We humans have a talent for labeling. We like a firm “handle” or definitive “niche” for everything. This creates a tendency to want and even expect all life experiences — like our dog’s behavior — to come in simple packages. From children, we’re taught that if a dog wags its tail, she’s happy and friendly. If the dog growls, she’s mean and vicious. Documented research of the past 30 years plus has indicated that this just isn’t always so, but we still continue to believe it. I think it’s the same psychological quirk that makes us perceive the behavior of other people as fixed and immutable whereas we see our own as reactions depending on the circumstances. With dogs, not only the circumstances might change what that wagging tail means, but what the rest of their body is doing certainly does!
Tail wagging is definitely communication. It is documented that dogs don’t wag tail if no one is around. They don’t wag as reaction to an object. They wag for another person; four- or two-legged! But it’s not all about the tail! Dogs pay attention to each other’s ears, upper lip, lower jaw, corners of the mouth, head, neck, back, legs and feet, too. Each of these body parts can “modify” what the tail is saying. What the TAIL is doing besides wagging can modify the message. HOW the tail is wagging modifies the message!
Most experts agree that wagging indicates the dog feels strongly about something. Not necessarily strongly in favor of it. The harder and faster the tail wags, the stronger the dog feels. We get a clue to WHAT the dog is feeling by looking at WHERE the tail is wagging. The higher the tail is held, the more confident the dog is feeling. Most of us recognize that a dog with tail between her legs is scared. When a dog holds her tail up above the level of her back or curled over it, she’s feeling confident, if not belligerent. Unfortunately, this is complicated by the fact that different dog breeds naturally hold their tails in different places. For example, a Greyhound in a neutral position, holds her tail down, slightly curving between her legs. At the opposite side of the spectrum a Siberian Husky’s tail often naturally curls up over her back even at rest. And some dogs’ tails (like most terriers) can stick straight up from the base like an inverted carrot, whereas other breeds’ tails have stiffer bases, so — especially if the tail is docked — we can’t see the tail rising above the level of the back. So, we need to know where our dog naturally carries her tail, and realize that “up” and “down” are relative to that position!
We get other clues by HOW the tail is wagging. Is is stiffly moving back and forth from the base like a metronome? That indicates dominance/possible aggression, and we’d better look at other body parts for more clues. Is is low and moving only a little bit, mostly the tip, rather tentatively? That is an unsure dog, a bit concerned and perhaps wanting to placate you. Is it “swishy” with vertebrae so loose that the tail tip touches the dog’s sides at each wag? That’s a lot more relaxed and good-natured. Is the tail in spasms of movement — almost in a “propeller” action — taking the hindquarters with it? That, most experts agree, is the only wagging one can really trust as being 100% friendly and happy!
Tomorrow I’ll talk about how to look for other body clues that modify the wagging-tail message!