experience walking the shelter dogs, I learned a bunch about dog behavior. It’s important for the volunteers (and anyone around dogs regularly) to be able to read a dog’s signals and respond appropriately. Many people know little about the way in which dogs communicate, despite living with them as a species for centuries. (I suppose the same could be said for persons of the opposite sex as well, but that’s another post.)  With that in mind, I thought I’d debunk a few dog myths. Consider it a PSA for the dogs. If we take the time to understand their signals, we’ll stop blaming them for miscommunication.

The biggest myth going is this: if a dog is wagging his tail, he’s happy. Those of you involved in shelter and rescue work have no doubt heard this one before.

Cut to the dog park on Saturday. My dog Reggie  waReggies being petted by a man. He is usually uncomfortable around people he doesn’t know and I’ve been working  with him on that. In this case, things were going well. Very well, in fact. Another man came over to pet him and then a third. (I mean, clearly he’s fabulously cute.) I told them that he is generally anxious around new people. One of the men said, “Oh, his tail is wagging. He’s fine.”

Not necessarily. There are different types of tail wags and positions which mean different things. Most people know that a tail tucked under is a sign of fear or anxiousness. But here are a few other signals to look for:

  • Almost horizontal, but not stiff: A sign of attention. “I’m ready if you want to give me a treat.”
  • Horizontal (or straight up) and stiff: Confrontational and alert. “Are you talkin’ to me?”
  • Straight up slightly curved over the back: A dominant position. “I’m top dog.”
  • Spine level or slightly lower: Neutral, aka the Switzerland position. “All is well.”
  • Down and close to the hind legs: “I’m feeling insecure” or “I just ate something gross and now I feel bad.”
  • Low with slow and rhythmic movement: On guard, aka the Dirty Harry position. “Make my day.”
  • Wagging lightly or with broad circles: Friendly and calm. “Hello!”
  • Wagging fast / “helicopter” tail: Excited and happy. “Snausages!”
  • Note: If a dog’s fur is bristled in any tail position, or there is a pronounced crick/bend in the tail, the dog could become aggressive if provoked. (Also there is great information in Stanely Coren’s book, The Intelligence of Dogs.)

    Some researchers believe that even the direction of the tail wag holds importance. To the right means they are happier and want to approach. To the left means they are uncomfortable.

    But wait, you say, I have a (Boxer/Corgi/Papillon) and its tail is (docked/non-existent/always curled) so I can’t apply this to my dog. True, there are some natural variations according to the breed of dog (a German Shepherd’s natural tail position is down low and a Highland Terrier wags its tail with a tremor), but you can use this to watch for consistencies the movements of your dog’s tail. Also it’s something to keep in mind when you come into contact with other dogs. We’ll talk more about eye contact/ear position in future posts.

    Happy Tails to You!

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    2 comments

    1. I noticed my cat has some very specific tail wags too. The wag when you say her name is very different from the one when you’re holding her up on your shoulder so she can oversee her little apartment world. Then there’s the “I’m hunting a fly” wag. And, of course, the clearly annoyed, “Stop holding my ears down! I hate that!” wag.

      People laugh at the idea of animals communicating–until they’ve spent enough time with an animal.

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      1. I noticed Reggie’s tail was wagging to the left yesterday. Hmm… Later he had a dream and was barking and “running”, even growling, in his sleep. I wonder what he was seeing in his mind’s eye. Maybe his archnemesis Oscar on the 4th floor.

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