You have no doubt heard people say, “A dog that is wagging its tail is happy.” But is this true?
Why does a dog need a tail?
A dog’s tail has several functions. For example, it is used for stability during walking or as a rudder when swimming.
The tail is also an important part of a dog’s body language. Thus, they use their tail to communicate, along with facial expressions and posture.
What is the dog trying to tell us?
A dog that is wagging its tail indicates interaction with the environment. There are various factors you need to take into consideration, for example, the speed and width of the movement and the height of the tail carriage in relation to the neutral position of the tail.
Thus, a wagging tail can mean that the dog is stressed, finds something exciting or is even getting ready to attack…
It is perhaps one of the biggest misconceptions that a dog that is wagging its tail is always a happy dog.
Height: The height of the tail carriage can say something about the dog’s self-confidence. A dog that carries its tail high usually indicates that it is self-confident, while a low tail carriage indicates a more modest, insecure or nervous dog.
Rigidity: In general, a relaxed, flexible tail is a good sign. A rigid wag usually indicates tension or even hostility (threat).
Speed: A swift movement is generally good. A slow wagging movement usually indicates that the dog is not planning to be friendly.
When is a dog that is wagging its tail a happy dog?
When a dog shows a wide sweeping movement, with its back or whole body being engaged (because the muscles in the body are relaxed), then we can consider the dog to be happy.
It is not black and white
As mentioned above, you never look at the tail alone, but at the overall posture and situation / environment in which the dog finds itself.
A wagging tail can have different meanings depending on the situation. You should also pay attention to the other signals your dog shows and the context in which this is happening.
You can compare this with what people sometimes say. If I say, “I’m going to kill you one of these days” then that can be interpreted as a joke or as a threat, depending on the situation and context.
Finally, every dog is an individual so the meaning of a wagging tail may also differ from dog to dog. Tail wagging is a universal behaviour displayed by dogs. What is not however universal is the temperament of the different breeds and even different characters within one breed. One dog may display a more rapid movement or a different attitude to another dog while meaning just the same thing.
It is therefore important that you, the owner, understand the body language of your own dog.