By Karen A. Soukiasian
Canines use body language to communicate. But what do you need to know to decipher a dog tail message?
Low, high, stiff, wagging fast? What’s your dog trying to say?
Tail positions, type of movement and speed all carry a key dog message that you as a dog owner need to learn to decipher.
Decipher a dog tail message
Happy dog tail message
- A wagging tail spreads your dog’s scent from their anal sacs. The higher the tail, the stronger the scent and the more it gets wafted around.
- A happy, playful dog will hold their tail up high and it will be wagging!
- When your dog stands tall, tail held high with slow sweeps, they are secure, confident and proud.
- A relaxed dog allows their tail to follow its natural curve or curl over their back.
Nervous, submissive or aggressive dog tail message
- A wagging tail does not mean they are happy and friendly.
- A tail held rigid and straight out says the dog is nervous or uncertain. Puppies often do this when they investigate something new.
- A tail positioned low and slowly wagging tail usually means the dog is unsure or worried. You know the look. It’s the one you get when you come home and discover some kind of “accident.”
- A tail held horizontally — upright to rigid — means your dog feels threatened or challenged.
- A tucked tail communicates fear, stress and submission. Your dog is trying to appear smaller and is covering their anal sacs. Anal sac release volumes of information your dog is trying to “delete.”
- When your dog takes a lower stance, tail down and/or tucked, yet wagging quickly, it means they are nervous and stressed.
- When the hair at the base of the tail stands up high, your dog is on alert.
- Aggression is usually communicated with a tail rigid and straight out level with their body. Some dogs make deliberate, rhythmic sweeping motions, almost like the tick of a clock. Be cautious, that motion is sometimes unfortunately confused with a wagging tail.
Dog tail history
Before dogs became domesticated, most had large, bushy tails like wolves. Then a dog’s tail was key to his survival.
But the tail was important for other uses, too.
A dog’s tail is used for counterbalance when running, turning, leaping, climbing, swimming, and walking narrow paths, ridges or trails.
In some breeds, a large, bushy tail is crucial for insulation. A general rule of thumb is, the colder the climate, the larger and bushier the tails. In the cold, when a dog sleeps, they will curl up and wrap their tail around their face and nose as a means to conserve their body heat.
As dogs evolved, and with the migration, tinkering and tweaking of their human companions, the dog’s tail changed. They become rudimentary, docked, narrowed, tipped, otter shaped and even corkscrewed!
Some breeds, mostly those that herd, are born with a rudimentary tail, which is nothing more than a flap of fatty tissue…if even that! For example, many Australian Shepherds are born without tails. They may not have tails, but that fatty tissue, hair on end, and wiggling butt will let you know what’s going on in their head.
Hunters found their dogs were easier to follow and they killed fewer of them, if they could see a white tip. So, they fine-tuned that need, with selective breeding. Today, many hounds and sports breed proudly wave that white flag tail, as they zip through fields and woods.
Tails that have been bred away, or docked are not so much for looks, but because they were considered on-the-job hazards. It was one thing less for an opponent or predator to grab, and it avoided the mess of tangles, burrs and hitchhikers.
At one time, a dog without a tail was considered a working dog, and therefore was not taxed!
Today, in Europe, it is illegal to crop the ears and dock a dog’s tail. Nevertheless, here in the United States, unfortunately, many owners insist it be done. It is unnecessary, painful and dangerous.
Bottom line: Learn to decipher a dog tail message — the tail is the key tool your canine uses to communicate. By learning how to read your dog’s tail, you will better be able to meet your dog’s needs. And your dog will be so proud of you for being bilingual.
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