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How does a dog use its tail to communicate with other dogs and humans?

Two dog's tails advice

How do dogs communicate with their tails?

© Shutterstock

There’s nothing quite like the sound of your dog’s energetic way of welcoming home with their tail enthusiastically thumping against the floor. But your dog doesn’t just use its tail to communicate that they are happy to see you.

By Zoë Monk

Published on the 25/01/2020, 15:00

 A tail is a crucial communication tool for your canine companion to tell you and other dogs how they are feeling.

Why do dogs have tails?

A dog’s tail serves a variety of different functions. It can act as a rudder in the water when the dog is swimming or as a balance when a dog is running. When a dog takes a right turn at high speed, they will use their tail for stability. Some dogs even use their tail to entertain themselves when bored, chasing it relentlessly around in circles.

Previously, a number of dog breeders and owners would dock their dog’s tails. This was generally only for cosmetic reasons and involved removing part or all of a dog’s tail. The procedure is now illegal in the UK. If a dog has a tail that’s been docked, it can be difficult to tell how they are feeling as they lack this vital canine communication tool to let you know of their mood.

four dog's tails
How do dogs communicate with their tails? ©Shutterstock

How does a dog use its tail to communicate with other dogs?

A dog uses its tail to communicate with other dogs as a warning or to tell them how they are feeling. A dog may tuck its tail under its body to show submissiveness to other dogs. It signals to other dogs that it’s nervous and doesn’t want to continue this particular interaction. A dog may also cover its genital area with their tail if they don’t feel ready to trust another dog. This is down to the scent glands found on a dog’s anal area.

Dogs gain information about another dog by sniffing this area so allowing this area to be exposed and available for sniffing shows a measure of trust.

Why do dogs wag their tails?

A tail is one element of body language that dogs use to communicate alongside body posture and facial expressions. But not all tail wags mean the same thing and not all mean signal friendliness. A relaxed tail with a circular or enthusiastic wag shows the dog is feeling friendly and playful.

A slow, controlled wag along with a tense body is not friendly. Instead, it signals back off to another dog or human. Tail wagging doesn’t begin as soon as puppies are born. It will generally develop differently within different breeds. However, it usually starts when a pup is around three or four weeks old.

The back of a greyhound dog
Look how pretty my tail is ©Shutterstock

What do different dog tail positions mean?

While tail wagging may come naturally to dogs, the size, shape and way the tail moves can vary greatly across different breeds. For instance, while Golden Retrievers generally have large expressive tails that swish side to side when walking. Meanwhile, it’s quite normal for greyhounds and whippets to hold their tails much lower than other breeds. Spitz dogs, such as the Japanese Shiba Inu, have tails that curl backwards, so much so that even the end of their tail can touch the dog’s back.

To interpret what tail wagging means, you need to look at the position of the tail as well as the speed of the actual wag.

Tail in a natural position with no wag

This indicates that your dog is relaxed. While it depends on the breed, the normal tail position for most dogs is generally to hang down near their heels. Dogs with curly tails will have them curled over their back in its natural position.

Upright tail and wagging

While an upright and wagging tail may appear to show that your dog is happy, it is usually displayed in excited dogs whose behaviour might be unpredictable. It could be as a result of a visitor knocking on the door or they’ve spotted a squirrel. Anything that gets your dog feeling excited can be the reason behind their tail wag.

Tail in backwards position with gentle wagging

This type of tail wag generally indicates that your dog is curious or unsure about a situation. You may also notice them looking at something they’ve never seen before, perhaps an unusual object or creature.

Tail between legs

If your dog’s tail is tucked or between their legs, this could be because your dog needs a little space as they are feeling frightened or nervous. If their tail is also twitching or displaying small throbbing wags it might be that they on the verge of displaying a fight or flight response.

Big tail wags

The best type of wag is a big carefree wag that reflects a happy dog. It might also be accompanied by the whole-body wiggling which shows your dog is extremely happy and ready for interactions.

Vertical tail

If a dog’s tail is rigid and high in the air, this can indicate aggression. If you see a dog with their tail like this, it’s generally recommended that you give them plenty of space and wait for them to calm down before approaching or interacting with them.

Beagle with his tail straight up
Understanding the meaning behind a tail's wag ©Shutterstock

Understanding your dog’s tail wag

Tail wagging is pretty much standard behaviour among dogs. However, what isn’t standard is the temperament between dogs and within different breeds. One dog may wag their tail a little lower or higher or even faster than another dog. That’s why it’s important that owners get to know their dog’s own unique body language and always be alert and sensitive to a dog’s communication to ensure they are always happy and safe.

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