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Why Do Dogs Wag Their Tails? 5 Common Reasons For This Behavior

Nicole Cosgrove

If you’ve ever spent any time with dogs, you know that they wag their tails a lot. Though your dog cannot speak to you with words, they use their tails to communicate various messages and emotions. In this article, we will examine the different messages and emotions that dogs are trying to convey when they wag their tails at us.

Tail Position

One of the most important aspects of interpreting your dog’s tail wags is paying attention to its tail position. All dogs have a “neutral” tail position, which can vary from breed to breed. A relaxed dog’s tail will typically hang downward, toward its heels. Some breeds, such as the Boston Terrier, have tails that curl instead of hanging down, and some, like the Beagle, tend to hold their tails vertically when they are relaxed. Understanding what your dog’s tail looks like in its relaxed state will help you better understand when it is trying to communicate a different emotion.

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5 Common Reasons Why Dogs Wag Their Tails

Let’s consider some of the most common reasons dogs wag or move their tails, and what exactly their tails look like.

1. Happiness

Black labrador wagging it's tail
Image Credit: danielle828, Pixabay

Humans tend to assume that tail wagging is a sign that their pooches are happy, and while that may not be entirely true, it’s certainly true some of the time. When a dog is happy, its tail will be raised up a bit. Scientists believe that when dogs are happy, they wag their tails to the right. This is because the left hemisphere of your dog’s brain is associated with positive emotions. Therefore, since the left hemisphere of the brain controls the right side of the body, a right-wagging tail means happiness. Pay attention, though—a tail that wags to the left probably means your dog is frightened.


2. Submission

If your dog’s tail moves down instead of up, this is most likely a sign of submission. Ever heard of having one’s tail between the legs? In vernacular English, it means the individual in question is embarrassed or ashamed because they know they have been defeated. For a dog, a tail between the legs means it senses a threat and is backing down because it does not want to be harmed.


3. Curiosity

Flat coated retriever dog in the garden
Image Credit: kimkuehke, Shutterstock

If you notice your dog’s tail standing horizontally, it likely means it is curious about something in its surroundings. You are likely to see this while out on a walk with your dog when you are surrounded by interesting sights and smells.


4. Aggression

aggressive german shepherd
Image Credit: Christel SAGNIEZ, Pixabay

Watch out for a dog tail that is standing up straight or even arching over your dog’s back, as this could be a sign of aggression. The higher your dog’s tail, the more aggressive it feels. Pay special attention to your dog’s tail when you are introducing it to new animals–particularly new dogs. Separate the animals immediately if it seems that one or both of them are becoming aggressive.


5.   Alertness

German Shorthaired Point_Vitalii_Mamchuk, Shutterstock
Image Credit: Vitalii_Mamchuk, Shutterstock

Finally, a moving tail could be an indication of alertness. Look for a slightly raised tail in addition to raised ears.

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Final Thoughts

It might take some time to learn what your dog is trying to tell you with its tail. Pay attention to your dog’s tail position when it is relaxed to get a sense of the normal or “neutral” tail position and check for other cues. Some signals, like raised ears, are subtle, while others, like growling or barking, are a dead giveaway to what your dog is feeling.


Featured Image Credit: Alsonl, Shutterstock

Nicole Cosgrove

Nicole is the proud mom of Baby, a Burmese cat and Rosa, a New Zealand Huntaway. A Canadian expat, Nicole now lives on a lush forest property with her Kiwi husband in New Zealand. She has a strong love for all animals of all shapes and sizes (and particularly loves a good interspecies friendship) and wants to share her animal knowledge and other experts' knowledge with pet lovers across the globe.