Dogs Behaving Better
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Lisa's Blog


What a Tail Can Tell

The tail is an under-appreciated barometer of how our dogs are feeling. Everyone can recognize the two extremes: (1) a wildly flailing tail—accompanied by a loose, relaxed body, mouth, and eyes—that says I’m happy to see you! Come closer! and (2) a tail tucked way under the belly—accompanied by a crouched, lowered body and averted eyes or “whale eye”— that says I’m scared, please go away!  

But there are many nuances to a dog’s tail that we should be aware of. The problem is, most people tend to interpret any sideways movement as “wagging” and therefore friendliness—and then are surprised when their dog launches at another dog or erupts into hostile barking. 

Dr Stanley Coren, a psychologist who has written several best-sellers about dogs and their cognitive abilities, is one of many canine experts who have enlightened us about tail talk.  While we need to take into account the dog’s normal tail carriage, which varies by breed, here are some interesting and important things we now know about what tails are telling us.

1. How high? A “good” wag is horizontal or slightly lower.  A lowered tail signals worry, fear, or submissiveness. A high, vertical tail (unless normally held that way) signals arousal, perhaps fear, and should be regarded as a warning: I’m not too sure about you. Don’t come any closer.  A high tail may be moving rapidly, but like a rattlesnake’s! Almost vibrating indicates high arousal and preparation for fight or flight, says Dr. Coren.

2. Which direction? In a 2011 study at the University of Trieste in Italy, vigorous wagging to their right side was seen in dogs looking at familiar people; an unfamiliar person caused a moderate wag to the right. A cat caused a slower, smaller wag to the right. The sight of an unfamiliar, aggressive-looking dog caused them to wag to their left side. This study suggests that a right bias can be seen as positive, while a left bias is negative. Click here for the source.

3.  How wide and fast? According to Dr. Coren, a slight wag can be read as tentative or hopeful. A wide sweep that takes the hips with it obviously conveys friendliness. A slow wag at half-mast, neither high nor low, is a sign of insecurity. A still horizontal tail probably means that the dog is on alert, assessing the situation.

4. How relaxed? Is the tail loose, curvy, and flexible? You may have to feel it to be sure, but a relaxed tail indicates a relaxed dog. Or is it stiff, rigid? That tells us the dog is feeling tense, unsure, threatened, or possibly threatening. Either move away or stop the approach of the scary person or dog.

Tail talk is clearly understood by other (well-socialized) dogs who can read an invitation to approach or a warning to keep their distance. Note that sometimes dogs are giving mixed signals because they’re feeling conflicted. Dogs with very docked tails are, of course, at a big disadvantage since their position and movement are hard to read. 

Whether it’s other animals or people that your dog is focusing on, we can help to keep everything under control by recognizing how our dogs are feeling and responding appropriately.

Copyright Lisa Benshoff 2016

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