This weekend I went home and visited my adorable, four year-old, lab mix dogs. It was so nice to see her (and my parents). When I first walked in the door, she attacked me with kisses and scratches all over my legs. This reaction was expected but what wasn’t expected was that afterwards she just stared at me and wagged her tail on the ground. Usually, she wags her tail in the air. This caused me to start to wonder why dogs wag their tails and what the different wags mean.
An interesting post talking about why dogs wag their tails explained that it is serves as a signal, a way to communicate with other beings. It explained that a ” dog will only wag its tail when other living beings are around-e.g. a person, another dog, a cat, a horse or perhaps a ball of lint that is moved by a breeze and might seem alive.” A different source added that while they do use their tails to signal happiness, they also use it for anger and annoyance. Every single article I have looked at about this topic emphasized the importance of not assuming a dog is happy/excited when he/she is wagging his/her tail.
In the past, tail wagging has usually been measured through movement and height but recently, there has been a new scientific finding. Apparently the side on which the tail is wagging can say something about the dog’s general mood. Tails wagging more to the right seem to have more positive moods. I found this very hard to believe, it just didn’t make sense to me but after doing some deeper research, I have yet to find a source which says this is untrue. Furthermore, there were a study conducted to support these findings. They took “30 family pets of mixed breed and placed them in a cage equipped with cameras that precisely tracked the angles of their tail wags. Then they were shown four stimuli in the front of the cage: their owner; an unfamiliar human; a cat; and an unfamiliar, dominant dog.” (same article). The dog’s tail reaction with each of the increasingly nerve-wracking stimuli, was consistent with the data.
It is important to know a dog’s natural tail position because this is where it will be if she is relaxed. A nervous dog will generally put her tail low and between her legs and and a happy dog will wave her tail back and forth with increasing speed and force as mood increases.
The same source warns to keep an eye out for dogs with their tails straight up. This could be a sign of aggression or threat. The main way to tell the difference between an angry dog and a dog just wagging her tail is is to look at the rest of the body. It will give clear signals towards the dogs mood through things such as eyes, ears, mouth and posture.