Doggie Discourse I: Tail Talk
When I was 10 years old, I came down the stairs on Christmas morning to find a fluffy, waggling, golden retriever puppy with a big red bow around his neck waiting for me. Needless to say, it was the best Christmas I ever had. I named him Max, after the dog in The Grinch Who Stole Christmas, and we were immediate best friends.
That Christmas, my parents had given family and friends a heads up about my big surprise, so I received a ton of gifts that related to my new best friend. One of the best gifts I got was from my Grandmom and Papa, a book called How to Speak Dog by Stanley Coren. The book has a wealth of information about dogs, and is all about dog behavior and how dogs communicate. It decodes “doggie language,” explaining the meanings behind dog barks, growls, and body language. Ever since reading that book, I have always been fascinated by dog “conversations.”
Over the years, I have found it incredibly helpful to have a basic understanding of dog language in learning to communicate with Max (who is no longer with us) and now Sadie, the little adopted Cocker Spaniel mix my husband and I rescued this past November (she is incredibly intelligent; she even wrote her own blog!). I can keep Sadie safe at the dog park by watching out for dog aggression based on tail position. When we are training, I can understand the signals that she is sending me and can respond appropriately.
Someday, I can teach my children to read dog body language so that they will know if it’s safe or not to approach an unfamiliar dog (always after asking the owner first, of course).
To me, one of the most interesting methods of dog communication is tail language. Just like humans typically don’t talk when they are by themselves, dogs only wag their tails when they are around other beings. Today, I’ll give you a brief summary of “Tail Talk” as I have come to understand it over the years, narrowing it down to the three most important tail positions to understand.
One of the most common misconceptions people have is that a dog wagging his tail is a happy dog. This generalization could not be more far from the truth, and learning to decode how your dog is wagging his tail is crucial. Remember that in interpreting your dog’s tail language, it is important to take into consideration how your dog’s tail naturally rests. For example, some dogs, like pugs, have tails that are always curled up, so their tail communication is different from that of a Golden Retriever, whose tail naturally hangs.
A dog is happy when his tail is in its natural position and wagging back and forth. For most dogs, the tail would be low, hanging in a natural position. A wagging tail is generally a sign of excitement.However, a dog can be happy excited or aggressive excited, so watch out! Look for this sort of tail position when you are approaching an unfamiliar dog or when your dog is interacting with another dog.
A dog whose tail is up is often showing signs of dominance. Whenever I take Sadie to the dog park, I watch out for such a tail posture in her and her playmates, as this can be a recipe for a fight. When a dog’s tail is rigidly in an upward position and waiving back and forth he is signaling that he is standing his ground or threatening whoever is approaching. This is NOT a happy tail wag, although to a novice it might seem like a friendly wag.
A dog who has a low tail may be trying to express several different emotions. If his tail is between his legs, this means “I’m scared.” A low tail is a sign of insecurity, and can also lead to a fight if a more dominant dog takes advantage of the insecurity. An insecure dog may also bite a human if he feels scared and threatened and the human does not back off.
While the tail can express a lot of emotions, it is always important to look at your dog’s entire body language and the circumstances. In the next Doggie Discourse, I will discuss other aspects of dog language that are important to understand. I hope that you will find this post useful and that you will be encouraged to learn more about what your dog is trying to tell you!
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