Wagging Tail, Happy Dog; Busting The Body-Language Myth

There’s an old wives’ tale that states a dog wagging its tail is feeling happy or friendly. We’ve all heard it at some point, and many people accept it as truth.

This ‘knowledge’ can cause confusion and extreme miscommunication when we encounter a dog wagging its tail whilst not exactly looking like it wants to become your new BFF.

Have you ever taken your dog on a walk somewhere and been approached by another dog that was wagging its tail but growling and raising its hackles at your pooch? And heard from the owner, “it’s okay, he’s friendly!”?

Some breeds will naturally carry their tails high or curled

Even non-dog-people (i.e., those weird cat-folk) may find themselves in confusing situations like these. Perhaps you’re walking down the street and a dog taking its owner for a walk is coming towards you, barking and lunging at the end of its lead while its tail wags furiously from side to side. You know that the dog is thinking about ripping your face off and doing victory laps of the park while wearing it as a trophy (because that’s what cats would do!), but the owner insists “It’s okay, her tail is wagging, that means she’s happy.” So you tentatively curl your toes into your open-toe sandals and hope the dog isn’t hungry as it passes.

Time to set the record straight; a wagging tail does NOT always mean that a dog is happy. Rather, it denotes a state of stimulation/arousal. It CAN mean the dog is happy, but it can also mean the dog is feeling nervous, uncertain, aroused, excited or endangered. Because we believe we know what a wagging tail means, we build up a false sense of security that a wagging tail means the dog is safe to approach or touch. When this communication is misunderstood or ignored, it too frequently ends with a dog biting out of fear or frustration.

A pack of foxhounds wagging their tails. The fox knows better than to stick around and wait to see if they’re friendly.

Taken in isolation, the tail portrays an incomplete picture of what are dogs are feeling. A good trainer or behaviourist, or even a keen owner who’s studied canine body language to some degree, will use multiple body-language cues to assess the mood and intentions of a dog. These will include:

• Tail carriage and tail movement/speed
• Body posture and tension
• Facial expression and mouth tightness
• Breathing, panting and nose action
• Piloerection (hackles)
• Eye contact/eye rolling
• Behaviour, such as evasion
• Ear position
• Tongue movements

And more.

Try to imagine the tail as a small part of a painting or portrait. For example, if you saw this fraction of a photograph, you could easily guess that it’s part of a cityscape:

What if I told you this fraction of photograph is from the same image? Maybe it’s actually a photo of a forest?

It’s only when we see the whole image, in its entirety, that we understand what’s really being conveyed.

Nobody ever expects the melting clock.

To make things even more confusing, what tail may denote happiness for one dog may not for another. Some breeds carry their tails naturally high. Some breeds have tails that curl over their backs. Some breeds have no tails, and some may be docked.

So pass the message on. Waggy tail does NOT equal happy dog. It’s time to stop perpetuating this fallacy and mislabelling this commonly misunderstood behaviour. Trust me, your dog will thank you for it.