Thump Thump Thump goes his tail against your leg, arm, or face as your dog hits you with his tail. Every dog owner can relate to being hit by his or her dog’s tail, or having a table or area cleared by a swinging tail, but why it happens is not readily clear. All dog’s tails wag, but what the wag means and what he intends for it to mean can vary depending on other body movements and situations. Being hit by a dog tail is completely normal, but assuming that all tail wagging is a sign of a happy dog can lead to problems. Learning what a dog is telling you with his tail can go a long way in communicating effectively. You can also learn how to avoid getting hit by his tail if that is your wish too.
The Root of the Behavior
The dog’s tail provides a purpose beyond expressing himself. The tail serves to balance a dog while running and as a rudder while swimming. If you watch your dog run and turn a corner, you will see his tail swing to the side to balance out his action. His tail provides stability, much like your toes keep you from falling on your face when you walk. His tail allows him to balance while climbing, leaping or walking along narrow structures. In fact, the tail’s initial purpose was for balance and its use for communication has been adapted, as he has become domesticated. A dog will also raise or wag his tail to spread his scent. Conversely, he may pull his tail between his legs to avoid spreading his scent. Researchers have spent a lot of time observing and testing dogs to determine why dogs do what they do. One issue under study is whether or not a dog wags his tail on purpose or by reflex. The consensus is that a wagging tail on a dog is similar to a smile on a person. Sometimes you smile on purpose, as a form of communication when you see someone and you want to express your happiness with the encounter. And sometimes something makes you happy and you find you are smiling on instinct, and that often you cannot help yourself.
Tail wagging seems to be the same for dogs as smiling is with humans. Researchers believe that dogs use the tail to communicate on purpose, but at times it is an instinctual reflex that gets his tail wagging as well. Studies have found that a dog also only wags his tail when another person or animal is around, much like you typically only talk when you have company. This suggests that whether he is intentionally or reflexively trying to communicate does not matter as much as the fact that his tail is a form of communication. With this in mind, it seems that a dog that hits you with his tail is doing so purely by accident. He may be wagging as a reflex, or to express himself, but he is not using it as a weapon or a way to reach out and touch someone like he would his snout or paws.
Encouraging the Behavior
A dog will wag his tail for different reasons and it is important to identify the various ways he wags so as not to misinterpret what is going on and put yourself or someone else at risk for being snipped at or bitten. People wrongly assume a dog wags his tail only when he is happy and lowers it when he is sad. In fact, there are several reasons a tail will swing and learning your dog’s body language is essential in understanding his wag. When your dog is relaxed, his tail will typically hang down near his feet. Different breeds have different tails, so a Greyhound’s tail will naturally rest between his legs while a Pug’s tail will curve upward. The Chinese Shar-Pei and the Chow Chow naturally have a high curved tail when in the resting position and the Whippets have a low tail similar to the Greyhound. A dog with a high tail swooping back and forth is definitely happy, and it usually involves his whole back end and maybe even some wiggles. A dog that is holding his tail lower than his natural position, or up between his legs, is feeling nervous or submissive. He may even be swinging his tail back and forth, but since it is low you need to be aware he is not happy or at ease. A dog that has a very high tail is aroused by something while a stiff tail combined with a stiff body tends to indicate a dog that is aggressive.
If his tail is whipping back and forth in the high position, known as flagging, he is most definitely about to go on the attack and should be avoided. In dogs with curled tails, such as the Pug, a tense tail does not necessarily get higher but rather the curl gets tighter. This expression could simply mean the Pug is aroused and you need to observe his other body language signs to determine if he is also aggressive. It is important to note that not all friendly dogs wag their tails, and not all tail wagging is friendly. If you are close enough to your dog that his tail can touch you while it wags, you will undoubtedly get hit. Finding a tail in your face can be startling, but it is important to assess his tail and get out of his way if you sense he is in a heightened state and possible aggressive.
Other Solutions and Considerations
Studies have shown that the side your dog wags his tail on also communicates his mood and that other dogs are great at reading this non-verbal form of communication. All dogs will tail wag on the right side if they are feeling happy, confident, and secure. Dogs that are scared or feel the need to run away will typically wag their tails on the left side of their body. Scientists derive this from the fact that the left side of the brain, which controls the right side of his body, is responsible for behaviors that relate to his approachability and his feel-good energy. The right side of the brain that controls the left side of his body, manages his impulse for withdrawal and his negative avoidance energy. If you are tired of your dog hitting you with his tail, spend most of your time on his left side. If you are on the left and get hit, you need to get out of the way and pay attention to why he is experiencing possible fear or aggression.
A tail wag can be on purpose as a form of communication or instinctive. Just as you smile to convey meaning yet do not always do so consciously, the same holds true for your pup’s wag. Because he cannot necessarily control his tail wag, his hitting you is most likely not done on purpose and has little to do with his communication. Dogs tend to have a relaxed tail that falls by their feet, a high wide sweeping tail wag to the right typically means he is happy to see you, and a high stiff tail that is slowly sweeping and to the left can mean he is feeling aggressive. The only way to really avoid getting hit by his tail is to step out of his way.
By a Black Lab lover Zoe Byer
Published: 03/20/2018, edited: 01/30/2020