Dog Tails : What is your dog's tail trying to tell you?

DrPaul -

Dog Tails : What is your dog's tail trying to tell you?

Why do dogs have tails? Lets face it, they are a pretty cute appendage and for many breeds their tail is a core ‘waggy’ feature. But the doggy tail does more than just define the breed and it’s cuteness!

Dog Tails are necessary for a whole host of important things.

A tail of a thousand words…
By far the most important function of a dogs’ tail is to communicate how that dog is feeling, both to dogs and humans. Understanding tail position and patterns of movement will help you as an owner in understanding what your dog is trying to say. From how high your dog carries their tail to the speed of a wag or whether the tail is positioned more to the left or right hand side of the body, these signals can convey a lot of information about your dog’s mood as well as their intentions.

How to interpret tail communication:

Tail Position

● Aggression : A tail that is practically vertical or almost arching over the back is usually a warning posture that signals an active threat.

● Fear or Submission : Tail is tucked tightly between the rear legs when your dog is frightened. A submissive posture is when the tail moves from a neutral position to a lower one but isn’t quite tucked all the way under. The lower the tail the less this dog wishes to put out the communication pheromones and wishes to be left alone.

● Curiosity : Tail is held straight out in a horizontal position.

● Agitation : When a dog is alerted to something or someone new they will stand with their ears and tails raised, ready to confront whatever caught their attention.

● Happiness : A happy dog will hold their tail in a neutral or slightly raised position and may throw in a good old wag.

Wag Speed
● Warning! : A vertical tail that is almost vibrating is indicative of a dog that is warning others to stand back and poses an active threat.

● Excited : The faster the wag, the more excited the dog. From a slow lazy wave to a being extremely rapid, known as flagging, this is an excited happy dog! Throw in a wiggle of the hips and this is a friendly dog that is happy to greet you.

● Nervous : A tentative wag slightly lower slung to the ground indicates a dog that is feeling a bit insecure and is tentative about any oncoming approach.

Left or Right?

● The direction of the tail wag can also be telling. Studies have shown that dogs wag their tails to the right hand side of their body when they are happy or confident. When the wag is more to the left this indicates that they are frightened or nervous.

Evolution originally designed the tail to assist in your dogs’ balance when running at high speeds or walking and climbing on narrow surfaces.
The tail helps your dog to skillfully maneuver when running as well as helping maintain balance by putting the weight on the opposite side of their body - much like a tight-rope walker would use a balance beam!
Most of the strongest swimmers have long, deep otter-like tails which act like a rudder, helping them to steer through water.
Some dog breeds such as the Irish WolfHound can have up to 23 extra vertebrae from the end of their spine making for one very long wagger indeed!

Pheromone distribution
Your dog’s tail is all important in spreading your dog’s unique scent, also known as pheromones, around. Pheromones are produced by the anal glands located at the base of the tail on your dogs bottom and their tail acts like a fan helping to spread those pheromones into the atmosphere. These scents are an important part of communication between dogs and quite often when your dog greets another this is why there is a bit of butt sniffing! They are simply exchanging scents and communicating to one another.

Tail docking is illegal in the UK, unless the dog is of a specific working breed or it is required for medical reasons. There are some breeds that are naturally born without tails, these are known as bobtail breeds such as; Australian Shepherds, Brittany Spaniels and Boston Terriers. Tailless dogs live perfectly normal lives but are considered to be at a disadvantage when interacting with other dogs as this vital form of communication is not present. That can often lead to misunderstandings or negative encounters with other dogs.

Paul Manktelow

Veterinary Surgeon

Dr Paul Manktelow is a vet who's worked for almost 20 years on the front line in some of the UK's busiest veterinary hospitals. Paul also appears regularly in the media as a TV and radio presenter, writer, public speaker and podcast producer.