Dog tail positions and what they mean Nola Erus

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Like many pet owners and lovers, I grew up misunderstanding dog tail positions and what they mean.  As a child, I presumed a dog’s wagging tail indicated a friendly, playful, and engaged animal.  As soon as any dog in the neighborhood came up to me with a sweet, ol’ panting face and a swinging tail, I was ready to run off for forever friend style frolicking.  

Thank Goodness, my parents intervened to warn me to be cautious around strange dogs and to appreciate their space.  Such caution does not protect people alone--it also helps dogs to enjoy a certain amount of free space, liberty, and security.  Learning to understand dog tail positions and what they mean is another great tool for better people to dog communication.

Beagle

While many of you may know dogs who wag their tails in true joy and celebration, the psychology of the matter points to a variety of communications that tail wagging and positions may indicate.  Without the ability to speak past barks, tail positioning and motion allows dogs (with tails) to make various emotions known.  Pet owners and lovers who make understanding such communication a priority will enjoy increased safety around dogs, better interaction with their own pets, and a deeper appreciation for their canine friends.

When not wagging, dog tails may be in one of three main positions with specific meanings that are easily understood when people take the time to consider them:

  • Up High
  • Horizontal to the Ground
  • Down/Between Hind Legs.

Up High Dog Tail Position

When a dog approaches with his tail in the Up High Position, observers may presume that he is confident, powerful, and secure.  In fact, this position indicates a dominant pooch with an alpha streak.  Alpha dogs are commanding, take charge creatures who will assert their dominance when necessary.  Confidence, however, comes with a certain coolness.  Self-assured, the dominant, tail up dog communicates power and control via body language, and this is often sufficient for delivery clear “Don’t cross me” messages to other dogs. With his tail high, a dog releases much more of his signature scent from his anal gland, and this acts as an announcement, too.

Horizontal to the Ground Position

Dogs with their tails held straight out in the Horizontal to the Ground Position indicate neither clear dominance nor submission.  Their unrelaxed but non-assertive position indicates curiosity rather than reactionary assertiveness or relinquishment of control.  Perhaps you have noticed your own dog coming closer when you have someone new or an unusual item with you.  Set on go for exploration, he puts his tail out in the same way he might perk his ears inquisitively.

Down/Between Hind Legs Position

Just as dogs indicate dominance and confidence by placing their tails in the Up High Position, presentation of the inverse position indicates the exact opposite emotion.  With his tail in the Down/Between Hind Legs Position, a dog communicates an understanding of another’s dominant position and his submissive one.  This is easily observed when two dogs play together and one continuously succumbs with his tail held low and/or tucked between his legs.  A tucked tail will hinder release of a dog’s signature scent, and in this way the dog may expect to go unnoticed by other dogs.

Dog Wagging Tail Position and What It Means

Along with developing an understanding of tail position, anyone who interacts with dogs will benefit from acquiring a better understanding of wagging position.  In the last few years, with increased observation of the link between action and right/left brain reactions, scientists have been able to isolate certain prevalent characteristics to help shed some light on this issue.  

In 2007, Current Biology, a peer-reviewed journal, included studies that demonstrated that lopsided tail wagging links to right/left brain relationships.  Scientists involved in the studies determined that a right wag tail position indicates happiness and playfulness as the left brain controls the right side of the body as well as energy and engagement responses.  According to these scientists a left wag tail position indicates insecurity and restlessness, and this makes sense as the “fight or flight” response is controlled by the right side of the brain which also controls the body’s left side.

Personal Experience and Dog Sense

Your experience with dog tail positions and what they mean might be very different from what the experts say.  Certainly, few people would know more about a pet than the pet’s loving owners.  That said, the best approach to greeting new dogs is a respectful caution.  Dogs have bad days, just like humans do, and they deserve their personal space, a sense of security before being touched, and the opportunity to decline an invitation.  Consider this discussion of tail positions and motions before you reach to pet a dog who might rather you’d leave him be.

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