What Your Dog’s Tail Really Means

Let’s be honest, when our dog’s tail is raised, wagging or tucked we like to think we know exactly what he means. The reality is, despite having our share of single sided conversations with our dogs, we don't always fully understand what they mean despite the fact we feel as though we know them, their quirky personalities and behaviors.

Dogs most certainly have a language, which allows them to communicate with other dogs and humans alike. Although our canine friends use some verbal communication with a bark or howl, their most common form of communication is through body language.

If you haven’t yet managed to read our “what is your pet trying to tell you”, which covered vocalizations and behavioral problems, it's worth a read too!

Tapping into, and understanding, dog body language will provide you with lots of practical information on what your dog is feeling in different circumstances, this will help you to understand your dog’s state of mind in different situations.

Three Positions of a Dog’s Tail

When observing your dog, you will typically find their tail between one of any four natural positions:

1.    Raised Vertically

2.    Raised Horizontally

3.    Relaxed

4.    Tucked in-between the legs

Quick and fast rules can be used to observe a dog’s tail position and relate this to how they may be feeling. But, as we will explain later, ideally a framework should be used to help correctly identify their emotion.

A fearful or anxious dog will typically tuck their tail in-between their hind legs, especially during walks. This can commonly be observer during Thanksgiving or fireworks evenings. A dog who is displaying signs of interest will typically raise their tail and wag it horizontally. Finally, a dog display signs of extreme emotion (excitement or aggression) will raise their tail vertically.

I can hear you asking how do I know if my dog is excited or aggressive? At this point, it becomes a little bit clearer as to why a framework should be used to explore dog body language and not just an isolated body part.

Using a Dog Body Language Framework

For the past twenty years, dog trainers across the US have been using a framework taught to them in the form of TEB. TEB stands for Tail, Eyes and Body Posture. It is thought that by combining all three body parts together, you get a much clearer understanding of a dog’s body language.

The example below highlights the importance of this.

Play%20Bow%20or%20Aggressive%20Dog%20Picture%20John%20Woods%20article.png

 A Play Bow or Aggressive Dog?

Looking at the picture, notice how both dog’s forequarters are lowered to the floor. Despite both dog’s having a similar posture with regards to their forequarters, we can look to their tail, eyes and posture to observer what their true intentions are.

Notice how both dog’s tails are raised, so we are either dealing with excitable or aggressive dogs. Now look at their postures, notice how the dog in the second picture has a fixed and stiff posture; you can also see a few raised hackles along their spine. In contrast look at the dog in the first picture’s posture, look how relaxed he looks, his ears are down and hackles, too.

If we observed just the dog’s tail, then we may have made the mistake of thinking both the dogs are either wanting to play or be aggressive. However, using a complete framework, we can now understand one dog wants to play and one does not!

You can use the handy table below to help you interpret common dog body language signals.

 

Eyes

Tail

Body Posture

I’m Relaxed

Dilated

Soft and floppy

Soft and floppy

I’m Interested

Dilated

Horizontal

Slight Way (optional)

Stiff forward lean with perked ears

I’m Nervous

Avoiding direct contact

Tucked between legs

Lowered and ears back

Putting It All Together

Hopefully now you realize that a dog’s tail can tell us lots about their emotion or behavior, however, we must observe their entire body in order to better understand their potential behavior. If we don’t, we may make the same mistake described above or misinterpret our dog’s emotions and potential reactions. This can have embarrassing consequences!

Using a known framework such as TEB enables us to systematically analyze our dog’s behavior which maps multiple body parts to a single behavior.

Give it a try next time you’re walking your dog, observe how they interact with different animals, sounds, and people; try to use the framework and observe if you are able to correctly interpret your dog’s behavior.