A dog’s tail is his built-in signal and flag to the world around him. Fido loves to flaunt that tail and show everyone how great he is. Obviously, that applies to dogs with fluffy, waggy type tails, but even the curliest, shortest little tail can still make a statement in its own special way. Why do dogs like to hold their tails up? They are using their tails as part of their different codes of communication. Tail up - happy dog, right? Well not always! It is important to read all the body language and know your dog and how he reacts to different situations. Dogs use their tails to communicate their mood and to spread their scent via their anal glands. Scent marking through the air as well as on trees and bushes sends out different important messages. Your dog is also telling other dogs that he meets if he is a dominant force to be reconnected with, or just a meek and mild happy, sociable chap.
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The Root of the Behavior
Dogs have used their tails as important parts of their anatomy since their wild days when communicating to the pack was important. The pack leader could show his dominance with his tail held high and stiff giving a strong message of ‘I’m the boss so don’t mess with me!’ The pack would understand and pay their respects to the alpha dog. African Wild dogs going out on a hunt together have white tips to their tails and those little tips act as a flag to others in the pack as they follow the track of their prey. Tails are also used to signal strong emotions like anger, agitation, and happiness. Dogs’ tails, used with the rest of their body language, can tell their owners and other dogs a great deal about how they are feeling. Even the Pug and other curly tailed dogs can use their tails as a form of communication. Curly tails will tighten to signal anger or agitation and soften in times of relaxation. Thankfully dogs’ tails are no longer docked, but even the short stubbly little tail can send different messages if you understand your dog. Most people think a wagging tail indicates a happy dog. This is not always the case. Watch the rest of the body language and the angle of the tail. A tail that is held high is the sign of a dominant dog. He is showing the others that he is an alpha dog and they must respect his space.
Tension in the tail and some fluffing up of the tail hairs is an indication of an agitated dog. This dog may well attack and bite. A highly aroused dog will hold his tail high and flick the end deliberately. This is known as ‘flagging’ and this dog will surely attack so it is a stance to be wary of. The opposite of the heightened tail is the lowered tail or even a tail tucked between your dog’s legs. Fear and uncertainty is the message sent out here and most people recognize that. The tail height between these two positions, the middle of the range level, communicates happiness and a relaxed state of mind. A sweeping broad wag is playful and when the tail is slightly curved and relaxed this is a calm and happy state for your dog to be in.
Encouraging the Behavior
There are other interesting signs to look for in your dog’s 'tail speak.' The speed of the wag will tell you the level of the mood your dog is experiencing. A fast wagging tail held level with the body is a happy tail. A slow stiff tail held high and moving deliberately from side to side or just quivering at the end is a dangerous tail, a dog to be avoided. You should slowly walk away from this dog. The direction of the tail wag has a signal too. A wag to the left is an indication that all is not so well with your dog. A wag to the right is a very happy wag. These are very subtle signs and ones you can look out for knowing what they tell you. Tails have other purposes besides mood indicators. They help with balance as your dog runs and jumps or climbs through difficult terrain. Dogs that are swimmers hold their tails up like rudders in the water. Tails spread the word in social circles of who your dog is and how friendly he may be when you are out on a walk or spending time in the park. As the dogs move around the park with their tails up, their anal scent glands are working and spreading the news of their arrival. Puppies learn this form of social behavior at about six weeks of age and as they grow more confident they share their mood with the rest of the litter. Wagging puppy tails are keen indicators of happy pups having a meal as they wean themselves from their mothers.
Other Solutions and Considerations
Tail wagging in a relaxed and friendly manner is like smiles and happy faces from your dog. Dogs read each other’s tail wags too and being able to understand a tail wag helps your dog in social surroundings to avoid conflict. Tail wagging is a dog's most visible form of communication, especially if the tail is fluffy and long. Tail wagging is not necessarily involuntary and your dog will control his tail to a degree. Learned conditioning like getting treats will encourage your dog to repeat tail wagging, however, he is aware of the innate communicators based on the different heights of tail wags. The tail that is horizontal pointing away and looking relaxed is exactly that, a relaxed calm state of body and mind. Watch for other signs as the tempo changes and the tail stiffens, raises, or drops and tucks under.
Tail wagging, as dogs lift their tails and greet us, is synonymous with happiness. In fact, having two tails means you are super happy. Receiving good news can make you feel like a ‘dog with two tails’ according to English idiom. Being able to read a tail wag is a very worthwhile skill. ‘Wagg-ernomics’ could be the next scientific field and lead us to understand dog speak even more clearly in the future. What a welcome wag that would be!.