Pet Talk: A Wagging Tail Does Not Always Mean a Friendly Dog

You see a strange dog who is looking at you wagging his tail and you presume he must be friendly and wants to be pet. Not so quick.

There is a common myth that a wagging tail means a happy, friendly dog saying “come pet me.” While it is true dogs do wag their tails to express happiness, they also wag to show other emotions such as fear, insecurity, a social challenge or even a warning such as, if you approach, “I am apt to bite you.”

A wag of a tail is one of the best methods of communication in the canine world. Puppies aren’t born knowing what a wagging tails means. When they are about a month old they recognize the need to communicate with their mother and siblings so they pick up the lingo. The pup wags his tail to tell his litter mates that he’s tired of playing or to tell his mother he’s hungry.

Canines have a kind of language that’s based on the position and motion of their tails. A wagging tail is not a sure sign a dog is happy; it only means a dog is mentally aroused and engaged with what is going on in his environment.

Knowing what to look for in a dog’s tail can help determine if you should approach or stay away. The height and speed of a dog’s tail is often a clue about what the wagging means. Happy dogs generally hold their tails parallel to their spine when they wag. The dog that drops his tail slightly and wags it low is usually the sign of a happy slightly submissive canine. Fearful dogs usually hold their tails low and even tucked between their rear legs with the tip slowly wagging. A tail that is held high is often a sign of a dominant dog. A high, fast-moving tail may indicate the dog is aggressive. These are often the dogs people pet and then get bitten.

This may be one of the biggest reasons children get bit, because they do not understand the dog’s body language and misinterpret the tail wagging as a good thing.

A study was done which suggests that a dog wagging its tail to its right side is a sign the canine is experiencing positive emotions, and wagging to the left side means they are experiencing negative emotions.

Dogs without tails communicate but have limitations. Tailless dogs approach other dogs and people cautiously to avoid miscommunication. They depend on other aspects of body language such as ear position, facial expressions and stance to communicate their intentions.

So, remember a person can get bitten by a dog that is wagging its tail.  


Sally Salopek is the owner and operator of Attend-A-Pet pet sitting services in northern Door County. She has also worked professionally with animals in health care, pet grooming, training, wildlife rehab and rescue. Send your pet-related questions to her at [email protected].

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