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    Dog Tails: What is Your Dog's Tail Saying?

    Authored by Jodi Helmer

    Your dog might not be able to talk but each bark, whine and head tilt conveys a message—and their tails have the biggest tales to tell.

    Dogs use their tails to communicate: A fast wag sends a different message than a slow wag and a tail pointed straight in the air means something different than one tucked between their legs. Want to decode your dog’s tail language? Look for these four clues.

    Tail speed

    Is it a slow swish or a rapid wag? How fast (or slow) your dog wags his tail can give you information about his mood.

    A tail that moves back-and-forth at a rapid pace is a sign of arousal or excitement. You might see this fast-paced tail wag when you fill the food bowls or grab the leash to go for a walk. A high speed tail wag with limited range could also indicate that your dog is in fight or flight mode and may be contemplating running from (or toward) a perceived threat.

    Dogs that are nervous or tentative, but interested, often convey that emotion with a slow tail wag.

    Tail direction

    All dogs wag their tails back and forth but take a closer look and you’ll see that their tails tend to wag further in one direction than the other.

    Researchers studied whether there is rhyme or reason behind the direction of a tail wag and found that dogs wag their tails further to the right to convey positive emotions like happiness, while dogs that are experiencing negative emotions like anxiety or fear will wag their tails further to the left.

    Test the theory by offering your dog a treat and telling him he’s a good boy and watch to see which direction his tail wags.

    Dog tail position

    You already know that a dog with a tucked tail is feeling afraid or nervous. Your dog might tuck his tail when greeting another dog, or when he is getting in trouble for eating the trash; it’s a position that conveys submissiveness.

    Nervous dogs may pull their tails down without tucking them between their legs; this is a sign of discomfort.

    Dogs hold their tails in a neutral position—not too high and not too low—when they feel relaxed. A horizontal tail (held parallel to their back) is a sign that your dog is alert and attentive. It’s a position that “pointing” breeds like English Pointers and German Shorthaired Pointers will use when they alert on their prey.

    The happier and more confident your dog feels, the higher he’ll hold his tail. A word of caution: A vertical, rigid tail is a sign of aggression and sends the message to back off.

    Tail wagging style

    Your dog should get style points for their swishing, wiggling, shaking tail wags.  

    Friendly dogs that are eager to say hello wag their tails in a broad, circular pattern with their tails swishing from side to side; the tail often “wags the dog” and sends their entire body into a relaxed, wiggling motion. This is most likely the tail wagging style you see when you greet your dog after work. 

    A stiff wag could be a sign of excitement or nerves. In this style, your dog may only wag the very tip of his tail with the rest of the tail standing rigid and vertical. Look for other signs like raised hackles or bared teeth that could indicate a dog is displaying dominance and needs some space to feel more relaxed.

    Remember, there are exceptions to every rule. Some dog breeds, like the Chinese Shar-Pei and Chow Chow, have naturally high, curved tails and their “neutral position” involves holding their tails high. Other dog breeds, including the Australian Shepherd and Corgi, have natural bobtails and it can be harder to decode the message their nubby tails are sending. 

    Understanding what is normal for your dog will help you decipher changes and give you an edge when it comes to translating their tail wags.