What does that wagging tail really mean?
This is a great concern, and one that that is heard regularly in one form or another from dog behaviorists. Unfortunately, a lot of people have been bitten by a canine they thought was friendly because the dog was wagging her tail. This common mistaken belief–that a tail wag is a sure indication of friendliness–and it can develop into dangerous situations in which individuals believe they are safe when they in fact may not be.
The confusion occurs because, while friendly canines do tend to wag their tails, they are not the only ones doing the wagging. Lots of canines wag their tails when their intent is anything but friendly. Tail wags are much more complicated than you may think.
So, what does a tail wag imply? The most accurate interpretation is that the dog is ready to interact. The thing is that “interact” is a really broad term. Friendly canines who wish to connect by greeting, playing or cuddling wag their tails; however, so do pets who want to communicate by fighting, biting and threatening. The basic observation that a canine is wagging her tail does not give you adequate info to identify what kind of interaction the pet dog has in mind.
But, worry not! Observing details of the tail-wagging habits allows you to make a far better forecast about what’s behind it (no pun intended). To figure out if that tail wag is a friendly one, focus on how much of the tail and the body are involved in the wag, how fast and how far the tail is wagging and how much stress remains in the tail.
Usually, the more the wag encompasses the whole body, the friendlier the dog’s objectives. The full body wag that extends from the shoulders through the tummy to the hips and the tail is the traditional friendly tail wag. An active tail wag that gets the hips swinging is also a likely sign of high sociability. (Bonus–these wags can even be recognized in pups who have no tails to speak of!) When simply the tail moves, the wag may or may not have anything to do with being sociable. When just the idea of the tail moves, the pet is probably not friendly.
Speed is another way that pets give us information about what the wag implies. Quick wags that move through a huge arc are associated with friendliness, while a sluggish wag that does not move the tail very much suggests a lack of friendliness. Often, dogs who are a little nervous or maybe shy, wag gradually, which simply reveals some hesitancy about engaging. In other cases, a slow tail wag can signify aggressive propensities.
Stress is another exposing attribute. A stiff tail wag is not a great indication. The more relaxed a tail is while it is wagging, the more likely it is that the pet wagging it is friendly. A loose, fluid movement in the tail suggests friendliness, and a stiff tail does not.
In some cases, a dog wags her tail in a turning movement that begins with the base with the pointer of the tail tracing a broad circle. Called a “circle wag,” it is one of the positive signals that experienced dog handlers address when examining pets because it is so highly associated with canines who remain in a friendly state of mind. Called the “propeller wag” or “helicopter tail,” this tail movement is particularly common in canines who are welcoming a close pal–specifically after a long time apart.
To summarize, the friendliest kind of tail wag is the full-body wag with a rapidly moving, flexible tail swinging widely from side to side. In contrast, the least friendly tail wag, and the one with of most concern with regard to potential aggressiveness, is the slow twitch of just the tip on an otherwise unmoving, rigid tail attached to an equally stiff body. This unfriendly tail wag is frequently displayed prior to a bite.
A wagging tail shows an interest in connecting, but the information of the wag reveals its meaning. Pay very close attention to the specifics of a tail wag to determine its significance. Friendly pets want to engage and their tail wags reveal that. But, keep in mind always that there are hostile methods of communicating consisting of biting, and canines with those objectives likewise will wag their tails.