The Tell-Tail Tale
“Oh, look, his tail is wagging, he wants me to walk right up and pet him!”
Ignoring or misunderstanding the physical cues a dog gives can get you snarked at or even bitten, and as uncomfortable as a defensive bite can be for you, it’s generally worse for the dog. It can result in anything from a lengthy quarantine to a death sentence.
Somehow we’ve all been fed the assumption that a wagging tail means a dog is feeling friendly, but that’s not always the case. Dogs use their tails to communicate far more subtly and completely than that. They have a definite language, used for talking to us and among themselves and taking time to note the different inflections and combinations is part of polite communication -- and not provoking an incident.
3 Tail Positions:
Here’s your first cue to pay attention to: how high or low is his tail? Take into account whether it’s a breed or mix with what you’d call a typical tail or one, like a Chow, Basenji or Pug, that normally carry their tails curled up over their backs. There’s still a difference in position if you look, although other factors will tell you more clearly.
If it’s held high up over the back, you’re being told, “I’m on alert; I feel like something’s not right.” It may not be directed at you, there could be something going on elsewhere, but it’s a definite, “not now.” Remember, you may not get a direct look from the dog because first, in their language, a direct look can be a challenge or it could very well be that their attention is on something else. Chill out, look at something else and don’t approach until you get a better signal.
Most often, a tail held low, down near or between the hocks indicates submission and possibly some fear. Either way, slow down, speak in a soft, quiet voice and encourage the dog to come to you instead of walking up to him.
This is most commonly the friendly, neutral, “hey, howzit goin’” position. Often a dog’s confidence is indicated by the height of the wagging tail in this neutral zone. A tail even with his back, or just a bit above, is a good sign he’s confident and doesn’t feel he has any reason to distrust or have any fear. As it lowers, he may be telling you he’s not quite as confident, but it probably isn’t anything personal, that he would still really like it if you’d let him get to know you a little more slowly and find out that you know the exact spot to rub. Or maybe even have something tasty stashed in a pocket.
3 Tail Motions:
Wagging tails can run the gamut from full on “wag the dog” to barely perceptible tremors. The dog who can barely keep his back end on the ground for the gyroscopic motion of his tail is happy to see you. This is the one you see when you get home from work, or say magic words like “wanna go for a walk?” When you see that in a dog that’s not yours you might need to be prepared to be bowled over with enthusiasm. Still, don’t rush up. It’s never polite and can turn a confident, level-with-the-back, wag the dog tail into one that drops lower and changes cadence. Manners matter.
1. Trembling Wag:
Manners matter especially when you see a barely perceptible, trembling wag. That one’s trying to tell you he’s unsure. If it’s high, well, that’s usually a warning to go away. Think in terms of a rattlesnake’s warning, telling you “I’m here, go away and leave me alone.” If it’s down low, between the hocks, he’s most likely telling you he’s apprehensive.
2. Calm Wag:
The calm wag absolutely needs to be considered with other factors, like position. The dog wagging his tail calmly, holding it in the midrange, neither up over his back nor down near his hocks, tells you he’s glad to see you in a rational sort of way. He’s confident, no big deal, and oh, by the way, rub a little to the left, okay?
3. High Over The Back Wag:
You’re being sized up and he’s feeling pretty confident that if you overstep his boundaries he can take you, or at least enjoy scaring you and maybe even send you home to change your underwear. He’s not the least bit afraid of you, but there’s something about you he doesn’t trust and you need to respect that.
Stiff Vs. Relaxed Tail:
It’s not subtle. If the tail is stiff, especially if it’s lashing, no matter what position or motion is going on, it’s a clear, “leave me alone.” Variances of position and motion are just telling you why you need to leave the dog alone. If you’re in a situation where you can’t just go away, the best thing to do is keep whatever distance you can. Do your best to ignore the dog, make yourself a non-threat, and just be part of the scenery. This response can sometimes be enough to let him drop his guard and get over his first reaction to you. Even if he doesn’t change his mind about you, it will take some of the tension out of the situation.
A wagging tail isn’t as simple as “is it wagging or not.” It’s a complex part of a dog’s body language that he’s offering to be read, and becoming literate in Dog will enrich your life. The old tagline is still true, “reading is fundamental!”