Friday, May 6, 2011

Five subtle signs of fear in dogs: The tail wag

Playful tail: Level w/back, swaying side to side

OK, this is the last in my series of posts listing five subtle signs of fear in dogs that most humans entirely miss.

You can read the previous posts by clicking on these links:
Averting eyes, shifting body
Sniffing the ground
Licking the air

Today's "subtle sign" is all about that tail wag.

Number Five: The tail wag.
It’s a neck-and-neck race between licking and tail wagging in terms of which behavior is more commonly misinterpreted by humans.
If you were surprised to see how many ways a dog can use its tongue to send out communications, you’ll be downright shocked to learn about the tail.

Good tail: Comfortable, confident
A wagging tail is not a sure sign that a dog is friendly. In fact, nothing could be further from the truth. As with licking, it’s important to look at both the circumstances and the rest of the dog’s body language to determine what a tail wag is conveying.
The classic human assumption is that a tail tucked between the legs means the dog is scared or — hear me groan — guilty of something, and that every other type of tail wag is a sign of happiness and friendliness. The first part, that a tucked tail signals fear (not guilt!), is true, but a wagging tail can signal fear too. It’s just a different type of wag.
Good tail: happy, comfortable, confident
Have you ever seen a tail that was hanging low, but not tucked, and wagging with fierce intensity from side to side, but never fully extending past the sides of the dog’s body? This type of wag is probably the most likely to be mistaken. It looks the most like a normal tail wag to the untrained eye, yet it warns that the dog is extremely anxious and apprehensive. Think of how hard your heart might be beating prior to jumping out of a plane for your first ever parachute attempt — there’s a mix of excitement, anxiety and apprehension making your heart beat so fast. Those are the same emotions often displayed by dogs through this type of tail wag.
Playful tail: Swaying gently, proudly, but not too high
The more the dog’s fear escalates, the lower it will keep the tail (and the side-to-side wag will continue decreasing in width) until eventually, it is classically tucked under the belly.
So, what should you watch for? A rapid side-to-side tail wag from a low-hanging tail, with the wag decreasing in width as the tail’s position becomes lower, though not necessarily tucked. I recommend turning so the side of your body is facing the dog and ignoring the dog until the tail becomes relaxed. Essentially, if you continue with whatever you’re doing to unnerve the dog, you’ll see the tail continue to go lower until it is eventually tucked.
Everyone knows the expression “she wears her heart on her sleeve.” Think of the dog’s tail as exactly that. It is the pulse of your dog’s emotions, and all the tiny variations in how it’s positioned and wagged tell a tale of what your dog is feeling.

Some other good “tails” to be aware of:
• A tail that is held high while wagging displays dominance laced with excitability and/or playfulness. Get your dog’s attention and calm him down.
• A tail that is held high and erect like a statue (the whole body will be statuesque) is a threat of dominance — your dog is not just feeling dominant, but he’s ready to enforce his dominance as well. Remove your dog from the situation.
• A tail that is held in line with the dog’s back or slightly dipped below the back line, swaying from side to side, is a sign that he’s comfortable and playful.
• A tail that is wagging rapidly in circles like a helicopter tells you that he is extremely excited. Extreme excitability is an unstable mood for dogs, so you should try to calm him down a notch. That tail wag could decrease to comfortable playfulness or switch to great anxiety and fear — the bottom line is that it’s a wild card, so calm down that dog!
• A tail that is resting naturally at a downward angle from the dog’s body, perhaps with a slight wag or no wag at all, is a sign that the dog is feeling stable, comfortable and at-ease. This is the best tail of all.


  1. Great post Karen! Your "subtle signs" series is very informative. Any tips on reading tail wags for those of us with docked-tail breeds? :)

  2. Thanks Marissa!

    Ah, docked tails. Your job is definitely tougher. You can read some basic information from that stub — is it straight up, straight back, or laid down across the butt? Up = dominant or excitable (look for other body language signs to figure out what it is), straight back = probably good, stable mood, or laid down = uncomfortable (look for other body language signs for more information, i.e. is it anxiety or just too cold out?)

    Basically, you've really got to be reading those other signals and putting the big picture together!