It’s hard not to smile when your dog happily wags its tail at you. It’s an action that is universally recognized as an expression of emotion in dogs. But why exactly do dogs wag their tails, and does it always mean they’re happy?
Dog tail wagging is actually quite complex! There are many different kinds of tail wags, each with its own meaning. So let’s find out more about dog tail wagging.
Why Do Dogs Wag Their Tails?
Dogs, like most animals, have tails primarily for balance. When their canine ancestors navigated difficult terrain, making sharp turns during a chase, or climbing, their tails were great for keeping them on their feet.
But they also use their tails to express their emotions and communicate with us and other dogs through wagging. A primary reason why many breeders advocate against tail docking. This is something that, like facial expressions for humans, is instinctual but can be controlled to send a message to those around them. Puppies learn to wag their tails at around a month and a half old, which is one of the easiest ways to read a dog’s mind!
Why Do Dogs Communicate This Way?
All animals have different ways of communicating. We, humans, are primarily verbal communicators, but we also communicate visually through our body language. And while they do communicate verbally through barking, growling, and crying, dogs are primarily visual communicators. This means they prefer to communicate using their body language and are great at reading ours too!
Dogs use facial expressions, body stances, as well as their eyes, ears, hackles, and tails to communicate with us. Tail wagging is easily the most universally recognizable way to read a dog’s body language, even for people who aren’t used to being around them.
However, if you are a dog owner, you’re probably aware that there is more than one kind of tail wagging. But did you know there are around ten? So, let’s take a look at each one and what they mean.
What Do Different Tail Wags Mean?
Tail wagging is more nuanced than we once thought. Like a human smile, nine times out of ten, it equates to a good mood, but not always. People can smile when they’re feeling nervous, affectionate, sad, and more. And tail wagging is exactly the same.
We are all familiar with a fast-moving wagging tail. As we know, this expresses excitement and friendliness in dogs. Meanwhile, a dog with a tail making broader wags implies they feel content and happy. Slow wags indicate a less enthusiastic or unsure attitude, especially towards strangers or new situations.
Some dogs, however, prefer to hold their tails up rather than wag them to express happiness. If a dog bows while doing this, they feel playful and want to do something fun with you. But in dogs that don’t hold up their tails regularly, it tends to indicate alertness, confidence, and at times, dominance.
However, the dog’s overall body language will be tense in this instance. An aggressive dog’s tail may point upwards and curl up over the top of its body. This is usually accompanied by growling and raised hackles. A dog with a straight tail means that they are feeling okay or neutral. When exploring, a straight tail indicates curiosity. Whereas a down-facing tail that’s still or making short, quick strokes means anxiety, a dog with his tail tucked under its legs communicates that he feels frightened or very unhappy. You can also refer to the canine ladder of aggression to help gauge how your dog is feeling.
This is different from a relaxed tail that is hanging naturally downwards but isn’t droopy or sad looking. A sad or frightened dog will also have flat ears, and an anxious dog may be tense, pace, pant, or yawn.
A dog holding his tail to the left communicates a disliking or concern towards something. This could be a place, thing, person, or another dog or animal. A dog holding its tail to the right indicates the opposite; a liking towards the situation.
However, these rules only apply when the entire tail points to the side. If your dog’s tail is happily upright with just the end bit pointing to the left, don’t worry about it!
Why Dogs Wag Their Tails – FAQs
Just like humans and facial expressions, dogs wag their tails instinctually, but they can also do it on purpose when they want to convey something to someone around them. Many dogs, however, can appear to lose control of their wagging when they get overexcited and the entire back end of their bodies starts to wag. Cute!
Dogs dream when they sleep just like us, and in their dreams, they do all the fun things they do in real life, like playing games and going on walks, all of which lead to tail wagging! Just as some humans smile and talk in their sleep, some dogs wag their tails, move their legs, and bark at theirs.
If your dog regularly starts wagging their tail when you speak to them, it means they’re excited to interact with you!
If it’s a dog you’ve never met before, it likely means that they’re excited to meet you, but this isn’t always the case, so pay attention to their overall body language.
Should a dog do a slow or downward-facing tail wag, they may feel shy or insecure, so hold out your hand and let them approach you instead of you approaching them. If they don’t, just say goodbye and leave them alone.
If your dog stops wagging his tail when you pet him, don’t worry, this doesn’t mean he doesn’t want you to touch him. It more than likely means he is relaxed and content in your presence. It could mean he doesn’t want you to pet him, but if this were the case, he’d probably just duck his head out of the way or move away from you.
Alternatively, if he was looking at you and wagging his tail prior to you going over to pet him, this could have been his way of inviting you to pet him and now he is stopping because he has achieved his goal.
Don’t worry too much if you’re dog isn’t a crazed tail-wagger. Not all dogs are! Tail wagging is more of an indication of excitement rather than happiness, so if your dog isn’t wagging his tail, it doesn’t necessarily mean he’s not happy.
As long as he’s not displaying any signs of being unhappy, don’t worry about it. Signs of a depressed or anxious dog include a droopy tail, flat ears, panting, pacing, yawning, being withdrawn and lethargic or restless, a loss of appetite, and possibly misbehaving or even hurting themselves.
If you think your dog is unhappy and you don’t know why or how to fix it, you should take them to see a vet as soon as possible for an examination and advice.
The reasons why dogs wag their tails are far more complex than we once thought. How else does your dog let you know how he’s feeling? Let us know in the comments down below!