5 Things Your Dog’s Tail is Telling You

All dogs communicate with their tails, so having some insight into their world can help you better understand what your dog is telling you.

Apr 22, 2024By Lisa Szymanski
things your dogs tail is telling you

A dog’s world is full of different sights and smells, constantly sparking their curiosity. Because our canine companions can’t express themselves the way we can, they use their tails to communicate. We know that our pets are happy and relaxed when their tails are wagging. But there’s a lot more that you can learn about your pooch by focusing on the direction and movement of their body. To improve your bond with your pet and avoid unpleasant situations, let’s decode the 5 things your dog’s tail is telling you.

1. Rapidly Wagging Tail with Body Movement

brown puppy with tongue out and wagging tail
A happy dog will move their whole body in excitement.

As you walk through the door after a long day, there’s nothing better than being greeted by a happy-go-lucky wagging tail. You’ll know your canine companion is showing you all their love when you see a rapidly moving tail and a wriggling body. I have a good laugh every time my pitbull gets excited because his tail moves like a propeller! Instead of a sideways wag, his tail moves in circles, which might be odd, but it’s a sure sign of excitement. Dogs might accompany a swinging tail with a play bow or an open mouth, letting you know that they feel good. Whether a sideways or roundabout wagging tail, it’s a sure sign that you’ve got a happy pooch.

2. Slow and Low Tail Wag

beagle standing in forest with low tail and leg up
Beagles stand to attention when on the prowl.

Whether you’re meeting a beagle or an Irish wolfhound, don’t mistake the low and slow tail wag for friendliness. Dogs that hang back with a sluggish wag are trying to figure out whether you’re a threat, and they’re unsure of how to approach you. Never reach out or step toward a dog behaving this way. Even if it’s a friend’s pet or someone tries to convince you that they’re friendly, first observe the body language of the dog. I stick to the dog whisperer's technique of “no touch, no talk, no eye contact,” when encountering unfamiliar dogs. Allow pets that you’re meeting for the first time to come to you. They should relax before you make a fuss about them. This way, you can protect yourself from possible signs of aggression, and that includes getting nipped or bitten.

3. Straight Up Tail With No Movement

siberian husky and wire haired terrier lunging in snow
A stiff and upright tail is an unfriendly warning.

A stiff, high tail is typical of male dogs strutting their stuff while on a walk or at the local dog park. It’s usually a sign that your pooch is on alert and wants to investigate their environment. If you notice this behavior when your fur friend approaches another dog, this is not a good sign. At this point, the stiffening of the body and the tail that is straight up in the air sends a threatening message. Dogs may go from tense to baring teeth or lunging, resulting in a dog fight.

The best thing to do at this moment is to redirect your dog’s attention with a firm call, command, or squeaky toy. Don’t offer them treats because it will reinforce their reaction. Stiff and high tails send all the wrong signals to other pets because it’s not a friendly form of communication. If you observe police dogs in action, they approach a mission with upright tails and forward-facing ears. You could think of them as confident, but in the wrong context, and depending on the breed, it could spark aggression.

4. Low Tail Tucked Between Their Legs

black and white dog with tail tucked between legs
Fearful and timid dogs tuck their tails away.

What if your dog is tense with a low tail? Does it mean that they’re just shy? No, tucked-away tails with cowering or slow movement indicate anxiety and stress in pets. They could be nervous about the environment they’re in or the person they’re meeting for the first time. You can see insecurity in a dog when they press their tails flat against their body and their ears hang low. But don’t mistake anxiousness for signs of illness in your dog. When an animal is feeling sick, they won’t be interested in food, and their whole demeanor will change.

Dogs that are nervous and unsure should be given time and space to relax. Think about how you feel when you’re overwhelmed. Sometimes you just need a moment to calm down, and the same applies to dogs. They’ll let you know when they’re uncomfortable or insecure, and this means understanding their body language. Scared dogs perceive new things and people as threats and some of them react by showing teeth or biting. Give these dogs space and you can avoid unwanted situations.

5. Vertical or Horizontal Tail with Little Movement

Beagle standing with upright tail
An upright tail with little movement is a sign of an alert dog.

Dogs that are standing to attention have big eyes and perky ears but look at what their tails are doing. If it’s straight up or horizontal with slight wagging, they’re curious about something in their environment that’s caught their attention. A tracking breed such as a pointer will stand in this position while holding a front leg up when they’re working. As they investigate their surroundings, their tails are upright or in line with their body, with minimal wagging.

Just look out for an overconfident dog that trots up to another pooch this way. The slightly wagging tail that is held up straight or horizontally could lead to a sniffing fest and playtime. However, any sign of growling or mounting is not good, and things can turn ugly quickly. Careful observation is the best way to handle canine behavior.

Why a Dog’s Tail Language is so Important

Labrador retriever with tongue out and low wagging tail
Happy dogs always greet you with tail wags and a smile.

Your dog’s tail is much more than a curly, fluffy, short, or long addition to their bodies. It’s what they use to tell us and other animals what they’re feeling at any given moment. Every dog has a unique way of communicating, and if we pay attention, it becomes easier to understand how to manage their behavior.

It might seem strange, but dogs respond to their environment, and their personalities play a part in how they experience something. I always observe their tails and the position of their ears when I meet dogs for the first time. That’s because I got bitten by a dog that I was unfamiliar with after reaching out to touch them. It certainly wasn’t a pleasant encounter, but I’ve developed a healthy respect for dogs and always focus on their body language.

Lisa Szymanski
By Lisa Szymanski

Lisa is a wildlife enthusiast who enjoys hiking and gardening and has four years of experience volunteering at pet shelters. She is the proud mom of two dogs, a Pitbull named Ragnar, a Boerboel named Blueberry, and four feisty chickens, or as she calls them, the "queens of the yard," Goldie, Gray, Peaches, and Brownie.