What Is the Meaning Behind a Dog’s Tail Movements

They say a wagging tail means the dog is happy and friendly. If the tail is down and between the legs, the dog is sad. But that isn’t always the case. Many pet owners and lovers might be misunderstanding dog tail positions.

Yes, in some ways, tail wagging communicates the same message as the human smile, a nod of appreciation and a polite greeting. But it also serves as vocabulary and grammar that needs to be understood. Just like humans, dogs have bad days too, and they want personal space. In greeting a new dog, you need to be respectful and cautious, since they need a sense of security before being touched by someone they don’t recognize. With that being said, dogs love to enjoy a certain amount of freedom, space, and security.

Psychology revealed that tail positioning and motions allow dogs to express various emotions known. Learning to understand dog tail wagging and positions is a great tool for better people to dog communication, for increased safety around them, and for a deeper appreciation for our canine friends.

When not wagging, dog tails are in either one of the three main positions. These positions, specifically the height at which it is held, can be considered an emotional meter. These have specific meanings that can be easily understood when people take time to consider them.

Tail held up high

When a dog’s tail is held vertically, it means he is attentive and alert. Usually, the dog is confident, secure and in a positive attitude. In fact, as the tail rises further up, it means the dog is becoming more threatening – the vertical tail signals dominance. The stiff, directional movement in the tail, paired with a small push forward of the whole body, means the dog is warning whoever or whatever is in front of it, expressing that he is ready for attack. It delivers the message “Don’t cross me,” or “Don’t even try it. I’m the boss around here,” or “Back off or you’ll suffer.”

When facing its owner, the tail held high means that there is tension. If forced into contact at the moment, the dog could try to escape.

Tail horizontal to the ground position

When a dog holds its tail straight in a horizontal position, it doesn’t indicate dominance or submission. This usually shows they are curious, rather than assertive and in control. This also indicates that the dog is calm, balanced and open to contact with others. If you have a dog, you may have noticed your pet coming closer to you with his tails in this position when you brought an unusual item or an unusual person with you. This means he is ready to explore something or meet someone new.

Tail down or between hind legs

As dogs display confidence and dominance when placing their tails high up, they the inverse position shows the exact opposite emotion. When a dog’s tail is down or placed between hind legs, it shows his submission to a person or another dog’s dominance. This can be observed when two dogs play together and one of them gives way with his tail held low. It says, “Dude, I know you’re the boss. Do I still need to say it out loud?” Tucking their tail also helps them hinder the release of their signature scent, which is helpful if they want to walk without attracting attention from other dogs.

They also communicate humble feelings towards their owners with the tail in this position. Sometimes, they are saying, “I will be good now, I promise! I’m so sorry I tore your favorite book into pieces.”

The tail movements – how broad it wags its tail and how fast it’s going – indicate what dogs feel or want to say.

  • A broad wag means the dog is pleased, friendly and happy. This is closest to the well-known concept of the happiness wag, especially if the hips sway with it. Dogs usually do this when its owner returns home or when it asks for some playtime of cuddly petting sessions. When facing other dogs, it might mean “I’m not threatening or challenging you.”
  • A slight wag is usually shown by dogs as a tentative “Hello there,” or “I’m here.” This means the dog is happy but cautious. He is telling you he’s not threatened or afraid, but he’s not yet ready to be your best friend.
  • Quick and tiny wags, especially if the tail is held high, give the impression that the dog is about to do something. It’s most likely a threatening posture, indicating that the dog is going to run or fight.
  • Slow wags with the tail in a neutral position say that the dog is insecure and is not sure how he should act. Dogs usually do this wag when their owners are focusing their attention on another dog or another person and not them, and when an owner has already scolded them.

Research has also revealed that the direction in which the tail wags tell a lot about a dog’s emotion and mood. According to a study published in Current Biology, the lopsided tail wagging is linked to right/left brain relationships. Note that these describe the right or left side of the animal, which means the opposite for us when we are facing the dog.

  • A tail wag to the right shows happiness and playfulness. They also wag towards the right when something is particularly pleasing to them. They have observed that a dog’s tail moves energetically to the right when they see someone they know. If a dog greets you with a broad wag with tail moving to the right, he is really happy to see you.
  • On the other hand, a tail wag to the left indicates insecurity and restlessness. Since the right part of the brain controls the “fight or flight” response, this is just reasonable, as the right side of the brain also controls the left side of the body. They move their tail to the left when they have feelings of distrust, tension, discomfort or anything n