Wagging tail = happy dog, or not?

When your dog wags his tail, it doesn’t necessarily mean that he is happy. A common misconception is that a wagging tail means a happy and friendly dog. The tail is one of the most expressive parts of a dog’s body language. The ‘language’ of a wagging tail can be complex, and should always be looked at in conjunction with the rest of the dog’s body language.

That said, the position of the tail, how relaxed it is, how fast it is wagging and which direction it is wagging in can provide valuable information. While some tail wags are associated with happiness, others can signal fear, insecurity, a social challenge, or even a warning that if you approach, you may get bitten.

A wagging tail held high often signals a high level of confidence and enthusiasm, while a lower tail signals a more timid, unsure or nervous dog. When a dog feels positive about something or someone, his tail wags more to the right side.

With negative feelings, the tail wags more to the left. Generally, a relaxed, loose, flowing wag is good, but a stiff wag can signal tension or hostility. A fast wag is generally good, but a slow wag usually signals that a dog is not friendly.

Then there’s the ‘full body wag’, where the whole body is relaxed and moves back and forth. This signals a friendly interaction with a person or dog. Wagging tails and their meanings are also specific to each dog, with some breeds naturally carrying their tails differently.

Alyson Kingsley-Hall, behaviourist

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