Most people associate a wagging tail with a happy dog, but that's not always the case. Dogs' tails can tell us a lot about how a dog is feeling, and a wagging tail doesn't always mean that a dog is friendly and approachable.
So Why Do Dogs Wag Their Tails?
Even though we sometimes wish that our dogs could speak to us, dogs are great communicators and their tails play a huge role in letting us know how they're feeling.
AKC Family Dog columnist Dr. Stanley Coren, professor emeritus in the department of psychology at the University of British Columbia, wrote in Psychology Today that since dogs' eyes are very sensitive to movement, a moving tail is a great visual cue to other dogs.
"In some ways, tail wagging serves the same communication functions as a human smile, a polite greeting, or a nod of recognition," Dr. Coren writes.
Reading your dog's tail and body language is the best way to know what your dog is really trying to tell you. Just as different human facial expressions mean different things, tail movements vary on how your dog is feeling.
What Your Dog's Tail Is Telling You
A dog's tail acts like a barometer for his mood. Knowing tail positions and other canine body language cues will help you understand your dog and how to interact safely with other dogs. Although tail movement and position vary slightly between dog breeds, many general movements are the same.
A tail lowered and between the legs could indicate fear, anxiety, or submission. A slow wag could mean that a dog is unsure and feeling insecure about a situation. A tail held up higher than normal could mean that something has piqued your dog's interest (like a squirrel running across the yard) and he is alert, while a tail wagging energetically from side to side, especially when accompanied with a play bow or a few licks, can be a friendly greeting. However, there's more to canine body language than just tail movements, and it's important to pay attention to other factors. Learn more about canine body language in this e-book titled "Canine Body Language: Your Dog Is Trying To Tell You Something."
A recent study found that the direction a dog is favoring when wagging his tail may be a mood indicator, as well. A dog wagging his tail more on the right side of his body is probably more relaxed, while a dog wagging his tail on the left side of his body could be more alert, stressed, or anxious, according to the study published in Current Biology in 2013.
While many of these cues seem fairly simple, recognizing them will help you communicate better with your dog and will help you read the moods of other dogs, as well.