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Telling Tails: What does dog tail wagging mean?

Dog tail wagging

All dog owners love that wagging tail welcome from their four-legged friends. But, contrary to popular belief, dog tail wagging doesn’t always mean happiness.

Scientists have discovered that dogs use tail wagging as a communication tool. There are different wags for different messages, and we need to tune in to understand what the messages are.

Don’t get us wrong; some tail wags are associated with happiness or greeting. However, others can communicate fear, insecurity or a warning not to come closer. The position of the tail, speed and pattern of movement can all help us understand the social signals of dog tail wagging.

Argos Pet Insurance shares a basic guide to dog tail wagging and its many meanings – how many do you recognise?

Common happy wags

Type of wag: Tail held horizontally, small slow wag from side to side
Meaning: Positive but tentative greeting.

Type of wag: Tail held low or horizontally, broad fast wag from side to side (sometimes makes the whole body appear to wag!)
Meaning: Friendly, welcoming and pleased to see you. The most common ‘happy wag’.

Common unhappy wags

Type of wag: Tail held slightly higher than horizontal, fast wag
Meaning: Insecure, unsure about your or another dog’s presence

Type of wag: Tail held high, tiny high-speed movements from side to side
Meaning: Threat or warning not to come closer

Other dog tail wagging types

Left wag, right wag
There’s another discovery that has surprised many dog owners and scientists alike. The direction bias in which a dog wags its tail can also indicate its emotions. A group of neuroscientists at the University of Trento conducted research that showed dogs’ tails tend to move slightly more to the right if they’re happy. Likewise, if the dog feels negative emotions like fear or aggression, the tail tends to move further to the left.

This can be tough for even the most attentive dog owner to detect and interpret, and is more readable for other dogs than it is for humans. However, if you do notice your dog’s tail wagging is more biased to the left or right, this is a good indication of how they’re feeling.

Tail up, tail down
Dogs’ tails don’t even need to be wagging to tell us how they’re feeling. If a dog’s tail is horizontal or low, the dog is in a neutral to submissive mode and will usually be good-natured.

If, however, you see a dog with its tail high in the air, this is a signal of dominance and assertiveness – as if to say ‘I’m in charge here!’ Approach these dogs with caution, especially if you have another dog with you, as this is challenging behaviour and could lead to a fight.

So it turns out dogs’ tails are more than just the wiggly appendages that knock our drinks off coffee tables. If we’re able to recognise the social signals our dogs are giving us using tail wagging, we can have a much more rewarding and understanding relationship together.