A Trusted Friend in a Complicated World

12 Secrets Your Dog’s Tail Is Trying to Tell You

Think your pup's wagging tail means he's happy to see you? Maybe. Or maybe he's just not into you. Here is how dog behaviorists decipher what a dog's tail indicates.

adorable Cute Border Collie Puppy on the beach.
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Full body wag

You probably see this wag when you come home from work every night. Your pup welcomes you with a tail wagging in a big circle. You’ll also see him shaking his entire body in a loose way, accompanied by a submissive grin or a soft open mouth. “The more swaying and wiggly motion closer to the head of the dog, the friendlier the dog is,” notes Russ Hartstein, CEO of Fun Paw Care, certified dog behaviorist and trainer in Los Angeles. And make sure you read up on why dogs have tails in the first place.

Dog tail,Dog's rear,dog,cute tail,dog fur texture
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Fast and shaky

When you see a fast, vigorous, almost shaking tail on a dog, take it as a cue of tension and/or hostility. The dog could spring into action at any moment. “This is a highly aroused dog and should generally be avoided until it settles down,” cautions Hartstein. To find out if you’re the source of that hostility, check out these things your dog wishes you knew.

Pure breed male labrador puppy

Slow wag

You can almost see it in its face: The pup seems to be contemplating his next move. A slow wagging tail may indicate that a dog is unfriendly, so proceed with caution. “Make sure to take the entire environment and personality of the dog into consideration. If it was an unknown dog, do not interact,” recommends Hartstein. Find out why dogs have tails anyway.

Beautiful young female dog

High and stiff

Talk about swagger. This high, stiff tail with a fast wagging tip generally means the pup is alert and aroused. He is confident and enthusiastic and strutting his stuff. Didn’t realize your dog had such a wide range of emotions? This is just one of the many unbelievable facts you never knew about your pooch. But when the tail is high and stiff and other dogs are near, it could be display of dominance, Hartstein says. And, if the high stiff tail is in combination with any teeth, open mouth, raised hackles, and a wrinkled nose, it’s a cue to back off. “It is safe and respectful to any animal to provide space to make them comfortable and confident,” says Hartstein.

Crossbreed dog poses outdoors in an autumn scenery

Wagin’ on the right

“There is research that suggests that when a dog wags its tail on the right side, it’s considered more likely to be friendly than when a dog wags its tail on the left side of its body,” says Hartstein. Researchers found that dogs wagged their tails to the right when they wanted to approach something, like their owner, but wagged their tails to the left when they were met with something they weren’t to sure of, like a dominant dog with an unfriendly posture.

Female young boxer dog in park playing with a ball

Pulled down

Here, the tail is being held at a low level, often covering the dog’s anus but not yet disappearing between the dog’s legs. “A tail that is pulled down shows a dog is not entirely comfortable with the situation he’s in and could be feeling anxious, nervous, or unsure,” says pet expert Erin Askeland, CBCC-KA, CPDT-KA of Camp Bow Wow. “A tail wag or wiggle may also be included as a sign of appeasement.” Looking at the position of your dog’s tail is one of the main ways to figure out what your dog actually wants from you and how they are feeling.

Portrait of an adult Spanish Greyhound dog

Tucked in

Slightly different from a pulled down tail, this tucked in version is a tail that is tucked between the legs. “This can mean a dog is feeling threatened or is fearful of the situation he’s in. A tail tucked between the legs covers a dog’s genital area for protection,” says Askeland.

Dog tail
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Curled toward the head

There’s a few things to take into consideration with this scenario: some tails naturally curl or bend toward the head, so the dog could be relaxed. But if the tail is being held (or pulled) in the direction of the dog’s head, then it could indicate the dogs is overstimulated, on high alert, or highly excited. Since your dog can’t specifically tell you which emotion they are feeling—just like these 50 secrets your pet won’t tell you—it’s important to seek other signs of their attitude. It could run the spectrum ranging from alarm to exaggerated joy, which is why watching the rest of the body language the dog is giving off is important to understand how the dog is feeling, says Askeland.

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Limp tail

The tail isn’t just a cute appendage. It is an extension of its backbone with vertebrae and a sensitive part of a dog’s anatomy that is prone to injury. “A limp tail, one that cannot wag, is a problem and can mean a dog has an injury directly to the tail or to other connected areas. A tail can be sprained, broken, dislocated, or have nerve damage that causes it to go limp,” says Askeland. Seek immediate veterinary care as damage to the tail can cause a variety of issues including incontinence, balance issues, and the inability to use the tail to communicate. In addition to a limp tail, make sure to watch for these 10 other silent signs your dog isn’t feeling so great.

Dog tail behind
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What about stubby tails?

What about those breeds with stubby or curly tails? They still mimic the same signals as those with straight or long tails, but may not be able to exaggerate this expression the same. “A key component to reading tails that are stubby or curly is to look at the base of the tail. Since the tail is attached to the spine, any movement of the tail starts at the base, so if you look at the base of the tail, you can see when a stubby tail is raised straight up, in the air, or tucked down over the butt, etc,” says Askeland. Never knew that your dog’s tail could reveal so much about their emotions? That’s only one of 50 secrets veterinarians won’t tell you.

Lisa Marie Conklin
Lisa Marie Conklin is a Baltimore-based writer who writes regularly about pets and home improvement for Reader's Digest. Her work has also been published in The Healthy, Family Handyman and Taste of Home, among other outlets. She's also a certified personal trainer and walking coach for a local senior center.