My dog is wagging his tail. He must be happy!!! Oh, how many times I’ve heard this!?!? How many of those times have been wrong???
The truth is that while happy dogs wag their tails, not all wagging tails are happy ones. And that’s where the confusion starts. Puzzles make your head hurt!
Let’s break it down into component parts.
- Tail speed
- Tail angle
- Tail “sweep”
When a dog gets really excited, their tail goes faster and faster. Excitement can be happy or not, so all that tail speed is really telling you is just how “wound up” the dog is. Sometimes you see the tail literally just vibrating it’s going so fast.
The thing to note about the angle of the tail is whether or not it is different from their normal or regular tail carriage. When a dog is trying to send a signal of non-confrontation, the tail will be held lower and lower, sometimes bending so far underneath that it is even touching the belly. When the dog is getting all wound up, the tail carriage will be higher and higher, sometimes to the point of being almost straight up (depending on the type of tail the dog has).
When the tail is at its’ normal angle, the side-to-side motion will be as wide as it’s going to get. As the angle of tail carriage goes either up or down, the sweep will get narrower. While you can’t truly say that a happy tail is “relaxed”, it will still be fairly “bendy” as the wags happen.
So, the tail wagging of a happy dog will be
- close to the normal angle of carriage
- show the broadest range of sweep
- will be a low to medium speed of wag
- will be relatively fluid, bendy, and relaxed
- lots of happy dogs wag and squiggle their whole body and not just the tail.
However, when the tail is
- very, very fast
- stiffer movements than normal
- at an odd angle, this is especially concerning the higher the tail gets
THEN you know that the dog is getting excited or agitated: the dog is not happy. When the dog is in an agitated frame of mind, it is a very, very, very poor idea to have children try to pet them. Things can go wrong very quickly when the dog is highly aroused.
A picture is worth a thousand words, so let’s examine this picture carefully. The dog is wagging his tail so fast it is blurry in the picture. The width of that blur in the picture tells you just how narrow this particular tail sweep is. The whole body language tells us that the dog is a bit concerned and probably isn’t “happy”. The tail carriage is so high it is almost vertical, the dog is staring intensely, has a furrowed brow (wrinkly forehead), the ears echo the intensity of the stare, and there are hackles on the shoulders. ((If this was a video you might also get an idea how tense the dog was.))
Now let’s look at this next picture. The tail is out past the dog’s side at a very wide angle from the body, it is at a “comfortable” height (looks natural), and the whole tail is clear in the picture so the speed isn’t excessive. This dog is also paying close attention (gaze and ears are focused) but the face is more relaxed with a lolling tongue and smooth forehead. You might be thinking that this dog looks “happy”. Well, maybe it is. You simply can’t tell from a still picture. This dog might just be waiting for someone to throw a stick so they’re really focused and mildly excited. The point of comparison here is that the wagging tail in the second picture might be a happy wag, whereas the dog in the first picture is not.
Looking at the tail wag speed, angle and sweep gives you an instant reading on how excited the dog is, and so, it gives you a little hint at how they’re feeling. Always pair a tail wag with the rest of the body language that the dog is giving. A wagging tail on it’s own tells you very little.