How to Read Your Dog’s Tail
Most dog owners know that a wagging tail isn’t necessarily the sign of a friendly dog. There is, in fact, a great deal of information to be gained about a dog’s status through the position and movement of the tail. It can be used, along with other body language cues, to help you determine what a dog’s next actions might be, and to therefore forestall aggression or provide support for anxiety.
In general, a relaxed, loosely moving tail is the sign of a dog who is at ease and friendly. Stiff movements, or a stiff lack of movement, indicate a dog who is unsure or uncomfortable.
The position of the tail – up, down, or straight out – adds more information. A dog with her tail down – that is, below the normal, natural position of the tail, which is typically slightly below the line of the body – is nervous or even frightened. A dog with his tail up is feeling confident.
So, a dog whose tail is held low and stiff is feeling threatened, while a dog whose tail is low, but loosely wagging, is nervous but tentatively optimistic. Simliarly, a dog whose tail is up and rigid, or stiffly wagging, is aroused, feeling assertive, and could become aggressive. Tail up, but with looser movement, is also an aroused dog, but with less force of will.
Of course, different breeds have different natural tail positions, and some don’t have tails to speak of at all. This can lead to some misunderstandings of body cues, even with other dogs. For example, dogs like huskies whose tails are naturally curved over their backs, can be taken by some other dogs as coming on strong, at least until they get to know the husky better. One more reason that it’s good for every dog to be well socialized with other dogs: so they can learn about the differences within their own species.
Just as with any element of body language, the position of the tail should not be looked at alone. The dog’s posture as a whole should be considered as you are trying to determine how she is feeling. Taking the time to become good at reading canine body language will make you a better owner, as well as increasing your own safety when interacting with dogs.
NR Tomasheski is a dog trainer who spent seven years as co-owner of a canine daycare, boarding, and grooming facility in Sherman Oaks, California. She has competed with her own dogs in agility, obedience, and rally.