We’ve all heard it said, “A wagging tail means a friendly dog.” It’s risky to live by this statement because there’s more to the story.
Tail wagging, like other behaviors a dog shows us, is specific to its context. This means that we need to look at other aspects of the dog’s demeanor and what is happening around it in addition to how it is wagging its tail. Is its body still or stiff, appearing tense? Is it showing the whites of its eyes and are they dilated? Are its ears forward or pinned back against its head? Is it being approached by another dog, a child or an adult who is coming into its space too quickly?
In contrast, what if the dog’s body is soft and relaxed while it seems to be smiling, with its mouth open and displaying floppy ears? Its tail might be wagging wildly from side to side and sticking out straight from its body in line with its back. In that particular situation, I’ll bet the dog is happy to see you or perhaps is playing a game of chase with his best buddy.
Tail wagging also can precede anxiousness or confidence and the threat or warning of aggression. A tense and still dog might be communicating, “Don’t come closer.” Its tail might be low and wagging slowly, or it might be straight up and wagging in a vibrating motion. You might not hear any warning growl.
It’s interesting to note that an upright but relaxed tail also can mean that the dog is just excited or aroused. Combine this with a soft open mouth, playful face and a play bow, and you might be looking at a happy dog playing with you or another dog.
A 2007 study about tail wagging — with Sandra Blakeslee reporting on a paper by Dr. Vallortigara — indicated, “The only tail wagging behavior that seems to reliably predict friendliness is a relaxed tail waving in a circular motion.”
This endearing tail-wagging motion often was displayed by Suzie, one of the friendliest and most delightful Siberian huskies we’ve had on our team of sled dogs.
There’s a lot to be learned about how our wonderful canine companions are communicating with us. Perhaps we can start at the tail and work our way forward.
For more about tail-wagging behavior, check out “Canine Behavior: A Photo Illustrated Handbook” by Barbara Handelman.
Sandra Kruczek is a certified professional dog trainer at Total Teamwork Training with more than 25 years of experience.