What Does Your Dog’s Tail Wag Mean?

Cindy SmithDog Health, Senior Dogs


You are over at your friend’s house and her beautiful labradoodle approaches you wagging its tail. As you go to say hello, you are met with a growl.

What happened?

Myth: A dog wagging its tail means he is friendly and happy.
Fact: According to Psychology Today, “ while some wags are indeed associated with happiness, others can mean fear, insecurity, a social challenge, or even a warning that if you approach, you are might get bitten.”

From a physical standpoint, a dog’s tail is used for many things. Dogs have been wagging their tails forever! When a dog is running, it acts to balance him. When he is swimming, the tail can serve as a rudder. The tail also balances a dog when walking along narrow structures, climbing or leaping.

A dog’s tail indicates many psychological things as well. A dog’s tail wag is one of the many ways he can communicate with you. When pups are first born, they learn to communicate with their Mom and littermates through voice tones and body language. One of their primary means to be expressive is with their tail! They can also move their eyes, ears or stance to signal an emotion.

The primary two indications of what a dog is trying to communicate with his tail are movement and position, although this varies by breed. Beagles, for instance, hold their tails more vertically. Greyhounds and Whippets are known for curling their tails under their bellies. And pugs, whose tail is close to the body, don’t wag their tail at all.

What Does a Tail Wag Mean?
The speed of the wag indicates how excited the dog is. Meanwhile, the breadth of each tail sweep reveals whether the dog’s emotional state is positive or negative, regardless of the level of excitement. A dog’s tail position could be communicating:

  • Agitation and Alertness – Eyes and tails raised.
  • Aggressive – Vertical tail. The higher the tail, the bigger the threat.
  • Submission – Lowered tail. Tail tucked between legs means fear.
  • Curiosity – Tail straight out in a lowered position.
  • Happy – Tail is neutral or slightly raised and wagging.

The tail movement can mean:

  • Excited – the faster the wag, the more excited.
  • Insecure – slight wag when meeting a new person or another dog.
  • Friendly – tail and hips wagging.
  • Aggressive – fast wagging, held vertical.

There is new evidence that suggests when a dog wags its tail to the left it is negative and to the right is positive.

The main thing to remember is that you can get bitten by a dog that is wagging his tail!

How Do Tailless Dog Communicate?
It is more difficult for dog owners whose dogs have no tails to know what emotions their dogs are experiencing. Tailless dogs approach other dogs or people cautiously to avoid miscommunication. They depend on other aspects of body language such as ear position, facial expression, and stance to communicate their intentions.

Because every dog is unique, dog owners must pay attention to their dog’s tail wags and body language. One individual dog may wag his tail a little lower or a little higher or a little faster than another dog.

On a funny note: unlike some humans, dogs don’t talk to themselves. They never wag their tail when they are alone!