Many owners believe that their dog is happy if their tail is wagging, but this isn’t always the case. A wagging tail may be an indication of canine happiness but can also reflect a different state of emotion.
Dogs’ tails have a number of different purposes that don’t just relate to their emotional state. As well as using their tail to communicate with other dogs and humans, tails are used to aid balance, look attractive and shoo insects. The tail also aids in scent and status communication, and can help keep a dog warm in cold climates (they wrap their tail around their body and face when curled up).
To get to know your dog better we called in animal behaviouralist Dr Jo Righetti help find out what your dog’s tail is telling you:
A confident tail
A tail held high in the air, pointing upwards or up and over the back is a sign of assertiveness. It may be held very still or it may wave stiffly from side to side. This indicates that your dog is alert and feeling confident. Some dog breeds like Akitas and Pomeranians have tails that are naturally held that way.
A cautious tail
A tail held low, perhaps even tucked down between the legs signifies caution. Your dog is feeling a little frightened or anxious about their situation. Again some breeds like Whippets are more likely to hold their tails low.
A relaxed tail
When dogs are relaxed, they will usually hold their tails in the wagging position, held out from their bodies. The tail may or may not be wagging. Tails can move from one position to another very swiftly. So while your dog’s tail may be relaxed when you first approach, it can quickly tuck down between their legs as you reach out to pat them. This is letting you know that they are not comfortable with this situation. Use caution.
How to encourage a waggy tail
Most dogs respond to light, happy talk, so raise your voice an octave and talk to your dog like you are really happy to see them. At the same time, bend your legs a little and pat your legs. Chances are your dog will come to you with their tail wagging.
Chasing their tail
Some dogs chase their tails. This can provide amusement and owners often encourage this behaviour by laughing at it. However, tail chasing can become obsessive, compulsive behaviour and some dogs end up chewing their tails, resulting in severe injuries. Never encourage your dog to chase their tail. Instead focus their energy on more appropriate fun and games.
About Dr Joanne Righetti
Dr Joanne Righetti is an animal behaviourist, educating the public and professionals in all aspects of the human–animal relationship. Her background is in zoology, with a PhD in animal behaviour and a counselling diploma – qualifications which enable her to work with all sorts of animals – including the human variety! Joanne likes to help pet owners understand their pet's behaviour and solve any pet behaviour problems. She also consults to a variety of organisations including non-profit organisations, commercial companies and councils and is involved in a variety of media including regular spots on radio. Joanne is an honorary associate of the Faculty of Veterinary Sciences, University of Sydney. Find out more about Joanne at www.petproblemsolved.com.au